A River called Ritwik

Ritwik GhatakRitwik Ghatak

Ritwik Ghatak's films stand out for their stark depictions of social and cultural displacement. As a Bengali movie inspired by his life releases this week, we piece together the portrait of an eccentric auteur and his struggle for acceptance

On the morning of February 7, 1976, when Calcutta woke up to the news of Ritwik Ghatak's untimely death the previous night, stunned citizens poured out onto the streets. Barely three months ago, the auteur had turned 50. When the funeral procession started from the Presidency General Hospital in the afternoon, thousands singing Ghatak's favourite songs, trailed the vehicle that carried his body to the burning ghat in Keoratala. In an essay titled The Genius that was Ritwik Ghatak, the late theatre artiste Safdar Hashmi recorded the outpouring of grief in what he called "a unique funeral of a unique man".

Thirty-seven years later and 60 years since he made his first movie Nagarik (1952), Ghatak remains one of the most underplayed cinematic legends of India. He was a flawed genius erratic, eccentric, and impulsive to the point of being self-destructive. "Ghatak was an anarchist. Yet, he remains the most authentic voice in Indian cinema. Despite his lack of formal grammar in moviemaking, his works remain highly relevant today," says Nabarun Bhattacharya, Sahitya Akademi award-winning Bengali author. Bhattacharya is also the son of Ghatak's close associate Bijon Bhattacharya and writer Mahasweta Devi, the filmmaker's niece.

Ghatak made eight features and 10 documentary films. Three of his full-length films were released after his death. This includes his first film Nagarik (1952) which he made at 27 nearly three years before Satyajit Ray made his first film Pather Panchali, which ushered in a new era in Indian cinema. Nagarik, the story of a young man in search of a job in post-war Kolkata and his gradual degradation, is as powerful a movie, but it never released in its time, robbing Ghatak of a chance to pioneer the movement for alternate cinema. The print of the film, which was apparently lost, was restored and released around the same time as Jukti Takko Aar Gappo (1974). By the time these films reached theatres, Ghatak was no more. Even his Titas Ekti Nadir Naam (1973), which was produced by Habibur Rahman Khan of Bangladesh, was shown in India after his death. Prior to this, Subarnarekha (made in 1962), one of his most celebrated films, too had to wait for three years for release.

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