The Citizen, 1952

The opening image of Ritwik Ghatak’s first feature film, The Citizen, consists of a steady motion, acute angle dolly shot of mature trees (a symbolic image that is similarly implemented in the introductory sequence of The Cloud-Capped Star) lining an anonymous street, a juxtaposition of transience and permanence that serves as a seeming reflection of the inconstancy and economic uncertainty of contemporary existence for Bengali refugees in post-Partition Calcutta. An ode to a nameless “citizen” is recited against the image of a well-dressed young man, Ramu (Satindra Bhattacharya), dutifully helping an elder stranger cross the street. But the image of prosperity and civic responsibility prove to be an illusion, as Ramu arrives home and returns the suit and shoes that he had borrowed from his ailing father (Kali Bannerjee), a former school teacher, for a job interview, another unrealized prospect for a brighter future that – for the optimistic Ramu – was always just around the corner. Resting their hopes on Ramu’s ability to find a job after investing their eroding fortunes toward earning his college degree, his parents have little hope for a better life for his undereducated sister except to marry her off to anyone who is able to provide for her, indulging the whims of prospective suitors who subject her to humiliating physical inspections and candid assessments of her attractiveness. Chronicling Ramu and his family’s disillusioning, often frustrated empty rituals for economic survival and quest to return to a semblance of a normal life, the film represents an uncharacteristically affirming exposition of Ghatak’s recurring themes (undoubtedly influenced by the film collective nature of the production) of marginalization, poverty, dislocation, and petty self-interest that have contributed to the erosion of Bengali culture. Ghatak supplants the idyllic images of trees (in particular, Ramu’s calendar depicting a red-roofed country house) with the jarring noise of a heavy machinery excavator (in an overlapping cutaway of Ramu at his father’s bedside) in order to introduce (or rather, underscore) a metaphor for the intrusive, violent uprooting of the Partition that has figuratively crippled – and ultimately orphaned – a population. It is within this environment of crushed hopes and unrealized dreams that the father’s blindness and debilitation can be seen, not only as a metaphor for cultural short-sightedness that led to the Partition, but also as a spiritual resignation for their fractured homeland – a unrequited pining for a sentimental lost love. Presaging the idiosyncratic sound strategy of incorporating whiplashes in The Cloud-Capped Star (in a scene that also captures a doomed love), the father’s evocative words, “Each day is like the lash of a storm”, seemingly betrays Ghatak’s own bittersweet articulation of impotence towards a divided Bengal: a despair silenced by the impersonal machinery and the uncontrollable chaos of its own man-made creation.

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