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March 18, 2007

Subarnarekha, 1965

subarnarekha.gifRitwik Ghatak's films are deeply haunted by the specter of the Partition of Bengal in 1947, and this sense of dislocation and self-inflicted human tragedy created by artificially imposed social division casts a pervasive sentiment of despair, instability, and perpetual exile through all the rended families and uprooted ancestral communities of Subarnarekha. Opening to the chaotic image of a pair of young, displaced teachers, Haraprasad (Bijon Bhattacharya) and Ishwar (Abhi Bhattacharya) inaugurating a makeshift village school at a refugee colony that has been established on the grounds of landowner's estate, while a low caste woman, seeking alms nearby, is forcibly separated from her son, Abhiram (Sriman Tarun) when she is rounded up into a truck and summarily ethnically cleansed from the colony by the landowner's hired thugs under the guise of religious orthodoxy enforcing caste segregation, the turbulent - and ultimately irrevocable - separation between mother and child serves as a potent metaphor for the trauma of the Partition itself, as Bengal is torn apart by religious and social sectarianism in the aftermath of the country's independence from the British. Ghatak illustrates the integrality of history to the interconnected destinies of Ishwar's communal family, initially, through the collapsed hope for reunification embodied in the idealistic Haraprasad's coincidental lament upon reading the news of Mahatma Gandhi's death - "Hey Ram!" (Oh, God!) - the exclamation commonly believed to be Gandhi's own last words upon his assassination, and subsequently, in Ishwar's conversation with his college friend, Rambilas (Pitambar), a wealthy businessman who inherited a foundry from his late father, as Ishwar comments on his dramatic change in fortunes from privileged student to orphan and caretaker of his younger sister Sita (Indrani Chakrabarty) after only six intervening years by reinforcing the contextual timeframe as 1942 through 1948, a profoundly critical period (with particularly great consequences for Bengal) that marked the birth of the 'Quit India' movement (1942), the Bengal Famine (1943) directly caused by the escalation of the Pacific War (a man-made catastrophe that is poignantly realized in Satyajit Ray's Distant Thunder), national independence (1947), the Partition (1947), and the assassination of Gandhi (1948).

Similarly, the Subarnarekha River (translated as the "Golden Line" River because of its proximity to rich ore deposits) becomes an implicit reflection of the inescapable social (and economic) disparity and cultural marginalization that continues to afflict the displaced refugees of the Partition, as Ishwar, seeking to find a new home and a better life for his young sister, accepts Rambilas' offer to work at the foundry in exchange for a small wage and company-furnished housing on the other side of the eponymous river. Leaving the colony - and in essence, abandoning the dream of reunification - with Sita and Abhiram, for whom he had assumed guardianship until his mother is located, Ishwar invariably settles into a life of middle-class comfortability when he is subsequently promoted as manager and given a minority stake in the company. But Ishwar's financial stability also betrays a passivity to the profound changes occurring within his own home, an indifference that is reflected in Ishwar's filial criticisms over the melancholy expressed by a now grown Sita (Madhabi Mukherjee) through her sorrowful ballads, and university student Abhiram (Satindra Bhattacharya) through his unpublished manuscripts that reveal a deeply harbored (and overtly autobiographical) longing to reconnect with a lost mother and an adrift sense of place, as well as through their increasingly inescapable affection towards each other. It is this pervasive complacency (if not outright willful ignorance) that inevitably lies at the core of Ghatak's impassioned social criticism on the fateful dynamics that led to the culturally self-inflicted tragedy of the Partition - an inextricable pattern of self-interest, insensitivity, and political apathy from the Bengali middle-class that not only enabled ideological fanaticism and sectarianism to shape the landscape of a post-colonial Indian nation, but also rendered the very idea of home as a sentimental place on an elusive other side that, like the distant, opposing banks of the Subarnarekha River, symbolically represents an idealized, and intranscendible, elsewhere.

Posted by acquarello on Mar 18, 2007 | | Filed under 2007


Very interesting, Acquarello, all the more so for me because I recently taught the Quit India movement, the Partition, and Gandhi's assassination in my world history course. Independence came at great, tragic costs, and I get the sense from your write-up here that this film conveys this quite richly. Out of curiosity, how would you characterize the look of the film?

Posted by: Michael on Mar 19, 2007 5:38 PM | Permalink

Thanks for the brilliant review Acquarello. I saw this film first time around ten years back in a theatre in calcutta. I still remember how depressed I was for rest of the day...analyzing Ghatak is always a tricky task. Sometimes he is theatrical, but in the next shot he is too sharp with his visuals or nailing dialogue. Loved the way you have brought the historical ref. in your post.

Posted by: debanjan on Mar 19, 2007 11:30 PM | Permalink

Thanks, Michael and debanjan. Debanjan's comment about the mixed theatricality of Ghatak's work is spot on (didn't he start out in a kind of left wing theater background?), but on the other hand, a lot of it is also very naturalistic. I find that the way he uses landscape on this one too, like in A River Called Titas, is really quite stunning (there's a particular long shot that zooms forward quickly of Sita singing that really nails home that sense of desolation). I really like the way he doesn't have any real villains in this one, just people who are so set in their ways and comfortable in their own lives that they don't realize that their inaction becomes a kind of destructive force too.

Posted by: acquarello on Mar 20, 2007 8:44 AM | Permalink

Interesting -- theatricality and naturalism. And I suspected that a good use of landscape could be very effective in a film such as this. Thanks for the introduction to Ghatak, with whom I'm unfamiliar.

Posted by: Michael on Mar 20, 2007 1:26 PM | Permalink

Given your world history course outline, I'd say Ghatak is definitely up your alley, Michael. Of the "big three" parallel cinema pioneers (Satyajit Ray, Ghatak and Mrinal Sen), I'd also add that I think Ghatak is the most experimental in terms of the way he edits shots and especially the way he uses sound, like using a whiplash sound to accompany the image of lightning, or using an amplified heart beat when two relative strangers are tied together around a tree by rebels to indicate both their fear and their mutual attraction.

Also, while all three are all very socially conscious filmmakers, I think the difference is that Sen is more overtly "left" in his treatment of social injustice, and Ghatak is operating more from a visceral, self-purgation level (and Ray, out of profound humanity). Like debanjan commented, there is such a deep sadness at the end of his films, quite unlike the hope in Ray's films or outrage in Sen's.

Posted by: acquarello on Mar 20, 2007 3:21 PM | Permalink

Those are very intriguing distinctions you make between the filmmakers, acquarello, and it makes me all the more interested to see more of their films -- I find those differences between their responses to injustice particularly noteworthy, as each filmmaker has his own innate, personal reaction to the world. I believe it's always worthwhile to study the differences between various directors' techniques and styles, but their world views are often just as important (if not more so).

Posted by: Michael on Mar 21, 2007 1:30 PM | Permalink

The review is indeed brilliant and I agree with Acquarello that Ghatak's film editing, camera-cuts and screenplay was certainly more experimental than his contemporary stalwarts. I would add that although he was into the thick of european literature and films, his cinema methodology was perhaps the most "vernacular" in his times. Also, speaking of melodrama, Ghatak in a late-life fiery-interview remarked - "melodrama is a valid form and I have used it as efficiently I could". That's at least one of the identifiers of Indian neo-realist cinema that Ghatak honed like none.

Posted by: aryanil on Mar 27, 2007 4:53 PM | Permalink

Thanks, aryanil, that's a great comment about Ghatak's films being vernacular and deeply grounded in the times. Even though his films are intelligently conceived, they don't come across as being overtly philosophical/political, but someplace more "intimate". His comment about melodrama is pretty insightful and thoroughly appropriate in relation to his work. His narrative style actually reminds me of Mizoguchi a bit too, in the way protagonists are brought to ruin by the chance of circumstances.

Posted by: acquarello on Mar 27, 2007 10:06 PM | Permalink

Aquarello, your comparison of Ghatak with Mizoguchi is quite fascinating. The self-ruin and tragedy their protagonists suffer (almost invariably, I am tempted to think of other Ghatak films like The Cloud-Capped Star [Meghe Dhaka Tara], The Citizen [Nagarik], Unmechanical [Ajantrik] etc. and in comparison Mizoguchi films like Osaka Elegy) is a common theme. Another important element of obsession for Ghatak was his strong affinity for Jung's "Collective Unconscious". The Great Mother Archetype for example, which rises thru the complex, yet opaque veneer of Hindu mythological references in most of his films. Ancient Indian society was matriarchial and pantheistic. Hindu Goddesses or female deities hold more power than their male counterparts. In a rather innocuous scene in Subarnarekha, the little girl comes across a fearsome harlequin who's dressed up as Goddess Kali. The mask scares the girl away. This is a grotesque and inauspicious sign Ghatak makes to hint at the tragic fate of the girl which we discover in the reels to come.

Also, in Subarnarekha, although middle-class values and relationships are examined, Ghatak romanticizes the brother-sister relationship ( though they aren't by blood) which was quite advanced-of-age for Bengali middle-class society in the 1960s. He handled the theme with superb maturity. I thought the wood-scene where the duo discover their romantic love was tersely poetic.

Posted by: aryanil on Mar 28, 2007 12:57 PM | Permalink

Ah yes, I remember that harlequin scene! And wasn't the girl "protected" by the old manager who supposedly went mad because his daughter eloped...something that repeats itself with the brother (who is also the father figure) and sister. I hadn't thought of that in terms of Kali being the goddess of creation and destruction, but there is a certain circularity to their fate. The matriarchal aspect of ancient Indian society makes sense with respect to Mizoguchi's idealized heroines too.

Speaking of brother-sister relationships, I actually thought the older brother's allusions to the sister reminding him of their mother also had a kind of figuratively incestuous quality about it - not in terms of taboo sexuality, but in their mutual "neediness" and the way he almost clings to her. Although in this context, it's more because of the fact that he's already lost all of his family and is insecure about letting go.

Posted by: acquarello on Mar 28, 2007 7:21 PM | Permalink

Aquarello, this discussion seems to put on more meat everytime we speak, delicious meat, delectable. Thanks for the detailed reading in your last response. These are beautiful observations put as eloquently as the film-scenes do. Ghatak's metaphors, archetypes, his filmography certainly tend to come full circle. In fact, film-critics in Bengal have sometimes been critical of their repetitive quality. Ghatak's last film, Jukti-Takko-Gappo [Reasons, Debates and Chats], even his penultimate number, A River Called Titas, seem to repeat many Ghatakian methods, morphs and modes.

Finally, thanks a lot for bringing up Ghatak. He is forgotten in large parts of India today. The Citizen, if released in time, would have been earmarked the "first great modern Indian film". Alas, it was released a quarter-century later. Pather Panchali by Satyajit Ray went on to (especially with all the western acclaim it won, to which a nascent post-colonial Indian society was very sensitive) live with that reputation.

Posted by: aryanil on Mar 29, 2007 11:07 AM | Permalink

In Subarnarekha, the dramatic element disintegrates, its cliches are turned against itself, the traumatic prostitution of our culture is exemplified as Sanskrit becomes a part of La Dolce Vita in one of the world's poorest cities. We are made to face our self-destructive incestuous longings which are so delicately camouflaged by both India's sophisticated and vulgar filmmakers.

Posted by: apwbd on Apr 24, 2007 10:58 AM | Permalink

Interesting, I hadn't really thought of the incestuous quality of the relationship between brother and sister along those lines, but the idea of the "prostitution of culture" does make sense. These were people who, through apathy or moral resignation, basically displaced themselves...and marginalized themselves, and I can see that Ghatak really casts his critical eye, not on the faceless authority "implementers" of the Partition, but on its complacent "enablers".

Posted by: acquarello on Apr 25, 2007 8:58 PM | Permalink

Such insightful review and such stimulating discussion...wish the people of Bengal and India were even half as inquisitive and sincere in their love for this forgotton genius. I particularly liked your reading of the distinctive styles of Ghatak, Ray and Sen. What's heartening is the fact that the Pathos of Ghatak, Hope of Ray and Outrage of Sen appear synonymous in the end...and timeless in their appeal.

I would like to know about your views on the opening and closing scenes (the old man and the vibrant dance sequence) in Ghatak's Jukti, takko aar Gaapo...on the significance and relevance of the symbolism in the context of a tale that was so precisely poignant...

Posted by: Sudhir Raikar on Jul 08, 2010 3:03 AM | Permalink

Hi Sudhir, thanks for your kind works and also keeping the discussion alive. I thought the dance was Ghatak's way of framing the old man's plight within the context of culture, specifically, Bengali culture (which, as you aptly point out, is quite vibrant) and how that was ruptured with the Partition. So on one hand, this is now a culture that he can only see in all its vibrancy in his dreams (or memory). I also think he's acknowledging a sense of personal responsibility for this cultural "decay" (for lack of a better word) by framing the old man's story inside it. The loss of culture wasn't just something that happened in the sweep of history, it was self-inflicted.

Posted by: acquarello on Jul 08, 2010 8:26 PM | Permalink

Thanks so much Acquarello for such a prompt reply. I do see the old man differently in the light of your pithy observation. Ghatak was a real master, wasn't he when it came to depicting the gradual impact of sudden blows - Partition and the shift away from an agrarian economy being the principal two.

I don't know why people often point out the degree of repitition in his work - he was so different in the choice of characters, situations and cinematic treatement in each film - for a film maker committed to social relevance, this diversity is awe-inspiring. Else, it's so easy for films with recurrent themes to disintegrate into artless vehicles of sloganeering.

It would be great if you could also analyse few other Indian directors like Mani Kaul, Kumar Shahani, M S Sathyu, Ketan Mehta and Rabindra Dharamraj (of "Chakra" fame)as also writers like Vijay Tendulkar and Girish Karnad.

Thanks once again sir!

Posted by: Sudhir Raikar on Jul 09, 2010 12:47 AM | Permalink

do you know, what is name of actor( brother sita davi)?

Posted by: tapash chowdhury on Dec 04, 2010 2:42 PM | Permalink

You mean, Ishwar? I specified his name in the article (Abhi Bhattacharya).

Posted by: acquarello on Dec 04, 2010 3:43 PM | Permalink

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