“In relation to man and his society, experiment cannot dangle on void. It must belong. Belong to man.”—Ritwik Ghatak
It is easy to hold on to the certainty of quoting numbers when talking about a traumatic event. Even though it is a facile reduction, the subject matter of this article somehow demands a numerical explanation as if it is a successful attempt to quantify the unknown. Well, so be it. According to the 1951 Indian census, 2.523 million refugees from the erstwhile East Bengal were displaced from their homes and by 1973, there were more than six million of them. This retrospective distance of a borrowed knowledge does nothing to capture the unabashed pathos of a people who were being thrust out of their lands because of the imagined idea of a new nation, something so alien compared to the familiarity of one’s own home. If anything, this statistical representation of trauma is only successful in invoking the exigency of a new perspective of looking at historical events in order to disentangle the amorphous masses of numerical clumps, to stare into the eyes of the suffering individual.
In his book, New Historicism and Cultural Materialism, professor John Brannigan argues that it is important for us to see “literature as a constitutive and inseparable part of history in the making, and therefore rife with the creative forces, disruptions and contradictions of history”. Ritwik Ghatak’s 1965 film, Subarnarekha (‘The Golden Thread’), is the epitome of this new kind of historicism. Although it is nowhere near as radical as Alain Resnais’ vision in Hiroshima, Mon Amour (1959), which is a dual act of remembering and forgetting the horrors of extensive and personal catastrophes, Ghatak launches an equally powerful investigation of (eventually corrupted) moralities and the illusory comfort of grand ideological concepts, like that of the “new home”, by constructing a compelling microcosm of a Bengali family and studying its (dys)functionality. Where Resnais chooses to adopt a postmodern narrative structure full of constant transitions between the past and the present, Ghatak follows a linear, disrupted timeline.
We are presented with the patriarch in the figure of Iswar Chakraborty whose apparently noble intentions and pleasant ambitions are subjected to entropic forces throughout the film, resembling a Faustian archetype with all of the arrogance but absolutely impotent. Ghatak avoids any complicated cinematic manoeuvring, choosing to enforce his belief in simple imagery and symbolism instead. When they were children, Sita and Abhiram (the only family that Iswar has) explored the vestigial remnants of the war, an abandoned airstrip and a crumbling pilot’s clubhouse. Ritwik Ghatak beautifully juxtaposes the innocence of the new generation with the crimes of the old. Even if one is ignorant of the past, one cannot seem to escape it, something which Resnais constantly emphasized as well.
Ghatak’s scepticism of traditional historicism comes through in the film itself. The scene where Iswar destroys the newspaper with the report of Yuri Gagarin’s achievement is a perfect example of the limits of historical records. With this scene, Ghatak is contributing to a global discourse of irreverence whose participants include illustrious filmmakers like Jean-Luc Godard and Michelangelo Antonioni. Godard’s Breathless (1960) and Antonioni’s Red Desert (1964) have almost identical scenes of characters treating newspapers, or the idea of a newspaper with unprovoked hostility. The newspaper acts as the locus of uncontrollable anxiety and aggression, creating a conflict between itself and the cinematic medium. These attacks are mostly poignant because they are the protests of ordinary individuals against institutional records that refuse to acknowledge their existence.
Subarnarekha does not just move along this primary historical strand. In addition to the anguish and anxiety of a “liberated” post-Partition society, Ghatak also explores a spiritual, religious history, most easily observable in the figure of Sita. The mythological weightage of Iswar’s younger sister’s name is such that it does little to act as a signifier of personal identity. Sita inadvertently finds herself to be a part of a legacy that retroactively makes the female body a site of violence. However, Ritwik Ghatak is too clever of a filmmaker to leave it at that. He introduces the mythological tradition but also manages to create a multiplicity of meanings. Chaitanya, an actor who dresses up like Hindu Gods to earn money, scares Sita with his terrifying appearance. Within seconds, Ghatak deconstructs the apparent divine power by making Chaitanya take out his cardboard tongue and beg for alms. It is astonishing to note how this one scene works in so many ways: the failure of religious comfort in a society where even the Gods are impoverished, the meta-fictional acknowledgement of performative constructs, the artificial tongue creating an automatic distinction between the kind of speech that is profitable and the kind that is not (also observable in the nature of the stories that Abhiram used to write), the list goes on and on. If there is one scene that proves Ghatak’s genius, it is this. It is absolutely exquisite in its simple complexity.
These religious conflicts of an intransigent people are a vital part of the infinitely nuanced vision of Bengal that Ghatak put forth. His characters constantly try to navigate their way through the deeply entrenched politics of otherization. Abhiram, memorably, undergoes this instantaneous metamorphosis, from a beloved and talented individual to a marginalized victim of caste politics. There is no respite for the viewer, we are confronted with the same disillusionment that the characters are experiencing, longing for a glimpse of that rural childhood again. The travesties of adult life become overwhelming very fast and the way in which Ghatak chooses to transition between the two stages further destabilizes the process. It is somewhat of an antithesis to Richard Linklater’s 2014 film Boyhood but then again, living with the interminable poverty of a displaced society is also completely opposite to growing up in the cushioned comfort of an American suburb. Subarnarekha is disruptive and rightly so, capturing the essence of a survived life. Ghatak once said, “I look at the struggle and misery of contemporary life. And try to say something to the best of my ability.” It is safe to say that his 1965 effort is faithful to his self-proclaimed artistic purpose.
Ritwik Ghatak conducts a synchronic as well as a diachronic examination of the societal conditions. Both Iswar and Haraprasad seem to come to the same conclusion, that suicide is inevitable in contemporary times. The characteristically pessimistic lens through which Ghatak viewed life suddenly has a tinge of irony because the ambitious Overreacher and the idealistic activist share the same sad fate. Acknowledging the lack of purpose that modernity has left them with, Haraprasad and Iswar indulge in hedonistic pleasure in Kolkata. “In the shops and hotels, on the race course, such horrible fun.” Haraprasad preaches. “Indulgence is the key to liberation.” Structured like a traditional tragedy, the moment of anagnorisis arrives when Iswar, after a night of debauchery, finds Sita to be a sex worker, after sending her into exile with Abhiram (yet another allusion to the Ramayana). The threat of suicide becomes real because Sita kills herself. Ghatak is unforgiving in his insistence that the pain is endless. Iswar is left with the burden of unemployment, Sita’s child and the hopelessness of a defeated man. There are no resolutions that we can find, none except death. The potential of the open airfield transforms into a grounded railway station.
Icarus has crashed but is still alive. Miserably alive.