FILM
Meghe Dhaka Tara
The Cloud-Capped Star
,
,
126’

“I wanted to live! Tell me just once that I’ll live... I want to live!”

Nita’s echoing cry

 

« Un des cinq ou six plus grands mélos de l’histoire du cinéma. »

Serge Daney1

 

“Was 1960 the last moment in world cinema history that a man could make such a film about a woman, about the so-called ‘plight of woman’ – and not only get away with it, but forge the highest art out of it, an art of deep empathy that elicits our equally deep respect and admiration? There is a tradition of such films by men about women, a tradition we have come to love, understand and value long after it came to an end. This tradition includes films by Cukor and Sirk and Ophuls, by Rosselini and Dreyer, and most particularly by Ozu, Naruse and Mizoguchi.

It is Ritwik Ghatak’s way of presenting this melodrama in Meghe Dhaka Tara which is really so special. He is famous for his unusual stylistic experiments, no matter the limitations of the technology at his disposal in his time and place. Many of his experiments now seem as if they were years, even decades ahead of their time. On the one hand, there is a classical side to Ghatak’s art. We can see this solid sense of structure in his work on the images. There are evenly paced, lateral tracking shots that choreograph the characters and their emotions in relation to one another as in the films of Mizoguchi. There’s strikingly angled close-ups of a face against a ceiling, as in Orson Welles. There’s a strong use of physical symbols and dramatic metaphors, such as a train roaring through the background of an image and breaking the snatched idyll of lovers, like we might see in an Elia Kazan Hollywood melodrama of the same period.

But when we move to the soundtrack level of Ghatak’s art, everything becomes more extreme, fragmented and experimental. The music and the soundscapes of Meghe Dhaka Tara are quite simply breathtaking. The soundtrack is expressionist in a bold and free way: characters sing as in a musical, but there also discordant blocks of strident, wailing sound to accompany Nita’s agony; and there’s a hissing, steamy sound that fades up and down whenever that mother walks into the picture. There is such an extraordinary range of musical moods and settings across the two hours of this movie – vibrant, melancholic, suddenly surging up and just as suddenly cutting off in every scene, almost like in a Jean-Luc Godard film. You feel, watching it, that you’re swimming in a sound stream, a veritable music of life.”

Adrian Martin2

 

“Sound can also be very effective even when it is ornamental. In one of my films, Meghe Dhaka Tara, I had a scene showing a painful moment in a woman’s life, on the soundtrack I used the sound of a whip lashing. There is another use of sound called ‘design by inference’. This is a tremendous thing. I can give a few examples. An old man is sitting on a bench; closely by, you hear the sound of a locomotive shunting and other noises of a railway station. It would appear, the location of the scene is a railway waiting room. But the camera has not left the old man’s face even once. Or, on the face of a woman you hear someone banging an iron gate and locking it. You will feel as if the woman was being put into captivity. In Meghe Dhaka Tara, the mother does not want her eldest daughter to fall in love, but can’t prevent it after all. While they are talking, the soundtrack carries the sound of cooking – the splattering sound of oil being heated. Later, we see the daughter somewhere else, but the same sound is repeated. This gives an image of what is going on inside her mind. Lastly, silence: I believe, this is the most symbolic.”

Ritwik Ghatak3

 

“In Meghe Dhaka Tara, there was a conscious effort to displace people and capture them in long takes. This led to the number of shots in this film being less than in my other films. To ensure that the eyes are not strained while watching the film, or are rendered heavy by sleep I have infused every character with movement within a single shot. And in most of the shots, a single person is present within the frame. Hence I had to think of various patterns. Many times within the same shot, I had to shift focus. And many a times, I have kept two characters in and out of focus without registering any movement. [...] In Meghe Dhaka Tara when Nita comes to know of her tuberculosis, she finds adobe in the drawing room. While she is coughing, rounded-up in front of the camera, her mother arrives and leans on the door behind her. She poses a question. Nita is startled a bit, but manages to hide the cloth strained in blood before attending to her. For the entire duration, the camera is focused on the mother, even when Nita is responding to the question. (Usually when someone speaks, the camera follows the person because the viewer wants to direct his focus at the face of the person who is speaking. Here the opposite is done, intentionally). Subsequently, the focus is drawn on Nita’s face even though her mother continues to speak. This is not a deliberate stylization, a remark – it is born out of a deeply painful realization. I have felt that these choices for the camera were inevitable for what I intended to convey.”

Ritwik Ghatak4

 

“From the beginning, there is the way that the first shot of a tree takes its time, all the time in the world... It has become necessary today for an image – if it is to remain an image – to consist or resist as image. But the first shot of the tree in Meghe Dhaka Tara is not truly bound to such resistance. If for us the shot carries this resistance, it seems to come from beyond itself, beyond the inside of an order of which it is a part, an order proper to the organic power of a cinema that for convenience sake can be called ‘classical’, but that everything draws towards the harsh regime of ‘modern’ ruptures. This shot is a landmark: it will serve the film’s action, its story, and be taken up in its development; it will return seven times, under varied forms, in scenes arranged in relation to each other. And yet this shot endures, is amplified, composed, as much inside itself as in relation to the following shot, with the result that an extreme tension is born, inducing emotion, an emotion rarely attained to this degree, depending primarily on the pure force of each instant and the distinctly singular disequilibrium it provokes, which will travel and accumulate from one end of the film to the other.

[...] Then comes the most beautiful shot. Nita found again by the camera at the extreme right edge of the frame, outside on the stairs, in a very flattened shot, strongly marked by a powerful low-angle. Nita descends the stairs until she envelopes us in extreme close-up, the camera moving only the little it takes to allow her face to be framed in an intolerable, static image, in a moment of pure affection: the immobile face, the eyes always raised, one hand convulsively grasping the throat, the entire décor as if effaced, the sombre mass of wall becoming pure expressive ground and giving its violence to the circle of white light which is very quickly formed and purified at the left of the face, appearing to be (for we spectators) the blind vanishing point of a gaze which no longer sees anything... But there are, of course, many ‘most beautiful shots’.

[...] What can you say about this ending, this final dialogue on the hills between brother and sister? Simply this. The effects of nearness and distance, of obliqueness and frontality, of rupture and inversion in the expected axes, and of body position (as much at the level of each body in the frame space as at the level of the relation between bodies): all this is a part of what cinema can produce most strongly and personally in the emotion tied to the appearance of figures.”

Raymond Bellour5

 

Catherine Grant’s video Ultimate Rapprochement (For Supriya Devi) (2018) combines the film’s ending with the text of Raymond Bellour.

 

“As we come to Ghatak’s most crucial film, the film that marked the turning point for him, what becomes evident is the revolutionary aspect of the returning to the form a fullness, a totality of perception and experience that has been drained away from it by the dominant tradition. More than any of his other work, Meghe Dhaka Tara depends upon purely sensuous portrayal in its evoking of the conflict of traditions. Sensuousness as something that consciously reverses petrification of form is itself a fundamentally political act and the struggle for its articulation part of the revolutionary struggle. In Meghe Dhaka Tara, sensuous portrayal counters the abstract, providing a constant two levels of experience. They are not always parallel levels however; the sensuous constantly pulls into abstract mythology as the characters are entrapped by their past, and releases out as an affirmation of human vitality. But as we see in the film, even abstract mythology, however parasitical and closed a system, has to work sensuously as well if it is to perpetuate its hold on the social value-systems.

What we particularly note with the music in Meghe Dhaka Tara is its use as something more significant than narration; it is to the film what the landscape was to Eisenstein, ‘the freest element in the film, liberated from the tasks of narration’. The freeing of sound, and then its juxtaposition with the much more culture-specific visual language is what enables the pathos to move beyond cultural barriers. This enhances the dialectic between the specific and the general that we see in his archetypes, which are at once the most culture-specific and, in the universality of the Mother Goddess, the most general. Miklós Janscó, it may be mentioned in passing, achieves precisely the reverse: a very specific tradition in his sound, and a wider visual language evoked through the nude figure.”

Ashish Rajadhyaksha6

 

Meghe Dhaka Tara revealed a rare sensitivity that could turn the common, day-to-day sounds into a complex web of music, investing the events with a reality of breathtaking intensity. It also made intensive use of melodrama, an accusation that critics of Ghatak have voiced again and again. Yet melodrama in Ghatak is used with the same amount of deliberation and mastery as the convention of dramatic coincidence which appears repeatedly in his films. Both melodrama and coincidence form integral parts of the traditional theatrical conventions of the country, and have been identified as the two biggest impediments to realism in popular cinema. For Ghatak, however, melodrama is a deliberate refinement on the dramatic, a harking back to older theatrical traditions and drawing out of it a more contemporary interpretation of the intensely felt emotional experience. There is an innate cruelty in its exposition, a ruthlessness which refuses to compromise with the hypocrisies of well-bred reticence.”

Shampa Banerjee7

 

“The triangular division is the key to the understanding of this complex film. The inverted triangle represents, in the Indian tradition, fertility and the femininity principle. The breaking up of society is visualised as a three-way division of womanhood. The three principal woman characters embody the traditional aspects of feminine power. The heroine, Nita, has the preserving and nurturing quality; her sister, Gita, is the sensual woman; their mother represents the cruel aspect. The incapacity of Nita to combine and contain all these qualities, to retain only the nurturing quality to the exclusion of others is the source of her tragedy. This split is also reflected in Indian society’s inability to combine responsibility with necessary violence to build for itself a real future. The melodramatic treatment of authentic characters and events has often distracted viewers and critics from the inner structure of Ritwik Ghatak's films. At best, it is the startling transformation of archetypes or the commentative use of sound that is noticed in his structuring.”

Kumar Shahani8

 

“One of Ghatak’s most powerful and innovative melodramas revolving around the self-sacrificing Neeta (S. Choudhury), a figure analogous to the women in Mizoguchi’s work. (...) The story is familiar in Bengali melodrama (cf. Arundhati Devi’s Chhuti, 1967), a link stressed by the casting of Bengali star Supriya Choudhury. However, into this plot Ghatak weaves a parallel narrative evoking the celebrated Bengali legends of Durga who is believed to descend from her mountain retreat every autumn to visit her parents and that of Menaka. This double focus, condensed in the figure of Neeta, is rendered yet more complex on the level of the film language itself through elaborate, at times non-diegetic sound effects working alongside or as commentaries on the image (e.g. the refrain ‘Ai go Uma kole loi,’ i.e. ‘Come to my arms, Uma, my child,’ used through the latter part of the film, especially on the face of the rain-drenched Neeta shortly before her departure to the sanatorium). This approach allows the film to transcend its story by opening it out towards the realm of myth and to the conventions of cinematic realism (evoked e.g. in the Calcutta sequences). The characters, their actions and the way both are represented acquire an epic dimension: characters, without losing their singularity, are presented as figures caught in the web of historical (and therefore changeable) forces while the limits of mythic and of ‘traditional’ melodramatic narrative idioms are exceeded by a new, specifically cinematic mode of discourse. For instance, Neeta cuts across both the mythic and the melodramatic stereotypes of ‘the nurturing mother’, an association elaborated further musically by the Baul folk number, the Khayal compositions and a spectacularly filmed Tagore song (Je raate mor dwarguli); the oppression/seduction/nurture triangle which structures the Durga legend as derived from Tantric abstractions, is projected on to the mother, Geeta and Neeta, inscribing these abstractions back into history and thus making them available for critical reconsideration.”

Paul Willemen & Ashish Rajadhyaksha9

  • 1. Serge Daney quoted in Raymond Bellour, Pensées du Cinéma (Paris: POL, 2016).
  • 2. Adrian Martin, “A Tribute to Meghe Dhaka Tara (Ritwik Ghatak, 1960),” Projectorhead, Issue 9, May 2013.
  • 3. Ritwik Ghatak, “Sound in Film” [1965], Cinema and I (Calcutta: Ritwik Memorial Trust, 1987): 40.
  • 4. Ritwik Ghatak, “The Eye: Movement in Film,” MUBI Notebook, February 6, 2018. First published in Chalachitra (Sept.–Oct. issue 1969). Translated from Bengali by Arindam Sen.
  • 5. Raymond Bellour, “The Film We Accompany,” Rouge, Issue 3, 2004. Original version published in Trafic, nr. 4, 1992.
  • 6. Ashish Rajadhyaksha, Ritwik Ghatak. A Return to the Epic (Bombay: Screen Unit, 1982): 51.
  • 7. Shampa Banerjee, “Ritwik Ghatak,” Profiles: Five Filmmakers From India (New Delhi: Directorate of Film Festivals, 1985): 111-112.
  • 8. Kumar Shahani, “Nature in the end, is grandly indifferent” [1976], In: Ashish Rajadhyaksha & Amrit Gangar (eds. ), Ritwik Ghatak – Arguments/Stories (Bombay: Screen Unit, 1985): 52.
  • 9. Paul Willemen & Ashish Rajadhyaksha, “Meghe Dhaka Tara,” Encyclopedia of Indian Cinema (new revised edition) (London: BFI, 1999): 364-5.