Ritwik Ghatak, the quintessential Bengali filmmaker, has lately been hogging the spotlight for all the wrong reasons. Part of his ancestral home in Bangladesh was about to be razed when protesters were able to put a stop to the plan. In India, BJP recently used clips from his celebrated films to bolster the campaign in favour of the CAA, drawing criticism from his followers and annoying the family members.
In any discussion on the new wave of Indian cinema, three names are eternally considered as part of towering achievement in the hay days of cinema – Satyajit Ray, Mrinal Sen and Ritwik Ghatak. Among the three, Ritwik perhaps occupy a cult following, with many who want to emphasise contextual film-making take his as their point of entry into the discourse of Bengali cinema. Unfortunately, he is also the one who received global acclamation posthumously.
Ritwik Ghatak directed only eight films during his career. But with these handful of works he forever etched his name in the history of Bangla cinema. Ritwik's works are a constant reference in film, acting and art schools for his unique vision that is still relevant for the discourses of migration and the disjointedness of modern life, the aspects that he artfully brought into view.
According to a review in Frieze published following a Ritwik Ghatak session at New York's Lincoln Center, "Ritwik Ghatak's singular filmic vision depicts the implacable, everyday groping toward hope, if not a home, that can and will encumber a life lived in exile." This yearning for a home and hoping against hope is something that puts the filmmaker in an altogether different pedestal.
However, this master story teller is making the headlines again for all the wrong reasons. For starters, a portion of Ritwik's ancestral home in Rajshahi was about to be demolished and to make way for a cycle stand. Ritwik was very close to this family home. His home served as meeting point for many great minds. He invited the litterateur Sharatchandra Chattopadhay to preside over a literary discussion once. Ritwik also edited a literary magazine called "Aubhidhara" when he used to live here.
An instant cannonade of protests began in the city with three leading film societies in Dhaka and Rajshahi standing up against the wrecking of a particular edifice. The authority had to pay heed and put a stop to the plan as the protesters had pledged to turn his home to a heritage site and Ritwik memorial.
Meanwhile, in India, in a more sinister way, BJP, the ruling Hindu nationalist, are repurposing his films to advance their ill-conceived agenda. To garner support for the Citizenship Amendment Act, which the New York Times recently described as a bill that became an act in the blink of an eye, clips from Ritwik's films are being used to propagate Hindutva argument for the act.
The clips were from his films Meghe Dhaka Tara and Komal Gandhar, both encapsulate the trauma of displacement. These two along with Subarnalekha completes Ghatak's trilogy on partition and the migrantion that followed and are considered as classics.
In a written statement on December 23, family members of the renowned film director condemned and objected to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) Yuva Morcha using scenes from his films depicting the chaos after partition in a video that is now being circulated by the party's youth wing, according to a number of newspaper reports.
According to the reports, the six-minute video is about the party's stand on the National Register of Citizens and the Citizenship Amendment Act. The propaganda footage, also covers the Calcutta killings of 1946 while retelling the story of the refugees in the country till the present time, when the Indian government has decided to grant citizenship to them all.
There are precedents of such blatant use of a film or part of a film in political propaganda. In most cases the maker and the political party shares a kinship or at least the spirit in which a content is repurposed to advance a political goal.
A lot of films in the 20th century became tools of promotion, motivation and inspiration during socio-political turmoil. But what the BJP is trying to do is something unique – it is serving love and trauma for the displaced in the platter of hatred.
Soviets not only used the sequences of Sergei Aisenstein's Odessa steps from 'Battleship Potemkin', the party also used him in their great propaganda machine, and the master filmmaker had willingly served the party since he too sympathized with their goals.
Today, after 43 years after Ritwik Ghatak's death, the BJP's youth wing Bharatiya Janata Yuva Morcha (BJYM), used some scenes from Ritwik Ghatak's migration trilogy to propagate their Hindu nationalist in the West Bengal.
The move came as a surprise to many as Ritwik had a clear inclination towards the left politics of his time. He was a member of the Communist Party of India till he was expelled in 1955.
BJYM's stunt of using the clips from the acclaimed maker's films is also deceitful on many other levels. It is true that Ritwik left his ancestral home and established himself in Kolkata. He had a profound understanding of the world of the refugees. Through his cinema he wanted to portray their world and the inherent melancholy of the people who had suffered such displacement. As he himself was an uprooted soul, he felt the pangs of the word refugee. The sadness of leaving his roots stayed with him till the last day of his life. Moreover, a refugee does not bear a communal identity, as it is in itself an identity of someone forcefully displaced and disregarded.
On top of that, there was no formal permission granted by the filmmaker's family to use pieces from his work, which enraged the family members. They rightfully and logically denied the permission of using Ritwik's work as a propaganda tool, since the clips from his film were used out of context.
Whenever a piece of art is used in a political agenda, there is always a possibility of that piece becoming a mere mask for that particular movement or struggle. BJYM probably wanted to create a wave of commiseration. This perhaps was a desperate attempt at weathering the popular protests that the passage CAA sparked across India.
May be BJYM undermined Ritwik's influence as a practitioner of art over society. In Ritwik's own word art has to be truthful. "Tagore once said – art has to be beautiful, but, before that, it has to be truthful. Now, what is truth? There is no eternal truth. Every artist has to learn his or her private truth though a painful private process. And that is what he has to convey," elaborated Ritwik.