Friday, June 22, 2007

An interview with Ritwik Kumar Ghatak (1975): Part 4

(Continuing from Part 3)

Section 5: Documentary Films

Could you share some of your thoughts on documentary films?

Generally speaking, documentary films have followed two primary trends. First influence is Robert Flaherty's work especially his portrayal of Eskimo life in Nanook of the North, and the second one is London's Film Centre's movement led by John Grierson. The entire world came to realize the power and potential of documentary films because of those two individuals. On one hand, you have Flaherty's Moana, Louisiana Story and Elephant Boy, and on the other British Film Board's Night Mail and Song of Ceylon. The great modern documentary directors who followed their footsteps also deserve our deepest respect.

Also what Leni Riefenstahl accomplished during Hitler's era is remarkable and indeed hard to match. Obviously we find her politics to be extremely repugnant, but her aesthetic abilities can not be denied. In spite of Hitler's mischiefs in 1936 during Berlin Olympics, the work she did with her team of 36 cameramen is outstanding and I do not think any other documentary filmmaker who has made a film of that scale in such an organized manner.

Have you followed any specific principles of making documentary films?

For me, the principle came out of a combination of Flaherty and Grierson's influences -- along the lines of what Basil Wright amazingly displayed in Song of Ceylon and Night Mail. I worship Wright.

You see, in order to shoot documentaries, you need a much stronger love for people. You can not accomplish anything otherwise. Most of you consider me to be a director of fictional feature films, but please analyze carefully and ask yourself the question whether I have ever done anything except expressing love for my people. Have any of my films been shot inside a studio?

To me, there is no difference between my features and my documentaries. I do not consider documentary films to be a separate art form -- they are documents of human life. If you strongly love your people, you can hardly distinguish between documentaries and features. I do not know a whole lot about documentary films even though I have made quite a few as I made those to make a living. I do not think I have the right attitude for making documentary films and I consider almost all of them to be failures. So it will be impudent to say anything more on this.

We immensely enjoyed your documentary Puruliar Chhau and we also noticed its very significant role in Jukti, Takko, Gappo. What lies behind your strong interest in Chhau dance form?

Chhau is significant because it expresses the depth and richness of Purulia's life. If you visit Purulia, the poorest district of West Bengal, and go inside its villages, you would see how deeply the villagers there love their art. When I mixed with them, I totally fell in love. On observing how passionately they love the dance form and how attentively they create the dance masks, I was completely stunned. My love for them made me crazy. I have worked there three times. The first documentary I made was for West Bengal government. After that, when Philip Pierrot came from Paris, I made another documentary in color for him and finally, I had to work really hard on this film (dipanjan:Jukti,Takko, aar Gappo's Chhau sequence).

The fact is there is always a vision of mother-image lurking in my head. One of my friends once told me -- "you have been devoured by the mother (archetype)". That is true -- I am always obsessed with the mother. If you notice carefully, raison d'ĂȘtre of the coda of the Chhau sequence is the mother complex.

Section 6: East Bengal (Bangladesh)

Please tell us about your experiences of shooting in Bangladesh.

Good Heavens! If you want me to talk about shooting in Bangladesh, I will have to turn into a diplomat. It involves the political relation between the two countries and that is extremely "touchy". Specifically, if I say something bad about them, that will really hurt them and make the relationship even worse than what it is now. So I don't really want to talk about it. I can talk about "the good points" about Bangladesh and "not the bad points". The young actors and actresses there are simply incredible -- their vitality and energy are so intense as if they could die for you. Most of the technicians will work like crazy for you as well. In general, Bangladesh's people are extremely emotional and once they accept someone as their own, they will do anything for him or her. And if they do not like you, they will completely reject you. There is no point in talking about the equipments -- the situation is completely hopeless. Some of the stuff they have over there are exceptionally good and you won't find them in Calcutta, Bombay or Pune (dipanjan: Pune refers to FTII where, for a brief period, Ritwik was a visiting professor and vice-principal). However, the equipments have been so carelessly maintained that most of them are completely useless now and I had a really really hard time in fixing them. I turned into a mechanic -- what else could I do?

Was it because of a lack of knowledge or intentional?

Primarily a lack of knowledge. Also the tendency for taking bribes -- corruption, in general -- and finally complete sloppiness and carelessness. For example, one day we went to shoot at a place about 80 km from Dhaka. We prepared the sets and everything was ready to go. All of a sudden, one of my cameramen tells me -- "dada, this camera is not working; the shutter plate is not moving and I don't know what's wrong". Wasn't it the responsibility of the care-taker to test the camera at studio before getting it and all of us there? Anyways all the crew was there and we were spending so much money, so I had to do something. I finally opened the camera up and found that one pin inside the camera was tilted which was blocking the shutter-plate. I somehow fixed the pin and started shooting. Another day, at a place around 30 miles from Dhaka, we were shooting and I wanted 180 degrees, but the camera was stuck at 120. As you know, there are different types of cameras -- Arriflex type twos have variable shutters and the type ones have fixed shutters. So this cameraman comes to me and says -- "Dada, do you want to variate it? You can't do it; this is 120 with a fixed shutter". I said -- "Are you kidding? This is a type 2b, the best camera." So I open it up to see that it is completely "jammed" and then "I had to correct, then shoot". Problems like this! And the sound system? Horrible. Incredibly bad -- it falls apart as soon as you touch it. They have not taken proper care of anything. Anyways the people were fantastic. So this is the situation in Dhaka.

What is your reaction on MuktiJuddha -- the freedom struggle?

I was very excited about it. But now it seems exactly the opposite (of what I had expected) has happened. I don't think anyone else here has as much connection with Bangladesh as I have and that is mainly because I personally know them really well and have been close to so many of them. Most of those muktijoddhaa(freedom fighter) boys have turned into hooligans -- typical hooligans. Every house is full of sten guns, LMGs and revolvers. They have completely changed. Calcutta's newspapers do not publish these stories, but I go there often and I know this. The boys I used to love so much have become this. And the "good elements" among them are very frustrated -- "is this our freedom, is this what we fought for? did thirty lakh fighters die for this?" During the freedom struggle, there was so much excitement and optimism in the air when they fought against the Pak army. I was there and used to shoot in the middle of all that. And I go there now as well and see these two division -- on one hand, you have the ruffians and the hooligans, and on the other an absolute frustration and dejection.

Was the fact that you ended up shooting Titas while you were in Bangladesh just a coincidence?

No, not a coincidence at all. Bangladesh, as you know, is a riverine country and there are only two good Bengali novels on those rivers -- Manik Bandopadhyay's Padma Nadir Majhi and Adwaita Mallabarman's Titas Ekti Nadir Naam. The crux of the matter is Manikbabu's writing, as you know, is extremely sharp and precise. There is nothing one can say about him -- his writing is so restrained and he can express so much with so few words. However, he observes fishermen and their life from the perspective of a bhadrolok(middle-class gentleman). He can never really get into ... something does not just quite fit. Adwaita Mallabarman, on the other hand, is a Malo - a fisherman. He blah-blahs quite a bit -- there is a lot of redundancy -- but he has an insider's view because he is one of their own and his home is in that Gokarna village where I shot the film. He is the only graduate from that village -- among the Malos. So his writing on the joys and sorrows, the ups and downs of their lives penetrate a different depth altogether. One had to edit it significantly and I probably managed to do it, though I am not quite sure. I was very moved when I read Titas as it was first published around the same time when Adwaita died from TB. Since then I have been thinking about making a film out of it, but of course I could not enter Bangladesh when Ayub Khan was ruling it. As a communist, I had no hope of getting a visa and so I could not do it. At that time, a lot of people used to ask me to shoot the film here in West Bengal and that I could not accept. The river, the land, the boats and the faces -- you can not get them on this side of the border. So I have been thinking about Titas for a long time, since the beginning. My sister now lives in Kumilla, my twin sister. I was in Bangladesh as a state-guest in 1972, 21st February (dipanjan:bhasha dibas). Satyajit was with me as well. One day when I was at my sister's place, at the end of a cultural program, one young Muslim boy approached me and asked me why I was not filming Titas. And right there, I said yes and made up my mind. So it was not a coincidence; I have been thinking about it for a long time and when the opportunity came, I just grabbed it.

Section 7: Political Past, IPTA

Now I would like to ask you a few questions about your personal life. When and how did Marxism and politics start to attract you?

I started getting inclined to RSP when I was in the first year undergrad. Immediately after that, IPTA started to strongly influence me and those two events led me to study Marxism. Studying Marxist literature and writing on it went hand in hand with theatre acting -- around 1944-45, although I am not too sure about the exact dates now.

So you have been a part of IPTA since then?

Yes, I have been involved with IPTA since then. I was.

Around what time did you become part of the managing committee?

That was in 1948. I became the secretary in 1948 and quit in 1953.

Was that before the party was banned?

Yes, just a little before the ban.

Which of your plays were staged during those IPTA days? And who directed them?

I directed all of them. Among the plays, Jwala, Dalil -- Dalil was the first -- Officer and Bhanga Bandar are the only four I can recall at this moment.


Oh yes, sNaako. There are a few more, but I can not recall.

Do you want to say something about what moved you to write Jwala and Dalil?

Dalil? I came to Calcutta from Rajshahi in 1948. Well... let's not get into all that (dipanjan:partition). The crux of the matter is I was forced to come to Calcutta and bring my mother with me. And then I had to watch the plight of the "refugees". Well, I can not stand those words -- I squirm whenever I hear words such as "refugee", "asylum-seeker" . "Most...afffair". Anyways, so I wrote Dalil. Then I was the secretary of IPTA and also the director of Central Squad. Writing plays as well as directing and acting in them was a full-time job for me. One day P.C. Joshi -- he was in Allahabad then -- wrote a letter to me. Back then I used to live with my brother (Sejda) on Harish Mukherjee street. That was 1951 and there used to be a newspaper named "Indian Way" edited by P.C. Joshi. As you know, he was the general secretary (of CPI) prior to that and when B.T. Ranadive kicked him out, things became really bad for me and my wife. Anyways...damnit. There is no point in discussing all that -- kids of today do not know any of this and will not understand. So in that letter, PCJ told me to "take over the charge of Bengal" as a correspondent. Back then there was a big suicide wave (among the refugees) going on in Calcutta and I reported a series titled "Suicide Wave in Calcutta" on that sequence of thirty-one suicides. It became quite famous after it was published, but journalism and reporting did not quite satisfy me as I could not express my anger and frustration strongly enough -- I had not encroached films yet. So out of those characters in my report, I selected six and wrote the play Jwala which "is a documentary". I wrote the play and acted in it as well. I worked together with a lot of promising young boys and girls. It was on Calcutta at that time... now it is even more horrible, a complete nightmare. "At that time it was more or less a much better city".

Who else acted with you in Jwala?

Kali Banerjee, Gita Dey, Mamtaj, and there was another girl named Mamata...


Yes and there was another girl. And Gyanesh etc...

Wasn't Bijanbabu part of it then?

No, he was not. We are talking about 1951-52. After that I did not act for a while as well. And a long time after that one day Tiny Chatterjee who is now a director-general in All India Radio, got hold of me. I did direct Jwala for him, but did not participate -- my voice is not in it. Then my nephew Phalgu did it in Hindi for Patna radio. Phanishwar Renu who recently won the Rabindra award did the translation. His wife is a Bengali and he is from Munger as well, so he is almost a Bengali and knows the language well. Phanishwar and my nephew are neighbors and they have a theatre group. That translation was broadcast from Delhi radio as well. Anyways... let's not talk about it. Now it is all quite acceptable, back then "it was not taken in". It was very difficult to accept it, now things have become much more...

Long before Jwala, you once mentioned that you wanted to do Trishna?

Don't bug me, my dear. I am a drunk, let me just keep drinking.

Why are you not writing plays any more?

I don't want to. Look, I have no intention to write.

Well then, was your departure from IPTA voluntary?

Yes, absolutely.

Today (dipanjan:reference to Indian emergency 1975-77) we strongly feel the need for organizations such as IPTA and anti-fascist writers' guild. In spite of that need, similar organizations are not coming up...

What can I say? When the anti-fascist movement started, there was a strong group named PWA (progressive writers' association) and IPTA was born under the auspices of PWA. We slowly became regulars in both of those organizations which shared the same address -- 46, Dharmatala Street. We used to work together and back then it was extremely important for us to do so. I agree that we need similar organizations today. I strongly feel that because I am more or less well-connected to Delhi and I do see that the power structure there is again shaping up in a very fascist way. But I do not know the mindset of today's youth; I do not know how principled they are. If there are young boys and girls like that, then yes, I am absolutely sure they should do something similar especially if you look at what CIA etc. are doing in Delhi these days. I do not want to take any names -- and there are quite a few famous and powerful people who are involved in all this -- but I do know each and every one of them. So yes, there is no doubt that there is an urgent need for similar movements, but unfortunately except the Naxalites, today's youth do not seem to care much.

Aren't you becoming a little too sympathetic towards them?

To whom?


Well, I am bound to be a little sympathetic.

Isn't that out of the order?

No, why so? I totally disagree with their politics, opinions and ideology, but their honesty? I can't help but respect that. I don't see anyone else. These young boys and girls -- I agree that they are completely misguided which I have shown in my film (dipanjan:Jukti, Takko aar Gappo) -- and their integrity have no parallel. They do not want anything for themselves. Shouldn't I respect that? I must.

Section 8: An artist's social and political responsibility

Usually artists are especially individualistic -- what do you think is the reason behind that?

An artist becoming extremely individualistic is probably not appropriate for this day and age. They probably need to become a little more ... conscious socially. But I don't quite get why today's artists get so angry and mad. I do not quite get it from my perspective. There is a question of being democratic and I do not think they are trying to be. I am roaming round the entire country and I notice these boys and girls and somehow on this point, they are not quite... etc.

Have you ever considered yourself to be individualistic?

Me? I have never even questioned it. I am individualistic, from the start to end. My individualism is a fact, but that should not be held against me or my work. "I am continuously individualistic". But miyaan, what does that have to do with anything? "Life is like that!" I have been part of a lot of trouble and mischief, but I have never ever harmed anyone. Don't you get it, miyaan?

How deeply an artist should be embedded into politics?

It is not a question merely for artists. In this society -- in this class-based society -- every individual must be completely saturated with politics. Not just artists, everyone. But that does not mean an artist should become a slogan monger. You can not become an artist with cheap slogans; an artist must work deep inside your senses and sensibilities. Politicians operate at a superficial level -- slogans, shouting, loud protests etc. -- but I do not think art survives when artists start doing the same.

Do you think artists have social responsibilities?

Absolutely. Anyone who avoids or claims to avoid social responsibility is also fulfilling some social responsibility by helping out the upper-class and ruling bastards. Everyone is definitely fulfilling some social responsibility.

So from this perspective, what is the primary responsibility of artists of our country?

To serve the men and women of our country. Moreover, the primary and the final responsibilities are exactly the same -- loving people, serving them and talking for them -- and that must be expressed in an artistic manner. That's all, but not slogan-mongering.

It is being observed that some artists are getting completely isolated from politics. What is behind that, or ...

They are not getting isolated from politics. I have already answered this. They are all taking a side, but are posing as -- "I am not committed". "One can not be non-committed. You are either for this or for that." So none of them are apolitical, they are just being deceptive and are harming people.

Thirty years ago, this commitment used to be much stronger among artists. It has weakened significantly since then and is becoming almost non-existent. What is your reaction?

I do have a strong reaction. They have been behaving in this way only because there is a growing tendency of finding short-cuts to becoming famous and successful. We were talking about this on our way here, right? In his essay on Shakuntala, Rabindranath while describing Kalidasa's era said -- "how time has somehow become lowly and wretched since then" -- and it is becoming progressively worse. In a way, our moral sense is decaying and everyone is becoming more irresponsible. These are symptoms of a decay leading to an eventual collapse. I think it is going to collapse completely, but at the same time I am positive that something new and strong will emerge out of that process. Maybe during my son's time or maybe during my grandson's. I do not think anything will happen in our lifetime. So you do not really need to group artists separately -- they are part of the whole process.

How much of the responsibility of this decay lies with the leftist political leaders?

They bear complete responsibility, but none of them is on the left anymore. All of them have moved to the right. So I am not sure who you are referring to as leftist political leaders. They do not even exist. The leaders' only concerns are to pocket more money for themselves and their cronies and how to get their names and pictures published on newspapers. No one cares about Indian people. So how do I even assign responsibilities to those leaders? As I said before, something might emerge out of some of the Naxalite kids...

Do you think in the recent past, say within last twenty years, there have been some mistakes made on the part of communist party and its leadership on the cultural front -- mistakes which led to this decay in commitment?

Of course, there have been huge mistakes as a result of which I quit the party. P.C. Joshi might have had a lot of faults, but he had a deep understanding of these issues. And he used to complaint to each comrade while these mistakes were being made. My wife Lakkhmi was a comrade and was the secretary of Shilong committee long long time ago. PCJ should have forgotten that, but that bastard -- he is almost dying -- wrote a letter to her a few days ago. Whenever I go to Delhi, he would invite me to his house. And it is not just for me or Lakkhmi, he would enquire individually about each and every comrade. He is the man who destroyed Gandhi in Allahabad conference. "Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi was completely finished up by P.C. Joshi.". And that man was kicked out of the party by a clique -- I am not going to name the comrades -- of certain individuals. That was in 1948 August at Wellington Conference which was held at Wellington Square and named "Second Congress". The party leaders have switched off their responsibilities from then on and obviously there is no point in discussing how much they have screwed up.

(to be continued ...)

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