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1962 143’ b&w Bengali d/sc Ritwik Ghatak pc J.J. Films st/p Radheshyam Jhunjhunwala c Dilip Ranjan Mukhopadhyay m Bahadur Khan lp Abhi Bhattacharya, Bijon Bhattacharya, Madhabi Mukherjee, Geeta De, Sriman Tarun, Satindra Bhattacharya, Abanish Bannerjee, Jahar Roy

One of Ghatak’s most impressive and complex films, released in 1965, tells of Ishwar Chakraborty (A. Bhattacharya) and his young sister Seeta who start out in a refugee camp after Partition. After a brief scene ironically evoking the vagaries of nationalism, the two rescue the boy Abhiram (Tarun) when his mother Kausalya (De) is abducted. A businessman appoints Ishwar to run a foundry and he takes the two children to the new abode. Abhiram is sent to school and returns years later (S. Bhattacharya) intent on becoming a writer and marrying Seeta (M. Mukherjee). As Abhiram is an Untouchable, Ishwar finds his job prospects threatened and he asks the boy to leave, arranging for Seeta to marry someone else. She elopes with Abhiram and they, with their baby son, live in a shack in Calcutta until Abhiram dies in an accident and Seeta is forced to turn to prostitution. The lonely old Ishwar contemplates suicide and with his old friend Harprasad (B. Bhattacharya) he goes on a drinking binge in Calcutta, culminating in a visit to a brothel. He is ushered into his own sister’s room. Ishwar is devastated and Seeta kills herself, watched by her son. At the end of the film, an aged Ishwar is leading Seeta’s child to the promised ‘new house’ by the river which forms the visual leitmotiv throughout the film. Ghatak endowed virtually every sequence with a wealth of historical overtones through an iconography of violation, destruction, industrialism and the disasters of famine and Partition. Most of the dialogue and the visuals are a patchwork of literary and cinematic quotations enhanced by Ghatak’s characteristic redemptive use of music. This strategy ensconces the characters and their behaviour deep into the fabric of history itself, constantly referring their actions to forces playing on a broader canvas than the space-time occupied by an individual. A famous example is the sequence set on an abandoned airstrip with the wreck of a WW2 aeroplane where the children playfully reconstruct its violence until the girl comes up against the frightening image of the goddess Kali (who turns out to be a rather pathetic travelling performer). Later, in dappled light, the older Seeta sings a dawn raga on the airstrip. In a classic dissolve, the old Ishwar throws a newspaper showing Yuri Gagarin’s space exploration into the foundry where it bursts into flames which then dissolve into the rainwater outside Seeta’s hovel. Harprasad, who had earlier rescued Ishwar from committing suicide by quoting from Tagore’s Shishu Tirtha, later in the night club parodies an episode from the Upanishads using an East Bengal dialect. Other quotes from this extraordinary sequence including Eliot’s The Waste Land (1922) and, through the music, Fellini’s La Dolce Vita (1960). Kumar Shahani pointed out that when brother and sister confront each other in the brothel, Ghatak’s sudden and brutal recourse to the highly conventionalised codes of melodrama abruptly stresses the usually hidden theme of incestuous aggression in the commercial Indian cinema while also commenting on the brutalisation of India’s revered classical heritage (cf. Shahani, 1986).