It took many years for Ritwik Ghatak’s classic Meghe Dhaka Tara (The Cloud-Capped Star, 1960) to be widely seen and recognised outside its home country of India. What a loss for the global consciousness of world cinema in those years! Ghatak, who made eight narrative features and died in 1976 at the age of 50, made a type of Indian cinema that is still very unfamiliar to most filmgoers in the West. It is the not really much like the Indian art cinema associated with the name of Satyajit Ray, although Ghatak’s films are deeply artistic on every level. And nor is it exactly like the great traditions of Indian popular film, the musical and the melodrama. Meghe Dhaka Tara is certainly a musical melodrama of sorts – the French critic Serge Daney hailed it as “one of the five or six greatest melodramas in cinema history” – but it isn’t pure escapism, or pure heart-wringing sentimentality either; it exudes a tough, realist sadness.
Meghe Dhaka Tara is an angry, socially-conscious lament for a figure who is presented as typical in a certain sector of Indian life: the dutiful daughter who sacrifices everything, every dream and every possibility, in order to pay the way of all the other family members. This family system, this social system is like a vicious trap that slowly closes in on the main character, a shy woman named Nita (Supriya Choudhury). In this, it can indeed remind us of some of the great, subversive Hollywood ‘women’s melodramas’ of the 1940s and ‘50s – The Reckless Moment (1949) by Max Ophüls or All That Heaven Allows (1955) by Douglas Sirk.
No one who profits from Nita’s sacrifice is particularly willing to help her - and indeed, when it comes to her rather demonic-looking mother, this matriarchal figure is actually trying to willfully compound the oppression, by directing the romantic attentions of Nita’s impatient suitor over to her rather less self-sacrificing sister.
So these are the familiar melodramatic ingredients: sacrifice, connivance, thwarted desire, the passing of unfulfilled years in dreary workaholic misery, and eventually even a blatantly psychosomatic disease, tuberculosis for Nita as for the Lady of the Camellias, or the heroine’s ‘weak heart’ in Ophuls’ Madame de … (1953). The film dwells in an almost unrelieved sombreness, with a deeply felt sadness welling up everywhere, particularly as Nita cries to the echoing hills: “I wanted to live!”
There are historical and political depths to this film, as in every Ghatak film; but it is these elements of intimate, family melodrama that I wish to stress in this brief tribute – not just as a matter of content, but above all as a matter of form, film language, style. For Ghatak is among cinema’s greatest and most radical stylists.
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.
Nowadays, the gesture is not so easily performed: the guy who attempts to render his sympathy for oppressed women or for the ‘women’s cause’ risks exposing himself to attack as a dreaded, posturing ‘feminist man’. We no longer find it noble that such a man would wish to ‘speak for’ all women, for women’s plight. There is something almost nostalgic, a pervasive false note, in the return to the terms of the ‘40s or ‘50s female melodrama in a highly calculated, derivative work such as Todd Haynes’ queer-inflected Far from Heaven (2002).
But before 1960s feminism – as we dimly, perhaps unconsciously recognise – this type of cross-gender ‘identification’ was indeed, once upon a time, a heroic thing for a man, these men, to do. Today, it is difficult for even a female filmmaker (at least in the affluent West) to revisit this territory, in a necessarily self-conscious way. When, for example, a film such as Martha Coolidge’s Rambling Rose (1991) tries to reinvent the story-tropes of an old Minnelli ‘woman’s melodrama’ - when it shows a mother standing up to the officious, patriarchal man who wants to perform a clitorectomy on her daughter, when it celebrates a ‘good man’ in the shape of Daddy Robert Duvall - the throat-choking emotion, the welling-up cheer that this is meant to provoke does not quite come: the times and the dramatic gesture do not go together properly any more.
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.
Since its widespread appearance in parts of Europe in the late 1980s and early ‘90s, analyses have started to take the measure of this extraordinary, revelatory work by Ghatak. Raymond Bellour’s magisterial analysis, which ‘walks us’ through the most intense and poetic parts of the film, is exemplary . For my own part, when called upon by editor Chris Fujiwara to contribute to a recent book on ‘defining moments in film’, I immediately chose this particular constellation of images and sounds in Meghe Dhaka Tara:
The face of a man, Shankar, is in profile on the extreme-left of the frame, singing into the darkness. Halfway through the shot, the camera moves to starkly reframe the scene: we are suddenly aware that Shankar and his melancholic sister, Nita, sit close, side-by-side, but turned completely away from each other; now, at the pan’s end, we see Nita, in profile on the extreme-right of the frame, singing into the darkness … It would be hard to find, beyond an iconoclast like Godard, such a perfect demonstration of the difference between what critic-filmmaker Alain Bergala calls the arrangement of a shot (situating the figures in a set) and the attack upon it chosen by the camerawork. Who but Ghatak, a proto-modernist working here within the traditional genre of melodrama, would have filmed this mise en scène in such a strange, disconcerting way? The whole of this bleak scene – in which the ever-sacrificial Nita begs her brother (who is soon to depart) to teach her a Tagore song – is marked by breaks, ellipses, ‘unmotivated’ camera movements, unrealistic pools and speckles of light in a painfully obscure darkness, and above all a wild sound mix that passes from ambient noise through song to the echoing lash of a whip that expressionistically conveys Nita’s increasingly manic despair. Every cut, every sound cue, is an event in Ghatak: rather than simply ‘establish’ a scene, he restlessly withdraws and redraws it, according to the turbulent pressure of the emotions within it. 
© Adrian Martin May 2013
1. The Film We Accompany. Raymond Bellour. First Published in Trafic No. 4(Autumn 1992), Translated and Reprinted by Fergus Daly for ROUGE, No. 3. http://www.rouge.com.au/3/film.html
2. Defining Moments in Movies. Edited by Chris Fujiwara. Entry – “Nita’s Song”, Page 315. Cassell Illustrated. 2007 Octopus Publishing Group Ltd.