Realism and Modernity are two words closely associated with Bengali cinema. Some of the greatest and among the most popular filmmakers of Bengal took realist genre of films to a new height, alongside reflecting modernist ideas. Realism and modernity go hand-in-hand in Bengali films, especially in the work of greats like Satyajit Ray and Ritwik Ghatak.
Although defining ‘modernity’ would mean at least a few more pages, for the sake of this essay, we would deduct it down to merely social, political and artistic modernization. Satyajit Ray’s magnum opus ‘Pather Pancheli’ is one of the greatest examples of realist films portraying various elements of ‘modernity’. Inspired by Italian neo-realism (especially Vittorio De Sicca’s Bicycle Thief, 1948), Ray created his first film and a masterpiece reflecting the evolution and social change in Bengal and a modernization of ideas and concepts.
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In Pather Panchali, Ray talks about leaving old ideas behind and moving on. He talks about how over time, old ways of living, ancestral ideas and traditional lifestyle has become stale and needs to be changed. Apu, with his family, leaves his home and village at the end because the ancestral house held them behind. They moved to find a better way of living. They moved to get rid of the old house which couldn’t help them in any way, but instead took their daughter’s life.
This whole film is a transition from pre-modern to a modern way of living. Ray distributes several metaphors throughout the film – metaphors of modernity and need for change. One important character which served as a metaphor for me was that of the old aunt. She’s old, tired and just wanders around the house doing nothing. She’s often told to go indicating she’s not wanted in the house. The family is fed up of her just as they’re fed up of traditions and the same lifestyle they’d been living – in the fear of famine, poverty and survival. The old aunt wanders, trying to find a place for herself, and when she doesn’t, she dies. Ray shows death of old ideas. Ray wants change. He shows a need for change and a breakaway from traditions which are holding you back. He wants to show there’s always a need for change. The old aunt is a mere metaphor for him to show how traditions have become stale.
‘Charulata’ (1964), another one of the great films by Ray, also talks about change. But here, he sets it in an upper middle class Bengali society where a lonely housewife falls in love with her brother-in-law while they both encourage each other to write. He puts two different ideas of home and desire, literature and politics, pre-modernism and modernity face-to-face.
Ray’s films have a humanistic touch. He uses his ‘craft’ to get to the deepest part of human heart and extract out the emotions from there. Scenes like Apu throwing away the necklace Durga had stolen, Amal leaving home to avoid being unfaithful, Durga stealing food for her aunt add to the humanistic approach of Satyajit Ray’s work.
Neo-realism is another thing that inspired Ray. According to me, it’s mainly because his stories were about society. He couldn’t have made them in a fictional style because then they wouldn’t be relevant to the society. His stories were not meant to be mere films, but a reality somewhere in time which needed to be imitated in Bengali society and which was a reflection of the same society he lived in. His characters were sketches of real people. They were close to real. For example, when you think Durga, you don’t think of her as a two-dimensional good or evil character, but as a girl who existed and had different attributes to her personality just like everybody else. She wasn’t a puppet.
Similarly, Ritwik Ghatak’s films introduced different modern themes to the evolving society of Bengal such as alienation, isolation, need for home.
In one of his most ‘personal’ and also socially relevant films ‘Ajantrik’, Ghatak introduces the concept of alienation and isolation from the society. He shows a man’s attachment to his car, an inanimate object and a troubled social life where he can’t connect well to the people around him. Scenes like where the character Bimal is talking to his car, the car responding to him, him taking care of the car like a companion and not caring about what his society says, show how important a character Jagaddal (the car) is. Ghatak doesn’t treat the car as a prop, but as a character itself. He tries to show the car’s point of view; he wants to make us feel its presence thus implying the fact how relations have also evolved along with modernization of ideas and society; how people have become more involved with their property rather than fellow human beings.
Similarly, in Subarnarekha (1965), Ghatak reflects on the feeling of home (along with many other sub-themes such as happiness, relations). His work has been about change, modernity and its effects and mainly, how partition has affected society and Ghatak himself.
In Subarnarekha, he tells a story of a family moving to the bank of Subarnarekha River after the partition and how the girl Sita seeks happiness throughout the film. Moreover, he tells of her feeling at the new home. The river becomes the new home for her who she confides in her secrets, woes and happiness.
From what I observed in Ghatak’s films, he believes that society has changed from being a ‘community’ to more of a collective living of different individuals. I observed individualism in his work, and how people have turned from their fellows to nature or man-made beauty whether it is mountains and rivers to cars and property.
I think there are many modernist elements found in both Satyajit Ray and Ritwik Ghatak’s films ranging from their content and themes (home, anthropomorphism, modernity itself) to their craft (use of POV shots, different style of cinematography, manipulating space and even the use of Brechtian elements).
Mise-en-scene of Subarnarekha
‘Subarnarekha’ by Ritwik Ghatak has a totally different feel from Ghatak’s Ajantrik where he uses machinery and artificial elements. Here he turns to nature. He turns to landscapes for expression of emotions. His landscapes speak. For example, in every scene when Sita sings, we see landscapes of river and surroundings. At times, it seems like Sita is singing to the river, telling her story. Ghatak has a strong fascination of juxtaposing sound and landscape and how it creates an impact in viewer’s mind.
What’s interesting to note is how the kind of landscape shows the state of mind of character, such as when she’s happy, we see rice fields and river and when she’s sad and bored, we see a barren land.
Watching a Ritwik Ghatak film is like going on a travel journey around the state. He shows you picturesque landscapes which strongly reflect nature and emotions.
Another important thing which is part of the mise-en-scene is strange framing. Ghatak likes to frame his subjects on extreme and odd points of the grid and juxtapose them to their background, giving them a context. For example the scene where Sita is singing of her woes in a barren land around her and when she ends, the camera dollies out just showing Sita’s body (which is also cut in the frame and not properly placed). You can expect the unexpected in Ghatak’s style of framing. He wouldn’t use conventional framing in Subarnarekha, but put two images side by side to create a different context.
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In Subarnarekha, Ghatak’s art direction also plays an important role. They also help create the mise-en-scene of the film. The river, the lonely plains, one house in the middle of nowhere, very little to no people, an old abandoned place where the war took place – they all develop a certain mood. The movement and transition from a small town school to a journey across the border and to a lone house in the midst of barren land. It creates a symphony – a lyrical transition from one note to another.
Pace of the film is another thing that’s part of the mise-en-scene. The time duration of the film determines how long it would feel compared to the real time. Ghatak manipulates time to the extent where Subarnarekha starts to feel realist which means time is slowed down, although not exactly to match the real time. He changes pace continuously to match the action and the passing of time. Subarnarekha is divided into chapters occurring in different passing time periods.
Camera movement is quite natural in the film. Most of the time, Ghatak uses the ‘invisible’ camera method and doesn’t change points of view except at a point where Abhiram recognizes his lost mother. In that scene, camera shifts focus as to provide a point of view of Abhiram recognizing her mother.
Ghatak uses space quite realistically creating a perfect illusion of real space. I think Ritwik Ghatak’s choice of shooting on-location really helped him stay true to his realistic nature of the film (just like many realist filmmakers of 20th century).
Costumes, as part of the film’s mise-en-scene, are minimal and are there just to show the traditional way of life. It hasn’t been stylized like setting, sound and camera work.
Acting (considering it a part of mise-en-scene) has been reduced to appear natural unlike some of the early films which imitated theater.
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