The Cloud-Capped Star and The Golden Line are ambitious allegories that are improved, not weakened, by Ghatak’s enthusiasm for disruption (the sequence of the older brother’s drunken night out in Calcutta is far more transgressive than the equivalent sequence in Kurosawa’s Ikiru), his will to make anti-masterpieces. But my favorite Ghatak films are two works that, though no less grandiose, are more intimate and even more jagged. In E-Flat, the struggles of a radical theater company become occasions for Ghatak’s most heroic, vibrant images; these swirl with movement, contrast, and energy, doing justice to the heroine’s sense that without extreme emotion nothing beautiful can be created. The camera angles, rather than aspiring to be definitive, are expressive in their documentary-like imperfectness. Even at its most elegant, E-Flat is rough and in-process, like all Ghatak’s work: though each of his films includes at least interludes that convey a deep feeling for landscape and nature, his characteristic visual style is less lyrical than paroxystic.
A River Called Titash, his return to feature filmmaking after a decade of frustrations, is a grand and complex recapitulation of themes from his earlier work. Based on a Bengali novel by Advaita Mallabarmana, the film takes place in (and is in part the communal tragedy of) a Malo fishing village where a young woman and her son find uneasy shelter years after the former was kidnapped from her bridegroom by pirates. Rather than pull the complicated, sometimes digressive narrative into a straight line, Ghatak lets it sway and sprawl like the title river itself. The images are filled with vastness and longing, and Ghatak has never been so successful as here in fusing archetypal myth (as when an orphaned boy sees his dead mother as the goddess Bhagwati) with a stark and disillusioned view of society. Sometimes bewildering in its richness, A River Called Titash is a rarity and a wonder: an epic on, and of, ambivalence.
In his last film, Reason, Debate and a Story, Ghatak plays the (semi-autobiographical) main role of an alcoholic intellectual who, rejected by his long-suffering wife, sets out, joined by an odd band of outsiders, in search of “shelter in this country of disorder.” Not the least memorable among the gallery of extraordinary characters who people his films, Ghatak’s Nilkantha is a wry-humored man with an expressive, angular body. His scruffiness is a self-mocking remnant of adolescent rebellion; his big plastic-rim glasses hide hypersensitivity or mourning. He is not a gloomy figure but a defeated one, a walking sign of traumatic loss. If it’s romanticizing to read him this way, no doubt that’s what Ghatak expected when he thrust himself into the foreground of his film as an icon of his generation’s historical defeat, counting on an audience of sympathizers to round out his broken-clown outline and stitch up his tatters into the figure of a full romantic hero. His own taut unwillingness to inhabit that figure, though, gives the character validity and makes the film one of the sharpest self-portraits in cinema. And Reason, Debate and a Story remains full of Ghatak’s fiercest filmmaking, showing him, as a director, undiluted and undefeated.