Uncomfortable Truths of a Cloud-Capped Star in Ritwik Ghatak’s Meghe Dhaka Tara

Of late, a particular word is being used so often that perhaps out of discomfort, most people like to ignore its existence entirely. The term is privilege. Perhaps because of the intense negative connotations attached to it, we, as the more advantaged members of the society, would not like to agree that we possess any of it in the first place. Recently, Tillotama Shome, after the success of her phenomenal film Sir, Is Love Enough? where she portrayed a domestic help, spoke about this exact phenomenon. She says that she has made a career out of playing characters who are the poorest of the poor, while in real life, she comes from a position of privilege and entitlement. She belonged to a middle-class family and has pursued an education in excellent institutions across the globe. She admits to the journey being difficult. However, one must not confuse that with being disadvantaged. The fact that I am sitting and typing this article on my state-of-the-art laptop is nothing but a privilege. Is the process difficult? Yes, most things are. However, to deny that we relish ownership is criminal.

A film that will make you realise the same to the point of it being downright uncomfortable and acutely sensitive is Ritwik Ghatak’s 1960 masterpiece Meghe Dhaka Tara (The Cloud-Capped Star). I remember watching it for the first time in my Film Studies class, and in the end, when the lights came on, our professor, who was an ex-army man, had burst into tears and asked for a 10-minute break to compose himself. The film is world-famous on more than one account. It is noted for its radical political statement and feminine narrative. Still, cinematically it is a work of art because of the sound design, mise-en-scene, and framing of shots that mirror the character’s psyche and the tumult of post-Partition identities. Throughout his films, Ghatak’s primary complaint remained the brutal division of Bengal that caused disenfranchisement of unimaginable magnitude.

Based on a story written by Shaktipada Rajguru, Meghe Dhaka Tara is a part of Ritwik Ghatak’s Partition Trilogy. The remaining two films are Komal Gandhar and Subarnarekha. Like Mani Ratnam’s Terror Trilogy (Dil Se, Roja and Bombay), the three films are connected by a singular thread of post-Partition trauma and the frantic scramble for individualities and income by families caught in a limbo; neither here, nor there, or anywhere. Meghe Dhaka Tara particularly stands out of the larger corpus of Partition-centric cinema because of the privilege it accrues to the experience of female refugees and working-class members. It exposes the dark underbelly of “empowerment”; women forced to abandon personal development for the betterment of their families. Such is the devouring of her existence: they become unidimensional grains of sand, thrown about by winds of oppression and utter lack of support from community members.

Meghe Dhaka Tara follows Nita (Supriya Chaudhury), an extraordinarily hardworking and profoundly caring woman who struggles to alleviate her family from crippling poverty. She is the sole breadwinner in a family of six, where each member is dependent on her. Her father is a helpless schoolteacher. Her mother, embittered by scarcity, always scolds her for not earning enough. For her, Nita is wage-earner first and woman second. So terrified is she of losing control over Nita’s income that she even connives to have Nita’s love interest marry her youngest, more beautiful daughter. Nita has three siblings, each selfish in their cruel way. Her youngest sister Gita is only interested in pursuing a good life, and Nita’s meagre earnings are her way out. Montu, their brother, is a bright man who refuses to contribute financially. When he meets with a terrible accident, Nita borrows money and fends for his expenses. Finally comes Shankar, the oldest son. He is a talented singer but lacks direction and accountability. He is the centre of all taunts, for he represents the weakened male authority. However, as opposed to Gita and Montu, he is deeply attached to Nita and loves her dearly. Nita’s life is the function of her family members’ demands, as she hurries from one financial setback to another, from one emotional blow to the next, until what remains is a beaten body and a wounded soul.

Meghe Dhaka Tara is often described as the best in Partition cinema, next to MS Sathyu’s Garam Hawa. Like the latter, Meghe Dhaka Tara uses the Partition to highlight several social biases that hold till this very moment. Garam Hawa was about the exclusion of religious minorities. Meghe Dhaka Tara leverages a fractured family’s symbolism to highlight patriarchal subjugation, prejudices against working-class women, and the burdens they face as the sole emotional and financial force accountable for rebuilding the family from scratch. Simultaneously, Ghatak routinely draws imagery from religion by harshly commenting on the deification of women. A phenomenon painfully still existent, worship goes a long way in elevating women but rarely uplifts them. Recently, the Netflix special Bulbul resonated a similar sentiment, depicting the story of a young bride flitting amongst being a Devi, Chudail, Gudiya and Choti Bahu but never becoming Bulbul.

Meghe Dhaka Tara skillfully represents women as different forms of the Goddess Incarnate. Nita, the sole provider of the family, is likened to Goddess Jagadhatri or the eternal giver. On the other end is the fierce Chandi, who feeds on the living to sustain herself. For Ghatak, that is Nita’s mother. Nita’s mother is a tremendous parasitic force. She doesn’t bat an eyelid before encouraging Gita to pursue Nita’s love interest Sannat. Her argument is simple. She’d willingly force her daughter into a life of labour and sterility than let go of the only member who earns and, above all, is willing to sacrifice her financial, sexual and intellectual freedom to sustain the family’s consumerist tendencies. In fact, reputed film scholar Ira Bhaskar has observed how Ghatak sets up the home’s courtyard like a venue of a ritualistic yagna. In that courtyard, demands are made to Nita, who, as the Divine Provider, must fulfil.

While Partition’s trauma, the axis on which the film rotates, is an experience lost with those who faced it and their immediate generations, in the 21st-century, Megha Dhaka Tara exists as a strong narrative on the cyclical nature of domination. It is also a reminder that as women, we are equally capable of debilitating another woman. That patriarchy is a struggle for power that can be executed by a woman as much as by a man. In a distressing scene of the film, Nita confesses it is her fault that she allowed her family to exploit her continually. For years, her silence fanned the flames of the symbolic yagna. But as a person, ask yourself how often you have faced injustice and conjured the strength to protest? Easier said than done.

Coming back to where we started, from privilege. A few months ago, while casually discussing the Meghe Dhaka Tara with a friend, I was shaken to find that as a 23-year-old woman in 2021, my friend strongly related to Nita’s life and character. It made me acutely aware that capitalising on a woman’s financial and emotional labour is a reality not just restricted to society’s lowest socioeconomic rung. It happens everywhere. In your home. In your friend’s house. In your domestic help’s house. In your professor’s house. Of course, the magnitude will vary, from a simple act of not being consulted in financial decisions to greater and more dangerous formats of abuse. Meghe Dhaka Tara tells us that subjugation starts small. In simple denials. In little and invisible acts of prejudice. In small favours. It is supported by men and women because who doesn’t enjoy power? Look around. We are in a crowd of Nitas.

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The Undefeated, the Irreplaceable: Thinking of Soumitra Chatterjee!

On 24th July 1980, Mahanayak Uttam Kumar passed away. His death was unexpected, the result of a massive stroke. My paternal grandmother, an ardent and inconsolable admirer of the star, refused to eat. On 15 November 2020, the legendary Soumitra Chatterjee breathed his last. For more than a month, his battle with COVID-19 has been a matter of extensive media coverage. Every other day we would find updates about his unresponsive and failing health. His demise didn’t surprise cinema lovers. We all saw it coming. So, when I went downstairs to inform my maternal grandmother of the news, I found her sitting pensively. She already knew. Her age didn’t permit her to skip dinner but she retired early, ate a morsel and hardly spoke a word.

But here’s the catch. She wasn’t the only one grieving for this immense loss. The sense of bereavement trickled down to the youngest generation in my house, my 15-year-old sister who knew the actor as Feluda, the most popular sleuth in Bengali literature.

While Kumar and Chatterjee represent the two factions that Bengali audience has been divided into, the latter was the flagbearer of a much more accessible narrative. Uttam Kumar was the star; suave and charismatic. Soumitra was down-to-earth, a disarming mix of romantic and cerebral. So deeply did his personality and sensibilities seep into the characters he was portraying that one cannot imagine them without remembering his intelligent face, piercing eyes and defenseless charm. It doesn’t matter if the people he played were fictitious, written by authors who had no particular face in mind. Today, if one reads Tagore’s Nashta Nir (the book on which Satyajit Ray’s 1964 film Charulata is based), they will finish the book visualizing Amal as Soumitra Chatterjee. This is irrespective of the fact whether they have watched the film or not. Similarly, he is Apu incarnate.

Very often, Soumitra Chatterjee was described as Satyajit Ray’s muse. The actor marked his debut as Apu in Apur Sansar, the third film in the celebrated Pather Panchali trilogy. He starred in fourteen of the director’s films. Some of his best works were accredited to Ray. Together, they created a cinematic chronicle that encapsulated imaginative thought, subtle expression of complexities, the vulnerability of characters and above all, enlightenment. They created frames and moments that have crystallized in our collective consciousness. Recollect the warm poignance of the final scenes of Apur Sansar. Apu, with his young son balanced on his shoulders, is walking away from a past of untimely loss and towards a new future of hope and rekindled relationships. In the backdrop is an idyllic river, a boat floating on the calm waters. Apu hesitates to reveal to his young son that he is his father. Instead, he introduces himself as a bondhu (friend). That split-second reluctance holds within itself the entire emotional arc of not only Apur Sansar but the entire Pather Panchali trilogy. Right from Apu losing his sister Durga to a fever, his arrival and struggle to survive in Kolkata, the death of his beloved Aparna and finally uniting with his son. 

Through Soumitra Chatterjee’s approach to emotion and expression, we haven’t been spoon-fed happiness or grief or for that matter, any sentiment. This isn’t the Yashvardhan Raichand brand of emoting with dramatic music and glycerin fogging the screen. This is understated, moving and full of space for the audience to comprehend the depth of what has transpired. And this isn’t only for an intense moment. He was capable of conjuring copious amounts of charm without being overbearing. In Charulata, Chatterjee is playing Tagore’s Oh Go Bideshini on the piano when his sister-in-law arrives with paan. Lightheartedly, he refuses to accept her present and continues with the song. Attractive and endearing, without clogging the viewer’s sensibilities with tropes.

Soumitra Chatterjee never agreed to be cast in the mold of the demure Bengali bhodrolok. In the 1969 Bengali adaptation of Anthony Hope’s Prisoner of Zenda, he portrayed a menacing antagonist with ease. Pitted against Uttam Kumar, the megastar of Bengali cinema, Soumitra Chatterjee held his ground! In fact, the era in which Bengali films were overcome with the juti (star-couple) fever with Uttam Kumar and Suchitra Sen leading the pack, Chatterjee stood out for his refusal to be pushed into that direction. He even dabbled with the strict-yet-caring sports coach characterization much before Kabir Khan stepped into the picture. In the 1984 film Koni, Chatterjee plays Khidda, a swimming instructor. He takes a talented girl named Koni under his tutelage. But Koni’s journey to becoming a professional swimmer is thwarted by poverty and petty politics. In the 32nd National Film Awards, the film was honoured as the Best Popular Film Providing Wholesome Entertainment.

Soumitra Chatterjee belonged to children as much as he belonged to adults. Adults my age will remember him most vividly as Feluda, Satyajit Ray’s Charminar-puffing detective whose greatest weapon was his magajastra (the power of brains). Tall, often sarcastic, fiercely protective of his companions and dignified, Chatterjee’s portrayal transformed the character into a cultural icon. Ray’s Feluda can be considered as respite amongst the dreadful and one-tone depictions of the character that the screen has seen in the last few years. No actor has been able to imbibe Feluda with Chatterjee’s cleverness and dry wit. 

Many are unaware that, unknowingly, Soumitra Chatterjee had sparked a revolution in fashion. Never a proponent of flamboyant dressing, he popularized smart casuals. Feluda ignited the trend of wearing the Bengali-style kurta with trousers and a Kashmiri shawl wrapped around the shoulders. In Aranyer Din Ratri, Chatterjee’s character Ashim wore crisp shirts, trousers, big watches and sunglasses. Pranay Baidya went a step ahead and created an entire line of men’s clothing inspired by the actor’s striped kurta in Charulata.

To conclude that Soumitra Chatterjee’s career was a bed of roses liberally sprinkled with meaningful cinema and consistent accolades will be undermining his tenacity. In the 1980s and 1990s, the Bengali film industry went through an era of acute crisis. Piracy was rampant and the quality of films was terrible (to say the least). During this time, he had to accept roles that were nowhere near his intellectual capacity. Nonetheless, he tried to rise above the difficulties and starred in impactful films such as Koni and Tapan Sinha’s Atanka. Both made strong commentaries on evils such as poverty, lobbying in sports, and political murders.

As I write the conclusion, my mother has logged off from her official portal and my sister has finished her studies. They plan to spend the evening watching Joy Baba Felunath on Zee TV. Soumitra Chatterjee lives on. In his characters. In the history of intelligent cinema. In the legacy of unaffected, naturalistic performances. In childhood memories. In middle-class households who learnt to appreciate film by watching Soumitra’r Chobi (translation: Films of Soumitra).

Additional Reference:

https://thevoiceoffashion.com/intersections/film-x-fashion/the-costume-drama-of-soumitra-chatterjees-everyman–4143