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.