A tormented genius, too good for his day, is not an unknown story. In the Bengal case, the story of Ritvik Ghatak’s artistic brilliance and eccentricity, associated pains of being misunderstood and under-appreciated in his time, alcoholism and tragic death are all too familiar. Kamaleshwar Mukherjee takes Ghatak’s filmic toolkit to a film loosely based on Ghatak’s life. He calls the film Meghe Dhaka Tara – the title of a film that Ghatak is most remembered for. He makes a black-n-white film. With close, jerky shots of movement and space. Runs, walks, gestures, eyeballs. The temperature of a heaving city looms large in his weighty shadows. The stage-career of the protagonist is remembered through a staging of the characters across a shot, often under spotlights. The characters interrogating each other’s choices.
Here is an eccentric man, an East Bengal refugee, fresh on the landscape of Calcutta torn by war, famine and political upheaval – played by Saswat Chatterjee, who is remembered best as Haat-kata Kartik of Bhooter Bhobishyot. Ananya Chatterjee plays the now-disillusioned, once-firebrand-revolutionary, bespectacled wife, with restraint and confidence. A strong, longstanding marriage relentlessly fights the man’s downfall and alcoholism. It is an unlikely, as also middle-class-Bengali genius, that does not acquire many groupie budding-actress lovers. A land left behind haunts him. A city torn over scarce resource, unstable political claim forms his canvas. He tells stories through the ‘archetype’ – the mother-figure his favorite - the one that distances him from communist peers, as a sentimental, parochial artist. He finds himself tickled by shock therapy at a mental asylum, as he fights alcoholism and depression. The riverfront of the lost land re-emerges on his filmic imagination as the pristine ‘adivasi’ domain. The original dweller. The autochthonous. All politically incorrect things to think. But made into potent tools to make art out of a violent world. Art for people, his motto. Though people seem not to care for his movies. They prefer the dulcet tones of Uttam-Suchitra, or Shammi Kapoor. A restless man, who is unable to finish many projects. Leaves scripts lying around for years. Loses friends. A god-like wife, many goddess-characters in his films, a goddess-tribal-rape-victim in the mental asylum, and a shadowy mother prop him up as he wobbles. A sensitive psychiatrist watches his mind’s wandering of a lifetime of loss. Woman emerges as a recuperative site. The only source of relative, worldly solace. In an otherwise relentlessly soul-less world.
In telling the story of the genius who relied on ‘archetypes’, Kamaleshwar uses archetypes. He does so in a combination of fantastic and real characters. Repeatedly, the theatrical stage emerges in this film, as a site of transaction between real and fantastic. And perhaps a merging of the two. The childhood sequences are Apu-esque, but more haunting. A child looks for a lost mother, his friend for a lost land. They hug the pillars of a deserted house. Riverfronts, boats and communal dancing make the site of the fantastic as well as the left-behind. Distance and loss is negotiated in a memorising of agrarian idyll.
If there must be a biopic or equivalent tribute to this controversial and mysterious man, Kamaleshwar’s schema for such a tribute seems difficult to match. As a slowly unraveling cinematic repertoire, this man - Kamaleshwar Mukherjee - must be looked out for.