Ghatak’s Clunker

Serge Daney, “Le tacot de Ghatak”, first published in Libération, 31 October 1986.

Translation from the French by Arindam Sen & Ivana Miloš.

It is a love story set in Ranchi (at the border of Bengal and Bihar). Bimal unreservedly loves Jagatdal, who returns his affections. He is a taxi driver and Jagatdal his vehicle, a very old Ford. The laughing stock of his neighbourhood, irascible dreamer Bimal avoids all human contact except for one child. We are in 1959, a time when modern cars are making their appearance in India. Bimal has no fondness for them; he loves, yells at, repairs only Jagatdal, the decrepit car, the pile of metal that breaks down, agonizes him and howls and screams in love and pain.

Ajantrik Ritwik Ghatak

It is a story that makes little sense. As in many Indian films, there are always neighbors and “friends” who attempt to reason with Bimal on human-machine relations. It is a waste of time. There is without a doubt a reflection of Ghatak in Bimal’s personality (enacted by Kali Banerjee with frowning eyebrows): someone who needed to experience the real (or the unreal, as in the case of the Ford) before “creating” something with it. And who, like a patient fighter, took his time. “As an artist,” Ghatak said in 1964, “I cannot record TIME. It advances slowly, in our subconscious.”

Time does not hold the same meaning for Ghatak as for Satyajit Ray. Ray is an aristocrat, Ghatak was an agitator. Both are Bengali, but Ghatak was born in 1926 on the “wrong side” of Bengal, in Decca, not yet capital of East Bengal, later Bangladesh. Ray knows how to evoke the past in mists and clouds. Ghatak, on the other hand, is a man with a clean slate. There is no nostalgia in him, or rather there is a nostalgia so strong (for an undivided Bengal) that it is everywhere and nowhere.

Ajantrik

By prolonging Jagatdal’s usefulness beyond its limit, Bimal goes against the law (of both karma and mechanics). There is revolt in his stubbornness, but he will gain something from it in the end. After one last attempt to miraculously prolong the vehicle’s life (a final act of love), Jagatdal breaks down, and a greedy, mole-eyed scrap merchant offers to buy it by the kilo. Suddenly, the sound of Jagatdal’s air horn is heard – a child has picked up the object turned toy. A tear runs down Bimal’s easily excitable face. It is as if the director had replaced the abstract law of karma with the human recycling of matter.

Ghatak, a leftist, a loser and alcoholic (he died in 1976 in poverty), is the one who, much more than Ray, the young Indian generation relates to. He is a man given to fragmenting who takes the time to try and put the pieces back together. This is why Ajantrik is a film that breathes. Sometimes with terrible asthma, sometimes with miraculous ease.

In the history of cinema, the sound aligns the film with the old tradition of the silent “murmur” of the thirties, while its narrative associates it with the tradition that has been liberating narrative from the shackles of screenplay from neorealism to the nouvelle vague. Bimal’s story is predictable enough, but the story’s landscape is made up of the unexpected, of digressions, and waking dreams. On Jagatdal’s final journeys, we even pass genuine bits of late ‘50s India. As for the sound, it is composed like a radio score featuring classical music (Ali Akbar Khan), tablas beats, metallic clanking and air horns weaving a canvas between dream and reverberation.

Ajantrik

As the clunker weakens, the story takes flight. Engine failures allow for chance encounters. And then the film changes direction, transforming into something dreamlike. On the day Jagatdal embarrassingly stalls on a narrow mountain road, drum beats are suddenly heard. Bimal rushes down a slope and arrives at a religious ceremony with advancing dancers who impart a sense of unreal, as in Murnau’s Tabu. Bimal is lost; he gets drunk and disappears.

We want to follow the dancers, we catch bits and pieces of what they are saying. We learn that Ghatak lived five years among this tribe (the Oraons of the forest) and that the idea of a few shots was enough for him to make his film. Cinema was once terribly open to what was not cinema. This was, in all likelihood, the cinema of Ghatak.

 

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