Films of Ritwik Ghatak and Pier Paolo Pasolini: – Ever return of the same?

‘I am a force from the past

                                                 Tradition is my only love

                                                I come from church, altarpieces, forgotten hamlets….’

                                                                                       La Ricotta (P.P. Pasolini, 1962)

‘Then Yama (God of nether world) asked Nachiketa (one who has no desire), “don’t ask for absolute knowledge, ask for some other boon.”  Nachiketa was a fool’

                                             Subarnarekha (The Golden Thread, Ritwik Ghatak, 1962)

We find many examples of sacred images in both Pasolini & Ghatak. They run amok throughout their film, but never having the final say. They pierce through the interstices of modernity, whose horizon is restricted to the profane. For the most part, the storyline of their films allegorically represent sacred themes. Like many modernists both Ghatak and Pasolini engage with the age-old stories of the repetitive human world but at the same time they are enmeshed in the present context. Though entwined in the present catastrophe of India (riots,  the partition) and Italy (post-world-war reconstruction, erosion of values) their stories play out the universal themes of love, hate, dejection, tragedy, comedy and dark humor. In most of their films, the ‘split’ between nature and culture seems more primary than the ‘origin’ itself. In a situation like this, art becomes an act of repetition. Rather than imitation as mimesis where to imitate there should be point of origin or ‘original’, repetition becomes artistic strategy. If the ‘origin’ is missing, there cannot be any process of mimesis. There would be no fixed point of genesis but ‘process’ itself will be the beginning. Repetition would fundamentally differ from mimesis in the context of epic mode of representation, endorsed by both Ghatak and Pasolini, where the structure of time will be cyclic in nature rather than linear. Thus the archaic image of sacred return without any possibility of reconciliation in the present.

Let us refer to a sequence of Ghatak’s film to elucidate this point. The first shot of Meghe Dhaka Tara (The Cloud Clapped Star, 1960), in which the trees are arranged in an infinite order from where Nita (Supriya Chaudhury), the main protagonist ‘emerges’. It seems to be a foggy morning in a Calcutta suburb or refugee colony. The tree fills the whole frame but from the right side of spectators view, it is out of focus.  The Camera then is fixed on Shankar (Anil Chatterjee) his brother, playing Bhairavi Raga (Hymn for Morning). A train passes through the middle of the screen. As Nita emerges, the tree is framed with both sides bisected by the frame. This already hints at the tension that will appear in the end. Nature is pierced, not only by automaton but from the beginning by framing of the outside/inside of the tree, yet the tree is what makes the shot visibly meaningful to us. Even though Nita exemplifies the Goddess Joggodhatri (Mother Goddess), her emergence from nature is shown as divided from the beginning, by framing of the tree that cut-off from side. Ghatak uses ‘wide-angle’ shots in tableau to bring in the effect of theatricality and depth, an important technique in Ghatak’s concept of melodrama.

Like ‘theatricality’ and ‘melodrama’ in Ghatak, Pasolini’s films are also agog with elements of ‘excess’. This ‘excess’ fit perfectly well with his narrative, which most of the time has recourse to ‘myth’ or tales from the medieval world. Despite making recourse to ‘myth’ or tales from pre-renaissance medieval world, we observe ‘split’ to be more primary than ‘origin’. To some extent, Pasolini denounced post-World War-II reconstruction of Italian civic life and society and held it to be the cause for a detrimental change that devastated the old world Italy. In his De Cameron (1971), he represents allegorically the reconstruction of medieval Naples’ Church fresco. In the film we see blasphemy, debauchery, vile priests, lechers and how corruption has spread throughout the city. But there is also merriment, and Pasolini uses shades of various colors to reinforce this. The most striking element is the painter master Gitto, played by Pasolini himself, and the way he encourages his disciple to paint the fresco. At last we notice the church bells ringing from a source outside the frame. The fresco is complete and the camera captures- Gitto from back in deep-focus mid-angle shot, who asks “Why do we have to work, when our dreams are so beautiful”, alluding to the dream according to which Gitto directed his disciple to paint the fresco. There are many small fragments in the film, only connected through the master Gitto’s story; and each part is constituted with the whole. The story itself is that of making of work of art, painting the fresco. Yet at the end, the master asks thus!

In their last film, Jukti Tokko Goppo_ (-Reason, Debate and a Story, 1974) and Salo_ (1975), we observe their apocalyptic questioning of ‘art’ as such. In Jukti Ghatak, acting as a so-called degenerate intellectual, pours liquor on camera, alluding also to Brechtian self-reflection. In Salo, at the end of the narrative, Pasolini shows one of the fascist leader peeping through a binocular to observe torture! In another sense, this shot hints at art’s ultimate potential to be fascistic, aestheticism as a fascist trope, by showing the identity of the camera eye in coherence with the fascist. In Pasolini, the shots are generally arranged like perspective paintings, which also lend depth to frame. At the same time, he also uses montage and rapid close –ups and cuts, in order to hold perspective in tension. His stories allegorically represent the agony of modern times and the impossible project of the sacred, which is repeated throughout ages. The ‘old’ fuses with the ‘modern’ to bring in such sense of history.

 Secularization is a metamorphosis of the sacred. Immersed in their own time, both Ghatak and Pasolini, documents this withering away of sacred bonds between society and humanity, and between individual human. The Lack of the sacred gives birth to desire for totality. Amputated from their religious, transcendental and meta-physical roots, human beings become ‘groundless’, what Marxist critique Georgy Lucaks would term as ‘transcendental homelessness’ of modernity. But for an artist, the search for sacred cannot exhaust itself within a particular moment of time in history. He looks for a thread to weave through historical time and locate ‘loss’ as being ephemeral. In a moment like this, repetition becomes a strategy of articulating history that does not belong to any particular phase of time. The sacred return as repetition but it articulates itself through the profane. So in Meghe Dhaka Tara (Cloud Capped Star, 1960) we see that the first shot, wherein Shankar the main protagonist’s brother sings, is repeated throughout the narrative. Or say, in Subarnarekha (The Golden Thread, 1962), the theme of searching for a home returns from time to time. And finally in Meghe Dhaka Tara (1960), we see Sankar returning home after his sister Nita dies. He slowly watches another girl, whom he earlier mistook as his sister; repeat the same process of his sister or in Subarnarekha (1962), Ishwar left with his nephew, repeats the lie earlier told by his manager when he and his sister came to settle in Chatimpur. Repetition is observable in many ways in Pasolini’s films. In Salo (1975), the four fascist repeats sodomy throughout the narrative, or say in Theorema (1968), the young messenger comes and repeats his act of sexual intercourse with everyone in a Milanese bourgeoisie family, which effects on every individual differently.

While in Salo(1975) repetition seems to be transgressive as the libertines repetitive act of sodomy transgresses  the sexual norms. According to Georges Bataille such transgressions are sacred acts. Indeed in Salo the space is conjured as such like a ritualistic place where sodomy reigns. It is as if, for the fascist, the act of sodomy is an offering to their God of sodomy. Here what is profane becomes sacred. While in Ghatak, repetition works more like a moment of grace. In the shot just before the last sequence, Nita the main protagonist of Meghe Dhaka Tara (1960), cries “Dada, ami banchte chai” (Brother, I want to live) while the camera pans a total 360 degrees. It is for only a moment which is supposed to fizzle out in the profane world of the modern. Yet this fizzling out of the sacred, is what sets the scene for the larger question of ‘historicity’ (‘in history’, Heidegger), and aesthetic and political forms that correspond to it.

                                                          Jeet Bhattacharya, Calcutta, 2015/16

Jeet Bhattacharya
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