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-[Film Reviews]-, South Asian Cinema

‘Meghe Dhaka Tara’ (1960): No Good Deed Goes Unpunished

Directed by: Ritwik Ghatak || Produced by: Chitrakalpa, Ritwik Ghatak

Screenplay by: Ritwik Ghatak || Starring: Supriya Choudhury, Anil Chatterjee, Niranjan Ray, Gita Ghatak, Bijon Bhattacharya, Gita Dey, Dwiju Bhawal, Gyanesh Mukherjee, Ranen Ray Choudhury

Music by: Jyotirindra Moitra, Anil Chandra Sengupta || Cinematography: Dinen Gupta || Edited by: Ramesh Joshi || Country: India || Language: Bengali

Running Time: 127 minutes

Whether they eventually stand the test of time or not, debating contemporary films seems much easier than arguing over decades-old classics. Certain influential films can be reduced to a few striking images or the then innovative techniques they popularized; many films can even become “famous for being famous (e.g. The Wizard of Oz, Gone with the Wind [both 1939], Citizen Kane [1941])” to the point where their alleged cinematic merit is assumed by so many critics, journalists, academics, and filmmaking enthusiasts that their high-profile status becomes ingrained in the subculture. Films that made their mark years ago tend to have been dissected to the point where there’s not much room for dissent from popular opinion, which often comes across as contrarian or a function of a particular viewer’s supposed ignorance. Modern films whose reputation has not yet calcified, therefore, are simpler and perhaps more exciting to analyze because a critical mass of the cinephile community hasn’t yet agreed upon those films’ cultural importance, the effectiveness of their stylistic execution, and their long-term influence. They just haven’t been around long enough.

Here’s a good example of the film’s low-lit indoor ensemble staging, which showcases effective foreground to background composition yet feels cavernous thanks to the inadequate natural lighting and black-and-white film stock.

Fans of Bengali Parallel Cinema, Satyajit Ray, Italian neorealisminspired 3rd cinema movements, and the filmmaker Ritwik Ghatak may be bracing themselves for my assessment of the latter’s most famous feature, Meghe Dhaka Tara (“The Cloud Capped Star”), after that preamble. I don’t blame them, because Meghe Dhaka Tara may be my most disliked “classic” film since Alain Resnais’ Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959). A loose allegory for the 1947 Partition of India and the artificial split of Bengal into then East Pakistan (later Bangladesh) and the modern Indian state of West Bengal, Ghatak’s first installment in his Partition Trilogy (1960, 1961, 1965) paints a portrait of a middle-class refugee family from Dhaka reduced to poverty as a result of that social upheaval. As the family’s financial situation grows more desperate, breadwinner responsibilities increasingly fall on the eldest daughter and the movie’s lead, Supriya Choudhury, though few diegetic reasons are provided for her shouldering these emotional burdens beyond a general, almost cartoonish level of selfishness from the rest of her family. Instead, contrived behavior from most of the supporting cast substitutes for believable personalities and story development.

Ghatak no doubt experienced similar plights as a Dhaka native who came of age during the tumultuous 1940s amidst both World War II and the aforementioned sloppy flight of the British Raj from South Asia. You can sense seething contempt from the auteur for every character in this film beyond Choudhury’s older brother, Anil Chatterjee, the one person who shows consistent remorse toward his dependence on his sister; for those who don’t believe me, the manipulative, almost gleefully evil performance of Gita Ghatak (niece by law of writer-director Ghatak) as Choudhury’s younger sister, the dimwitted, shallow portrayal by Niranjan Ray as Choudhury’s disloyal paramour, the goofy Bijon Bhattacharya as Choudhury’s father, and the belligerent maternal presence of Gita Dey bolster my argument; none of these characters feel like real people, but rather caricatures of different groups of people that Ghatak no doubt encountered during his chaotic young adulthood and perhaps partially blamed for the Partition’s fallout. Given Ghatak’s extensive theatre background prior to his filmmaking ventures, the unrealistic, exaggerated performances here in Meghe Dhaka Tara make sense, though not from the standpoint of the film’s realistic physical backdrop (no studio sets are used), intimate narrative focus, and disorganized slice-of-life format.

As a general rule, I prefer films, even esoteric “art cinema” or socially conscious films, to have some sort of narrative structure and tend to dislike those without a well defined cause-and-effect progression. Most slice-of-life portraits are best suited for literature and don’t gel well with visual storytelling techniques beyond 5-15-minute shorts. Call them drawbacks of the film medium or label me, as a reviewer, closeminded, but that lack of structure hurts The Cloud-Capped Star as much as the questionable performances, leaving us with little more than an elongated treatise on a single character’s repetitive suffering. As authentic as the film’s outdoor Bengali settings are, they can’t help but feel wasted given this lack of screenplay focus.

My ultimate problem with Meghe Dhaka Tara, both in its stylized execution and narrative conception, is not just that the film “isn’t for me,” but rather how, I argue, it isn’t for most audiences, including most breeds of cinephile. You may balk at that generalization, but I’m confident in it given the reasons articulated above, how its characterizations and their performances only make sense from an allegorical perspective, how glacial its narrative pace is at the expense of its thematic momentum, and how lifeless its otherwise notable location-photography feels without any forward story progression.

In one of the film’s more memorable shots, former lovers Supriya Choudhury and Niranjan Ray attempt reconciliation.

The miserable mood with which Ritwik Ghatak’s magnum opus left me at its conclusion is almost beside the point, but my uninspired, tired reaction to the whole affair is not. While I’ll concede the film is notable from a sociopolitical perspective and as a metatextual, quasi-autobiographical reflection of its auteur’s conflicted upbringing, one must identify with Ghatak’s philosophical mindset on a personal level to get something worthwhile from this film.

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SUMMARY & RECOMMENDATION: Ambitious in its symbolism but questionable in terms of narrative structure, performances, and characters, The Cloud-Capped Star is a flawed picture that expects its audience to recall specific historical circumstances to swallow its repetitive torment of its protagonist. I wouldn’t describe Ghatak’s Partition parable as torture-porn, but I do think it qualifies as “misery-porn.”

However… Ghatak visualizes character relationships and emotions well thanks to creative mise-en-scène, frame composition, and laudable location-photography — minus its drab monochrome appearance, of course — thanks to cinematographer Dinen Gupta. I appreciated lead Supriya Choudhury and supporting actor Anil Chatterjee’s performances.

—> Regardless of its venerable stature amongst international social cinema critics, Meghe Dhaka Tara is NOT RECOMMENDED.

? Maybe Francois Truffaut should’ve watched this instead of Pather Panchali (1955); less eating by hand and more coughing!

About The Celtic Predator

I love movies, music, video games, and big, scary creatures.

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