There’s poetic justice in the fact that Meghe Dhaka Tara, Kamaleswar Mukherjee’s masterful ‘biopic’ of Ritwik Ghatak, is produced by Shree Venkatesh Films, the biggest production house in the very same Bangla film industry that steadfastly ignored his films in his lifetime. Audiences largely rejected the man who insisted on confronting them with the miseries of real life that they had come to the cinema to escape. That is, like most such stories, until he got the approval of the West and was accepted for the genius he was.
Saswata Chatterjee, he of Bob Biswas fame, plays Nilkantha Bagchi, a disillusioned intellectual admitted in an asylum to overcome his proclivity for bangla, the country liquor favoured by generations of leftist intellectuals (“The intervening stage between communism and socialism is alcoholism,” proclaims one character). Bagchi is Mukherjee’s stand-in for Ghatak; an alter ego, in fact, created and played by Ghatak in Jukti Takko Ar Gappo, his last film. Much like his mythological namesake, who drank the poison from the churning of the ocean to prevent the destruction of the world — Ghatak, like Bagchi in the film, was criticised by fellow communists for smoking the opium of religion, among other unpardonable sins — there is a certain heroism to Bagchi’s alcoholism, a sense that he must drink in order to continue producing work that will hasten the revolution. But it is poison; we watch how it, along with everything else, has eaten away at him and left him a broken man, a refugee.
It is that image, of Bagchi as refugee, as pariah, that the film keeps returning to. Unlike Ray and his middle-class subjects, Ghatak dealt extensively with the scars of Partition and the miseries of those who were uprooted. Bagchi is told, after the audience walks out of one of his films, that he has not been able to rise above the shanties. He is told, on another occasion, that the fire that burns inside him scorches those around him. His students at the Film Institute reject him for having worked in Bollywood when he needed the paycheck. Even among the working classes, the heroes of his films and his worldview, he does not find acceptance; they tell him frankly that they don’t understand his work. Bagchi is, essentially, a revolutionary sans a revolution, the titular star obscured by clouds. Much of the film, told in glorious flashbacks with Bagchi walking his doctor through them like some Ghost of Christmas Past, deals with these fissures as they happen.
Chatterjee, who seems at first glance a mystefying choice to play Ghatak, gets so thoroughly under the skin of his character that by the end, especially when he adopts the distinctive stubble, it is hard to tell the difference. His versatility, which has made him Bangla cinema’s foremost character actor today, is essential to essaying such a complex role; he goes from earnest idealist to nihilist to obsessive theatre director, haranguing the fellow asylum inmates who will act in his final production.
But the most extraordinary thing about Meghe Dhaka Tara is its refusal to simplify itself for its audience, to provide easy questions and answers. It’s non-linear, stream-of-consciousness, intricate, dealing with ideas conventional Indian cinema wouldn’t touch with a bargepole. Not because they’re too radical or anything, but because the very idea of an audience thinking for itself seems an alien concept to today’s filmmakers. The fact that the film, with its homage to Ghatak’s take-no-prisoners style, stands out, shows that other failed revolution of his: a thinking man’s cinema.