EVEN as he lay in a Calcutta hospital ravaged by tuberculosis and a cirrhotic liver in 1976, Ritwik Ghatak's creative juices kept running. He fashioned a script out of Lajja (Shame), a Ramapada Chowdhury novel, and even thought of casting Uttam Kumar as a lead. When daughter Samhita came visiting, he even sounded upbeat. But a few days later, she found him in deep funk. "I have finished my work. I don't want to live any longer," he told his daughter. A month later, in February, Ghatak, whom his celebrated contemporary Satyajit Ray once described as "one of the few original talents in Indian cinema", was dead.
Two decades after Ghatak's passing, a slew of his unfinished films have been restored to show the creative prolificity of a film-maker who left behind just eight features in a stormy 25-year career. A related revelation is the impressive array of stars and producers who wanted to work with this emotional auteur. Ramesh Joshi, faithful editor of Ghatak's masterworks, remembers the director telling him after completing his rivetting 1961 feature Komal Gandhar (E-Flat): "Ten years later, or a little more, people will find out who Ritwik Ghatak was. Not now."
The auteur's prediction has come true, and how. Ghatak's films are regularly shown to packed art house audiences at foreign film festivals. The 1962 masterpiece, Subarnarekha, is now essential text in many European film schools. Four young Dutch film-makers have made a 31-minute film on Ghatak where they rave about the "rediscovery of one of cinema's greatest talents." Sight and Sound runs a Derek Malcolm review of Ghatak's cinema and an American critic lists the 1957 feature Ajantrik (Pathetic Fallacy) as one of the best films ever made. Marco Muller, director of the Rotterdam Film Festival, gushes about the "unbearable intensity" of Ghatak's films—they contain "too much." "He made eight films," says Richard Penna, programme director of the New York-based Lincoln Centre's Film Society, "and five of them are masterpieces."
As interest in Ghatak's work climbs, the Ritwik Memorial Trust, formed to preserve the film-maker's legacy, is scrambling to get his films restored, his unfinished work screened, and even put out subtitled prints on video. A tall order for most of his work have rotted in cans, thanks to apathetic producers and distributors. There have also been mysterious happenings which have never been satisfactorily explained.
The original negative of Nagarik (The Citizen), his 1952 debut film which never got a public release in his lifetime, was lost and of the few prints made, only one was traced from a derelict lab. The brilliantly photographed river epic Titas Ekti Nadir Naam was released 18 years later. An edited and subtitled version of Komal Gandhar, which was on its way to a foreign festival in the '60s, never left the shores and lay in the customs office before being auctioned off in 1978 for Rs 3,000 to a family friend who handed it over to the trust. Subarnarekha lay canned with a prominent distributor before a French critic declared it a masterpiece. "The frustration that went with such abject neglect of his work often turned him to drink and shattered him," says Mahendra Kumar, cinematographer and Ghatak's Man Friday for much of his career.
The condition of his finished work left much to be desired. Laboratory reports say the negatives are full of scratches, rubbing marks, pinpricks and stains. The duplicate negative of the classic Meghe Dhaka Tara had fungus and scratches. Over the years, most of the eight films have been restored at London and German laboratories under the supervision of Ritaban, Ritwik's 33-year-old son, who has completed a few documentaries himself. Prints of Ajantrik, according to Surama Ghatak, the director's widow, are "in very bad shape." No wonder, paucity of prints still continue to hinder participation of Ghatak's work in foreign festivals. "There's a real shortage of Ghatak prints, while there's so much interest in his work," says Cinemaya editor Aruna Vasudev.
The good news is that cineastes might yet get to see some of his unfinished work. His 1959 unfinished feature, Kato Ajanare, based on a popular novel by Mani Shankar Mukherjee, was shown to selected audiences in Calcutta. Bagalar Bangadarshan and Ranger Golam were clubbed together and screened at Italy's Pesaro Film Festival. Negatives of the unfinished documentary Indira Gandhi are with the trust. Now the trust also wants to screen Ramkinkar, an unfinished documentary on artist Ramkinkar Baij.
Why did Ghatak leave behind such a body of unfinished work? One reason was his uncompromising attitude which led to differences with producers. The other was lack of funds. Three decades later, however, cineastes are beginning to take note of the masterpieces and unfinished works to help destroy a stereotype of Ghatak as an impulsive genius with the Bengali flaw of talent without discipline. The truth is more sombre: Ghatak worked hard enough, but hit a wall with producers and distributors as his work was much ahead of his times.