By Jeremy Carr.
When Montu (Dwiju Bhawal), the youngest of four children in a Bengalese family, returns home after having been injured at work, a neighbor attempts to reassure the beleaguered household by asserting, “God doesn’t give you more than you can bear.” Whatever the truth to this claim, the fundamental principle is relentlessly put to the test when it comes to what befalls Neeta (Supriya Choudhury), the family’s eldest daughter. Assuming the role of primary caregiver after her father (Bijon Bhattacharya) suffers a bone fracture, she is left to relinquish her dreams for the general betterment and stability of her mother (Gita Dey), her younger sister Geeta (Gita Ghatak), and her older brother Shankar (Anil Chatterjee), an aspiring singer – an “artiste” in his words. Compounding the familial drama, entwined with it in an understated though no less compelling fashion, is also her hesitant relationship with a budding suitor, Sanat (Niranjan Ray), whom Geeta also covets. In Ritwik Ghatak’s The Cloud-Capped Star, Neeta, a bright, contemplative college student, provides far more than she should have to for her impoverished family; she is pushed and pulled in nearly every conceivable direction except toward her own happiness. But Neeta is also something more. During the course of this emblematic 1960 feature, she is also the embodying heroine for a wider succession of issues plaguing families much like her own (penurious, conflicted, beset by unemployment), as well as those of a nation that was itself fractured and in dire need of an affirming identity.
The name of Ghatak’s film is taken from a phrase written in a love letter Sanat once sent to Neeta, calling her a “a cloud-capped star veiled by circumstance,” an appropriate enough description for this determined young woman who finds herself at constant odds with the unwavering hardships of life. Her mother at least acknowledges the burden endured by her daughter, likely because she has herself been through similar circumstances, but that doesn’t prevent Neeta from discontinuing her studies and putting her impending wedding on hold, a decision that proves tragic as Geeta swoops in to marry Sanat. To be sure, though, Neeta is hardly alone in her suffering, and Ghatak and cinematographer Dinen Gupta, who would go on to amass a considerable roster of directorial credits, afford each of the other characters their share of visualized emotive resonance, even if the film’s most prominent angled accents are reserved for Choudhury and her extraordinary performance. Gazing upward to the heavens after Shankar sings an achingly mournful song, for example, she breaks down in tears. It’s a devastating image of vanquished recognition, the melancholic quintessence of shame and pride and desperation, sensations simmering within Neeta throughout the film and ultimately unleashed in her inevitable breakdown. Sent to a sanatorium, she finally emancipates herself in a delirious, impassioned, cathartic outburst: “I really did want to live!”
Adapted from “Chenamukh” (“The Commoner”), a short story by Shaktipada Rajguru, The Cloud-Capped Star is the second film of what Ira Bhaskar calls, in his essay for the Criterion Collection, Ghatak’s “Partition Quartet,” which also includes Nagarik (1952), E-Flat (1961), and Subarnarekha (1965). These films, Bhaskar writes, directly address the “lifeworlds of Bengali refugees” and the “defining experience of Ghatak’s life.” This crucial context fundamentally afflicts Neeta and her kin as they suffer, per Bhaskar, the “irreparable despair and psychological unhinging that the 1947 Partition of the Indian subcontinent into the nations of India and Pakistan brought about in the people who experienced it, with its violence, deaths, and dislocations along with the official silence around these consequences.” Because of this sociopolitical turmoil, many individuals, and certainly those witnessed in The Cloud-Capped Star, are left with a distinct “lack of orientation,” as filmmaker Kumar Shahani likewise observes in a 30-minute conversation with screenwriter Saeed Akhtar Mirza. Those two discuss, in the Criterion disc’s supplement of note, how these characters are at a spiritual, social impasse, literally and figuratively – they simply don’t know where to go.
And yet, even in this “hell-hole of poverty,” as sister Geeta describes the region, there is no lack of purpose, be it Neeta and Sanat’s academic interests (The Cloud-Capped Star places a pronounced emphasis on the value of education) or the musical aims of Shankar, however frivolous they may seem in the milieu of surrounding desolation. This last note in particular is of central importance to Ghatak’s film. Providing a cultural commentary as much as an emotional outlet, Mirza refers to the elevating power of music in the picture, a profound solace found in song, which Ghatak conveys via Shankar’s obsession and Neeta’s supportive understanding; for all that she may be frustrated by her brother’s blind ambition, she appreciates and encourages his passion. A penetrating emotive potency also comes through in the film’s integration of ancillary music, especially Jyotirindra Moitra’s score, comprised of classical Indian compositions, usually with lyrical relevancy, and harmoniously corroborating The Cloud-Capped Star’s dense aural tapestry.
An alcoholic and Marxist sympathizer, Ghatak made only eight feature films, abandoning several others well prior to completion. His relatively minimal output has been attributed to both his self-destructive temperament and the volatile times during which he worked. Nevertheless, what was accomplished, most famously in The Cloud-Capped Star, is an enchanting, sensitive series of meditations on the precarious nature of existence. Strongly influenced by Sergei Eisenstein, as Bhaskar states, Ghatak engages a similarly heightened use of expressive lighting and composition, generating ethereal passages of scenic and graphic contrast to accomplish the film’s sublime contention between constancy and transience. The dichotomy is first evinced in its opening imagery, of sparkling reflections in water, like a capricious galaxy, unstable and static at the same time. Natural tranquility is further broken or upended by portents of a peripheral world, like a passing train, that ultimate image of modernity, cutting through the otherwise archaic rural settlement. “Living is an art,” Neeta’s father contends when he takes his children on an edifying rice field excursion, hoping to underscore the significance of simplicity, but as the characters are framed within or against their various settings of makeshift architecture, Ghatak also stresses the impermanence of their survival.
The Cloud-Capped Star’s mid-section is distinguished by regular musical interludes and passages of intimate dialogue, illuminating these lives perpetually on hold, weighed down by the unspoken restraints of time-worn custom, gender expectations, and stifled, progressively exposed emotions. Achieving what Shahani describes as “melodrama moving toward the epic,” The Cloud-Capped Star vaunts a poignancy and universality that is at once stylized and modest, tapping into the fickle, unjust realities of prosperity that cannot be ignored. “I accuse!” Neeta’s father calls out, briefly forgetting himself and acknowledging the assorted inequities around him, but he quickly retracts the indictment and withers into the background. What will change this socioeconomic scenario? Indeed, will it ever change? Can it? The film ends as another young woman enters the picture, much in the same fashion as Neeta, and she, like Neeta, experiences something as seemingly innocuous as a broken sandal. But that can be just the beginning, as we’ve seen, a symbolic primer for larger adversities to come in this cyclical process of unending misfortune, a process far too many simply call life.
Jeremy Carr teaches film studies at Arizona State University and writes for the publications Film International, Cineaste, Senses of Cinema, MUBI/Notebook, Cinema Retro, Vague Visages, The Retro Set, The Moving Image, Diabolique Magazine and Fandor. His monograph on Roman Polanski’s Repulsion (1965) is forthcoming with Auteur Publishing, and he is a contributor to the forthcoming collections David Fincher’s Zodiac: Cinema of Investigation and (Mis)Interpretation, from Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, and ReFocus: The Films of Elaine May, from Edinburgh University Press.