Jisha Menon, “Ghatak’s cinema: a lens on the Bengal partition”

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Jisha Menon, “Ghatak’s cinema: a lens on the Bengal partition”

by Annelise Heinz on Tuesday, August 21, 2012 - 1:21pm

Komal GandharA woman gazes across the Padma river, deep in mournful thought with her companion. On the other side of the river is East Bengal, our protagonist’s childhood home, but now a foreign country. In this scene from Ritwik Ghatak’s 1961 avant-garde film “Komal Gandhar,” Ghatak represents the complicated realities of everyday life in a landscape transformed by the Bengali Partition. Ghatak uses female characters to highlight the disruption of individual identity and family. In a recent talk at Stanford's Clayman Institute for Gender Research, Stanford Assistant Professor of Drama Jisha Menon calls on such scenes to examine the painful cultural repercussions of the Bengali Partition.

"Tidy" boundaries mask breaks in identity and communities

Map of the Bengal region: West Bengal, Tripura and BangladeshIn 1947, the British Indian Province of Bengal was divided in two, purportedly split along religious lines. As part of ending British rule, Bengal was divided to allot the predominantly Hindu western portion to India, and a majority Muslim eastern portion to Pakistan (which later became Bangladesh in 1971). While the lines demarcating East and West Bengal appear tidy, the realities of Bengali identity are complex. The Partition, as it came to be known, destabilized individuals’ lives and community identities. As national borders created new divisions, Muslims in West Bengal, and Hindus in East Bengal, found themselves suddenly in the wrong territory and flooded across the borders. Fifteen million displaced people became a refugee crisis of epic proportions. Refugees encountered violence, and women faced sexual assault.

Portraying nuanced breaks in gender roles

The Bengali director portrayed the gendered politics of Partition subtly and in psychological terms. Rather than using the dramatic form of the raped refugee woman, Ghatak showed post-Partition women entering the public sphere as breadwinners and family guardians. Ghatak’s 1960 film “Meghe Dhaka Tara,” ends with the main female character, Neeta, screaming “I want to live,” as she falls victim to tuberculosis. Although Neeta is able to find economic opportunity in the disruption of post-Partition society, she labors her body to death to allow her now-impoverished family to continue to pursue literature and the arts. Her family alternates between unknowing and intentional exploitation of her labor. Neeta’s brother depends on her to successfully pursue his dream of becoming a musician. According to Menon, Ghatak’s films offer “a nuanced portrayal of the promise and peril of entering into the public sphere as a gendered laborer.”

 While the lines demarcating East and West Bengal appear tidy, the realities of Bengali identity are complex. The Partition, as it came to be known, destabilized individuals’ lives and community identities.

Menon emphasized the idea of “discoherence.” According to Menon, Ghatak challenges the narrative of post-Partition unity by “undermining the idea of two coherent, autonomous nation-states of India and Pakistan.” In dialogue with nationalist portrayals of the nation as a patriarchal family, Neeta’s family in “Meghe Dhaka Tara,” illustrates the fractured relationships, upended gender roles, and conflicting loyalties that belie the stable national family unit. Everything certain has crumbled, from family relationships to national identity.

To further examine the “discoherence” of Partition, Menon focused on Ghatak’s theme of non-identical twins, which she calls “mimetic doubles,” a term she uses to emphasize the fracturing of a unified identity. The self is split in two — embodied by actors in the films  — and represents a unified Bengal. “Mimetic doubles” are distinctly non-identical, and are not necessarily harmonious halves. In fact, they can hurt each other as much as seek wholeness through each other, just as Neeta’s beloved brother both needs and protests his sister’s overwork. In each of the three films Menon identifies as Ghatak’s “Partition films,” the main characters are siblings or, as in “Komal Gandhar,” closely bonded fellow orphans who gazed across the river together.  With the recurring theme of orphaned non-identical twins (male and female) as the two Bengals, Menon explained that Ghatak portrayed “kinship as fraught with betrayal and desertion” as well as love and longing through the experience of twins of Partition.

A rupture in filmmaking

Ghatak inspired a whole generation of avant-garde filmmakers with his experimental approaches, including darkly lit scenes, unconventional camera angles, and disruptive sound effects. In one scene, the camera angles up from Neeta’s feet as she sings a slow folk duet. Her face is mostly shadowed, and as the notes fade a jarring whiplash cracks through the air as the character begins to weep. Menon explained that Ghatak used such “sonic diversions” to rupture the dominance of social-realist films in his era. The sound is disruptive and disturbing, its harsh sound “grates against any easy closure.”

In his own words, Ghatak described “a fragmented independence” marred by “the blood of warring brothers.” His films depict “a crumbling Bengal divested of all its glory.” His enduring legacy has extended past his own short lifetime, which ended prematurely by tuberculosis and the effects of alcoholism. For Menon, the emotional resonance of Ghatak’s films rests in his efforts to “come to terms with an event that just won’t close.”


 Jisha Menon headshotJisha Menon, Assistant Professor in the Department of Drama at Stanford and Clayman Institute Faculty Research Fellow, focuses her work on postcolonial theory and performance studies. She received her M.A. in English Literature from Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi and her Ph.D. in Drama from Stanford University. Menon’s current book project, Performance of Nationalism: India, Pakistan and the Memory of Partition, examines gendered violence in the creation of India and Pakistan.



Annelise Heinz HeadshotAnnelise Heinz  is a Ph.D. Candidate in the Department of History at Stanford and a member of the Clayman Institute's Student Writing Team.