One must keep in mind, however, that this is an incomplete film, with reels containing shots and sequences that were collated much after the director’s demise, in accordance with the censor script1 and the wishes of his progeny.
In cinematic language, often opening sequences set the mood, the temper and the look of a film. In Ramkinker Baij the so-called establishing shot (which comes, curiously, not at the beginning but at about 10:52 minutes into the film), shows Baij emerging from his hutment. The preceding intertitle commentary reads: “He comes out of his cottage with paint brush in his hand, looks at the sky and starts painting the landscape around him on a canvas. He is sitting on the verandah with a bottle of drink by his side...” Not all of the intertitle texts, which appear to have been drawn from the director’s working notes establishing the sequence of the scenes, match the visuals that follow. This text and image mismatch destabilises the classical documentary expectation of correspondence between the “said” and the “shown,” sometimes leaving things to the imagination of the viewer. In effect, the interjections also make the film feel like a walk-through of the process of its own making.
In the context of Ghatak’s known, completed works, Ramkinker Baij … takes the viewer by surprise, primarily because this gusty, expressive film hides behind a rather passive, non-dramatic title. The documentary genre also seems inconsistent with the rest of Ghatak’s filmography, with the exception of the contemporaneous, confessional “Jukti, Takko aar Gappo” (Logic, Debates and a Story, 1974).
In the same vein, Ghatak’s subject, as K.G. Subramanyan writes in a 1978 essay, is “a nightmare for art historians.” The resonances between the artist and the filmmaker are easy to discern in their shared ability to negotiate categories of expression, forms and genres and in their personalities — both mercurial, seemingly eccentric mendicant-like, with disorganised personal lives, astounding talent and enormous output.
In their encounters in the documentary, some motifs in Baij seem to attract the filmmaker, probably because of the latter’s attachment to universal archetypes one can identify in his major feature films. In this body of work Ghatak built up epic structures nourished by ambiguities, resolving their confrontations with material reality through tragedy. When it comes to Baij, ironically, we find him provoking the artist to assign definite meanings to sculptures that are perhaps equally ambiguous.
For instance, standing before Baij’s large, iconic sculpture of Gandhi, he accosts the artist about an ancillary and supportive, though certainly significant, fragment—the human skull upon which the apostle of non-violence rests his foot as he strides forward. Baij responds, “For ages now these people are lying under the feet. Today the same skull is shown below the old man’s feet.”2 According to the English subtitle in the film, which presumably follows the script: “It is since ages that such people are trodden below the feet. In present times, it is the same old skull which is shown below the old man’s feet.”
Skeletal motifs are recurrent in Baij’s work. They are found in his series of paintings on the life of farmers dating from the 1950s, and also dominate several scenes of cyclone-torn Bengal painted in the 1960s. They are, in a sense, a symbol of destiny, the end-point of human tragedy. But how or why a skull would come to rest under the foot of Gandhi is a serious question not really answered by Baij.
To Ghatak, on the other hand, the sculptures appear like concrete symbolic entities—motifs with graspable meaning that he tries to unpack. When they refuse to yield, his patience runs out. On his insistence that the artist explain the meaning of the hybrid buffalo-fish form of the fountain sculpture, Baij speaks of artistic licence: “Amader chole” (It works for us), he replies. Ghatak calls him a crazy man (7:27 – 8:37).
Proving to be indeed, a puzzle for art-historians, filmmakers and viewers in general, Baij is sometimes found to vary his elaboration on a particular artwork according to circumstance. In the case of the fantastical buffalo-headed mermaids, he has provided two different explanations. Prakash Das’s first book on Baij recorded his later version—that the artist’s original sculpture had mermaids bathing in the fountain, but since there were objections to nude figures being placed in front of its chosen site, a ladies’ hostel, he changed the mermaids’ heads to buffalo-heads, observing that the authorities would understand this form only, since it matched their intellect. In the film, the filmmaker and the artist are sitting around the fountain smoking cigarettes when Ghatak asks about the sculpture. Against the backdrop of the Fellini-like night scene, perhaps the perfect atmosphere for a similarly sarcastic utterance, Baij, restrained, describes his inspiration as buffaloes bathing in a pond and their fascinating swishing tails that led him to imagine them as mermaids. Thus, in the film he refrains from any controversial remark about censorship. These multiple pronouncements might make him difficult to categorize or interpret, but they add an enormous range of possibilities to how his work is read.
In summary, Ritwick Ghatak, underrated master of Indian postcolonial cinema, with his confrontational insistence and in his informal, dialogic way, has, uniquely, managed to register a period of history as personal engagement.