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Ajantrik & the 'close-up' katha: Ritwik Ravivar-2 by Amrit Gangar

Image: A screenshot from Ritwik Ghatak’s b&w film ’Ajantrik’ (Pathetic Fallacy aka The Unmechanical, 1957), for Ritwik Ghatak ‘human civilization was death-less’.

Like Ritwik Ghatak himself witnessed the dismemberment of Bengal, Bimal (Kali Banerjee), the Jagaddal (the battered 1920 Chevrolet) owner-driver saw his ‘beloved’ life-sustainer being dismembered and carted away into a scrap-yard. The profound philosophy of the story (by Subodh Ghosh) had deeply stirred Ghatak’s mind. Prior to embarking upon ‘Ajantrik’(1957), Ghatak had spent about a month shooting in the Chhotanagpur region for a documentary on the life of the Oraon adivasis (aborigines). In ‘Ajantrik’, Ghatak has so poignantly integrated the Oraons’ primal ways of dancing. He had also witnessed the onslaughts of rampant capitalism and industrialization, disturbing and disintegrating their rhythmic organic life.

Towards the end, Jagaddal is doomed to disintegration into a mass of scrap loaded on to a scrap dealer’s cart. Emotionally ‘broken down’ Bimal could somehow himself pull out of the terrible whirl of sorrow when he sees a little boy trying to honk the dismembered horn capturing its life, as it were. Bimal’s strange emotional state of ulhās (glee) and yātanā (grief, agony) is captured in a poetic ‘close-up’ of his smiling face while tears fill up his eyes. This close-up, which i call the ‘liminal close-up’ is so unique in the history of Indian cinema, as it envelopes itself within the ‘epic’ narrative of sounds, images and the lensing philosopher’s vision.

About making of ‘Ajantrik’, Ghatak had thought for twelve long years. What struck him most was its philosophical implication. “Here was a story which sought to establish a new relationship in our literature – the very significant and inevitable relationship between man and machine.” (‘Some Thoughts on Ajantrik’, Ritwik Ghatak in ‘Rows and Rows of Fences’. Seagull, Calcutta, 2000)

In the same essay, Ghatak talks about the Oraons, “Without them the landscape would lose its charm and meaning. I cannot marshal my camera on any spot without integrating them into my composition.” Like his other films (e.g., ‘Subarnarekha’, ‘Bari Theke Paliye’ et al), Ghatak also used his favorite 18mm wide lens in ‘Ajantrik’ to shake us up with the deep emotional states.

Amrit Gangar is a Mumbai based film scholar, writer and curator.

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