#687 A River Called Titas
1973 // Bangladesh // Ritwik Ghatak
Criterion Collection (LINK)
Ritwik Ghatak’s penultimate 1973 film A River Called Titas taking place in East Bengal indeed echoes a lot from Soviet masters, like Alexander Dovzhenko, in its use of montage as well as profound and elegiac landscape shots. It alludes to Jean Renoir’s The River (1951) by telling an interweaving story of a river with human relationships and mishap, Indian tradition and culture. The river offer its blessing as a nurturing maternity figure, thus reinforcing the importance of the role of motherhood in the entire film. Based on Advaita Malla Barman’s autobiographical novel of the same name, the film spans across several years and follows multiple characters interconnected to the afflicted widow Basanti (Rosy Samad) of the fishing village of Gokannaghat, located at the bank of the Titas River.
The film starts with the young Basanti and her two best friend Kishore and Subol completing for her affection by building leave boat. Time elapsed subtly in the film, soon the grown up Kishore (Prabir Mitra) marries Rajar Jhi (Kabari Choudhury), a girl living on a distant village he rescued incidentally during one of the fishing expedition. The Indian wedding is one of the several traditional rituals presented in the film, when Kishore meets his bride in the dark bedroom, intense close-ups and heavy breathing sounds create the sensuality of what’s coming, and the sudden rapid camera spinning as follow is nonetheless suggestive of the sexual intimacy. But at the same night after their wedding, Rajar Jhi is abducted by the bandits on the boat en route to Kishore’s village before the newlyweds get the time to remember each other face. Rajar Jhi escapes from the bandits by jumping into the river, and is later rescued at the far offshore but presumably missing, this overwhelming tragedy has driven Kishore into madness.
A montage of the river with the sailing boat against the backdrop of gigantic sky indicates another time jump, now Basanti is a widow after her husband Subol got killed in a boat accident. Kishore is still a mad man. Rajar Jhi has been living in another village with their son Ananta (Shafiq Islam) for all this time, and finally they move to the Gokannaghat village. Rajar Jhi befriends with Basanti and gets shelter and food from her, but tragedy occurs once when Rajar Jhi reunits with Kishore at the bank of Titas. Here, the river becomes the opposite of nurturing role, it’s literally a place where tragedies breed, it’s the place where Kishore and Basanti lost their significant others, and the place where hopeful reunification fails to occur. This could be an allegory to the partition of Bengal between India and Pakistan in 1947, even though Bangladesh achieved its independence from Pakistan in 1971, two years before the film was released.
The historical trauma is transformed into fatalism diffused across the life of Basanti. She couldn’t marry her true love Kishore, and later lost her husband; she becomes an adoptive aunt to Ananta but eventually abandons him due to the constant annoyance from her family. Her lamented losses are coincided with the unavoidable changes of the river, her reputation is damaged by obsolete values and rumors, and her village is eventually destroyed by human greediness and selfishness. Ritwik Ghatak interweaves melodrama with the inescapable lost and dissolution, yet the film becomes over-ambitious at times and as a result suffers from the disoriented dramatic momentum occasionally in its 150-minute running time. The story becomes sparse and tedious at the second half once Kishore and Rajar Jhi are gone from the picture. Ritwik Ghatak had made memorable and affecting pictures beforehand, The Cloud-Capped Star (1960) and Subarnarekha (1965) are two of my favorites, and in my opinion a better introductory point for newcomers to Indian cinema or Ritwik Ghatak than the overtly complex drama in A River Called Titas.