A River Called Titas - a film of hidden depths

Lynda Parker reviews Ritwik Ghatak’s 1973 masterpiece, now released on DVD by the BFI

Ritwik Ghatak’s film – in Bengali with English subtitles - is a beautiful visual poem in black and white which conjures up the life of fishing villages from Ritwik's youth in East Bengal/British India, and shares with us its traditional music and culture. Ghatak shows us men on small, majestic, sailing boats, hauling in nets on bamboo frames, catching enough fish to trade, before retiring; women spinning hemp twine netting, cooking, raising kids and growing crops; and youth negotiating adolescence and independence, becoming rivals and falling in love. One of the most dramatic scenes is the annual boat race, which visually, could have come alive out of Ancient Greece or Scandinavia: long, narrow boats with dozens of paddlers battling it out to make their flexible wooden craft leap a winning few lengths, by jumping on the narrow square end.

ragments as the radical spirit of anti-colonialism reaches its climax. Lacking any new universal of radical humanity, we see it splitting into different faith nations, divided along class lines, as the collective labour of the village is transformed into working-class, landless, labour-power and the new homeless are left begging in the city. Ghatak, a Marxist, was well loved by his audience. But he died an alcoholic in 1976 and was already ill when he made the film in 1973. Judging by web reviews, some Westerners think it disjointed. Yet by just scratching the surface history of independence, the film takes up real events such as the 1943 Bengal famine and the violence of partition.

In the Independence struggle, village meetings are called out with drummers going house to house shouting out what needs deciding. As a democratic form of self-rule this traditional method was revived by the Congress Party and Gandhi on 26th January 1930 when villages across India made Independence pledges and sought to bridge caste and religious divides. This real and unofficial Independence Day was ignored by the British and power was transferred instead on the 15th August 1947, the anniversary of Japanese surrender. Landless peasants didn't get the vote in this brave new world, which sealed the wall between workers and rulers.

A central plot in the film is the arranged marriage between Rajar Jhi, a young woman given away to strengthen ties after a period of conflict, and Kishore, a man from a poorer fishing community. This arrangement between strangers alludes to the top down handover of power from the old ruling class to the new, who previously had fought each other for a generation. Like the bride, Pakistan and India were 'given' away in partition to strengthen these ties in the face of potential revolution. Just as the bride's ornate gowns hide the reality of a wife's slavery, Gandhi's iconic image, hand-spinning as a peasant, reflects rightwards into feudalism as a fetish; and with this comes unthinking faith, narrow nationalism and Cambridge-educated legal defence of what Marx called “primitive accumulation of capital”.

The grabbing of land and resources by the powerful landowners, capitalist and street gangsters negated the possibility of building on the ancient common ownership of resources at village level, which were still alive in memory and consciousness.

Immediately after the couple's sexual congress, Rajar is stolen by river pirates as they journey to her new home in Kishore's fishing community. Thousands of women, especially the young, were abducted during the terror-driven mass migrations as India and Pakistan separated. Gang raped, traded, imprisoned, sold and publically humiliated, many were murdered afterwards or encouraged to commit suicide by throwing themselves into rivers for bringing "dishonour" on their community by male relatives.

It is only since the 1980s that women have felt safe enough to speak out on these events, with oral historians and anthropologists taking their accounts to a wider audience in the wake of the 1970s woman's liberation movement (see for example Borders and Boundaries, Women in India's Partition by Ritu Menon and Kamla Bhasin). Women were silenced, having to survive in a patriarchal society, often knowing neighbours who had abused girls and murdered women of a different faith or tribe (as in Ruanda more recently).

In the film, Rajar's husband Kishore, hardly knowing her, mistakes a dead woman found in the river for his lost wife and loses his mind. Kishore's insanity in reaction to partition violence seems to reflect many patriarchal historical attitudes in which the ethnic cleansing of 'the other' is seen as a moment of madness, an aberration, linked to backwardness and religion and unlikely to occur in modern times (on this see, Memory, History and the Question of Violence, Reflections on the Reconstruction of Partition by Gyanendra Pandey).

Years later, Rajar arrives at Kishore's village with a young son but is unrecognized and rejected as an outsider at a village council. Then a rich widow agrees to employ Rajar as a hand spinner in her local business. Forced to provide for her son, she has no choice but to take the job. The childless widow, Basanti, who befriends and protects Rajar, is fiercely independent in speaking her mind. She loves Rajar's little boy, but poverty and lack of food puts added strain on Besanti's protection, especially after her anger boils over and she almost attacks her own kin. Gradually the whole village disintegrates from indebtedness to local money lenders, attacks by other tribes, looting and burning, as well as internal tensions and divisions. Finally the river itself dries up as the waters are diverted upstream to grow cotton and rice for city manufacturers; leaving a desert, famine and destitution where once was a vibrant community.

Ritwik's life was indelibly marked by the 1943 Bengal famine. His family moved to Kolkata just before it was inundated with millions of refugees desperately searching for relief and food (millions more, mainly women and the elderly, were left dying at home). The city burst at the seams under this tsunami of starving people. Sick women at death's door wandered the streets, whole villages camped out on pavements, dead skeletal bodies lay all over the city; babies suckled the empty breasts of women too weak to move; women were forced to sell themselves for a bowl of rice; people queued and begged for rice water, got sick from eating grass and out of dustbins; and on top of it all, cholera and typhus spread unchecked in famished bodies too weak to resist any disease. The pessimism of his film lies in this context of a starved rebellion.

Bengal was stuck between the British-Indian Army and the Japanese Army in Burma where so much rice was grown and exported to her neighbour. Thousands refused to be victims and fought against colonialism, with strikes in power, communication and rail industries. Most communists were jailed and prevented from any form of organising under British military rule. Some nationalists, viewing their enemy's enemy as a friend, flirted with Japanese-German fascism to get supplies or survive. From the 1930s onwards, as the Congress Party went national, Churchill warned of inter-ethnic butchery should the British be forced to withdraw. A dual ruling class emerged of old colonialists and narrow nationalists separated from the revolutionary nationalists, both religious and secular. As goondas terrorised, raped and pillaged in a land grab the old rulers did nothing to stop it, as if to say, see, we told you so. An Indian newspaper called it the last kick from Imperialism against all communities but it was the poorest and most vunerable who suffered most. Boundaries were drawn in five weeks by an English lawyer knowing nothing of the country on the instructions of Nehru, Patel and Jinnah’s instructions. There was a total dereliction of protection towards minorities and a total lack of organization, yet there were many meetings for dividing property.

In the final scenes of the film, all the men have left the village and the women, including the richer widow, are destitute and starving. They discuss going to the city to beg on the streets. Rajar is left behind in the river bed, now a desert, to die of thirst and hunger, hallucinating visions of her son running free and happy.

The ruling classes, fearing revolution, let millions of peasants, potential revolutionary nationalists and workers, starve in India. Some newly-arrived Tommies in Bengal, shocked by the famine, tried to share their rations but were punished for their humanity; and soon Kolkata's streets were cleared of the destitute to hide the truth of the “new” society.

The film is part of a rich literary tradition using allusion and fiction to portray traumas so deep that many couldn't put it into words until more recent times. Despite a terrible history of trauma and tragedy, Bengal's rich tradition, culture, language and music shines through the film just as women's stories are finding their voice. The people were not just victims but brave freedom fighters for a new way of being, free from colonialism and all forms of exploitation, from the man-woman relation to class explotation. Ritwik's film is as multi-layered as his birth country's history, showing a determined fight for life and freedom against unbelievable odds.

March 30 2010