My interests, personal as well as professional, are in politics and society; in cultural terms I am more-or-less a philistine. I know a little about literature, a little less about music, and nothing at all about the greatest of modern art forms, the cinema. This column about a film director is being written by a man who has never seen any of his films. My excuse is that I am writing not about Ritwik Ghatak the film-maker but about Ritwik Ghatak the man, and about his relations with his Government in particular. What I report here is based on what I found in recently declassified archives dealing with the Prime Ministership of Indira Gandhi. I was studying the years 1970 and 1971—looking for correspondence on the Bangladesh crisis, I instead came across some papers on the mighty Government of India’s dealings with a maverick film-maker from Bengal.
On Republic Day, 1970, it was announced that the President of India had conferred the Padma Shri on Ritwik Ghatak. A few days later, a group of Opposition M. P.’s tabled a starred question in the Lok Sabha demanding that the Minister of Home Affairs answer the following:
‘(a) Whether it is a fact that Shri Ritwik Ghatak, who slandered Mahatmaji as an “offspring of a pig from beginning to end” and abused other national leaders, has been given the award of “Padma Shri” on the Republic Day, 1970;
(b) If so, the reasons for giving this award in the Gandhi Centenary Year;
(c) Who recommended his name?
(d) Whether this honour conferred on Shri Ghatak will be taken back:
(e) If not, the reasons therefore?’
The MP’s challenge was taken up by two of India’s most clear-headed civil servants. These were the Home Secretary, L. P. Singh, and the Secretary to the Prime Minister, P. N. Haksar. They found that in March 1969, Ritwik Ghatak had indeed made some very critical remarks about Gandhi. These were published in a journal brought out by a group of (possibly Naxalite) students at Jadavpur University.
However, on 16th February 1970—two weeks after he got the Padma Shri—Ghatak issued a long statement clarifying the context of those remarks. In 1969, he said, he had been ‘mentally ill’ and ‘not always in my senses’. He had been hospitalized for several months; and it was soon after he came out that he ‘talked irreverently’ with the students. But it was a private conversation, not to be reported. And it had taken place when he was sick in the head. But with its publication by the students, the remarks had ‘assumed proportions not in keeping with the size of the incident’.
Ghatak added that in any case one should look to his art for clues about ‘my feelings about any institution or individual’. He drew attention to the references to Mahatma Gandhi in his film ‘Subarnarekha’. These, he noted, were ‘most respectful’. In the film, ‘through the incident of [the] murder of Gandhi, I have tried to show the utter decay that the nation is facing. With the death of that one man, one epoch in India has ended. That tragedy, symbolically, conveyed the peril that we are facing as a nation’.
Meanwhile, the social worker Arun Chandra Ghosh wrote an essay in the Bengali weekly Mukti reporting a talk he had with Ghatak. Here the film-maker reiterated that he had said what he did ‘under the stress of a very special condition’. Again, he directed attention to ‘Subarnarekha’, which showed ‘that as the flame on his [Gandhi’s] pyre died down, there began the devastating blight over society’. The film also invoked the Mahatma’s last words, thus ‘to show the way to the society shrouded in darkness [that] there remained before us his message of love to mankind, “Hai Ram”’. From these references, said Ghatak, ‘you will understand what my attitude is towards Gandhiji. In my healthy state of mind, this is what Gandhiji is to me. Whatever has been raised as my words, all that I can never have said in a normal state of mind’.
These materials were sent up to L. P. Singh and P. N. Haksar. With them came a petition signed by leading Hindi writers urging the President not to revoke Ghatak’s Padma Shri, since ‘an artist had to be judged by his work and not by his political utterances’. Singh and Haksar then drafted an answer to the MP’s queries. Speaking in Parliament on 6th March 1970, the Home Minister stated that:
‘An award of Padma Shri was given to Shri Ritwik Ghatak in recognition of his outstanding talent as a film director of extraordinary originality and sensitivity. Government have carefully considered the question of cancelling the award. After taking into account all the facts and circumstances, Government have come to the conclusion that there would be no justification in taking an unprecedented step of cancelling that award. In a signed statement, Shri Ghatak has explained that he uttered those atrocious and offensive words in a state of mental illness. After carefully weighing that statement and its genuineness, Government have come to the conclusion that the father of the nation, Mahatma Gandhi, would have himself forgiven Shri Ghatak his tresspasses and recognised his creative talent embodied in his work of art’.
This was a finely judged statement, which brought credit to the Government of India. However, some months later there was a sequel which reflected less well on the Government. A short (twenty-minute) film directed by Ghatak was held up by the Censor Board. Called ‘Amar Lenin’, the film depicted ‘with sincerity the story of a village youth who, in this centenary year of V. I. Lenin, feels inspired by his ideals’. Landless peasants, moved by the memory of the Bolshevik leader, were shown to have taken possession of a zamindar’s land and successfully raised crops on it.
In his petition to the Censor Board, ‘Amar Lenin’’s producer argued that in the film the peasants ‘were peaceful all along and they had no clash with any party’. However, the censors refused to clear the film unless some scenes were cut. In particular, they forbade the display of a portrait of Lenin by protesting peasants, as well as the invocation of his name in the seizure of the land.
The Censor Board’s action raised a storm of protest among the film community in Bengal. A statement signed by its leading lights called the Board’s attitude ‘appalling’. It argued that ‘the film being on the greatest of all political figures of the 20th century, there is politics in it, but it is good to see that such politics has been told in the film in quite simple terms and in a manner that brings hope and suggests a line of action to our suffering millions, particularly the peasantry’.
Two things about this statement were characteristic. First, it is only in Bengal that, in the year of the Gandhi Centenary, could Lenin be upheld as ‘the greatest of all political figures of the 20th century’. Second, although many distinguished film-makers signed the statement (among them Mrinal Sen and Chidananda Dasgupta), the most celebrated of them all did not. Satyajit Ray did however send a personal letter to the producer, saying he was surprised by the censor’s remarks since there was ‘nothing objectionable in either the subject matter [of the film] or the treatment of it’.
Adding to the film-makers’ collective statement and Ray’s personal endorsement were letters of support signed by writers, actors, and film societies. This material was then gathered together and printed as a booklet. Interestingly, in the light of the earlier controversy involving the director, he was referred to here as ‘Padmashri Ritwik Ghatak’. The hope must have been that the government would thus be embarrassed into approving a film made by a man it had so recently honoured.
Unfortunately, the file where I saw these materials does not reveal how the matter was finally resolved. Were the cuts demanded by the Censor Board made, or was ‘Amar Lenin’ cleared regardless? Perhaps a reader with a long memory will enlighten me.
GHATAK AND THE GOVERNMENT