This month all films in The Criterion Collection are on sale at Barnes and Noble for 50% off. If you’re looking for something to pick up (and even if you’re not), I highly recommend Ritwik Ghatak’s beautiful, powerful 1960 film The Cloud-Capped Star. It is a special release of a film that has, heretofore, been very difficult to see.
The Cloud-Capped Star is one of several films Ghatak made that explore and bring to the surface the dislocation and suffering of Bengali refugees trying to resettle in the aftermath of colonial India’s partition into India and Pakistan, which occurred at midnight on August 14-15, 1947. Such is the family at the center of The Cloud-Capped Star, made up of a father, a mother, and three children who are entering adulthood in the late 1950s.
When the film opens, we see a lush row of gorgeous, vibrant trees. Under them we meet the family’s oldest daughter, Neeta, played by Supriya Choudhury. This beautiful image of those magnificent trees introduces the strength and beneficence of Neeta, constantly reaching out and offering.
Indeed, Neeta is an amazing person. She is working while going to school in order to support her entire family. Her older brother Shankar (Anil Chatterjee) should help lighten her load, but he is blinded by his own dream of becoming a famous singer. Because his dream brings in no support in the way of food and shelter, he himself is another burden on Neeta. And this is not just incidental. The whole family looks to Neeta for support. It is her job and they expect her to continue, regardless of the sacrifices she makes when it comes to her own temporal needs as well as to her own future.
The situation is dire, but there are moments of hope, as there should be in a good melodrama . . . even if such moments are presented with an image that suggests Neeta is in a cage.
First and foremost, Neeta is looking for companionship outside of her immediate family. Sanat (Niranjan Ray) is a hard-working man who looks like he’ll be able to raise his foundation, and he and Neeta have more than just romance: they are both practical. At least that’s what Neeta thinks.
I don’t need to go further into the actual story for you to see where this is going. Neeta is strong but can still be torn apart by so many demanding forces. Ghatak’s stylistic choices emphasize this beautifully. The most stable shot is the one of the trees, with many others not just moving the camera but also positioning the actors in a way that it looks like they might spin out of control. Here, for example, is Shankar grabbing Neeta’s letter and reading it out loud.
And, perhaps most notably unique (and commonly remarked upon in critical appraisals of this film), Ghatak’s sound design makes it feel as if this is not just an inter-familial drama. It’s almost as if the basic elements of the world are at play. In a particularly sad scene we watch smoke rising off roasting spices and hear them popping as a mother and daughter concoct a rather terrible plot without words. It brings to mind the plots and conspiracies found in the source for the film’s title, Shakespeare’s The Tempest: The Cloud-Capped Star is not an exact line from the play, but it comes from this speech in Act IV, scene 1, when Prospero recalls the existential plots against him:
Our revels now are ended. These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits and
Are melted into air, into thin air:
And, like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capp’d towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which inherit, shall dissolve
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.
The solid trees we see when the film begins seem, then, to be part of a larger illusion. What is real is the sensation of being blown about from one impermanent state to the next. In the case of The Cloud-Capped Star Neeta is blown back and forth between hope and despair, and it’s such a painful drift.