A circumcontentive collaboration of film-essay and poetry

Unmechanical is an ongoing collaboration that began in 2011. The project began with our accidentally simultaneous but disconnectedly individual revisitations of Ritwik Ghatak’s seminal film (Ajantrik/Unmechanical) with the same name. As the collaboration began, of film analysis and poetry, we were both excited and challenged by the virtual non-presence of such texts as our trammeled research crossed epistemes, languages, and countries. With a much studied film at hand, Madhuja’s focus has been on identifying new angles to the narrative, handling of the landscape metaphor, establishing unknown points of view that flush with the eccentricity themes at play, questioning the teller’s persona etc. Aryanil, following the analyses, attempts to extend some of these ideas on tangential planes — applying them to relatedly multiepistemological contexts that include automotive technology, the aesthetics of intersections, art and film theory, poetics and personal philosophy in an internal combustion of sorts, sometimes applying Oppenian writing strategies to subtexts by Carl Jung — someone who had profoundly influenced the artistic mold of Ritwik Ghatak.

Ajantrik: A film synopsis

The plot, based on a well known short story by Subodh Ghosh, revolves around a slightly eccentric drifter Bimal and his pre–World War Chevy jalopy Jagaddal. Bimal, a private taxi driver in a hill town in eastern India, is often teased by his passengers and fellow drivers about his beat-up car. He, however, treats his car like a human, a friend, and offers thick skin to such scum, and at times, is infuriated by the harsh comments. On one occasion he drives a newly married couple to a bungalow. The youthful bride attracts his attention. Soon Bimal learns that she has eloped with her man and is carrying pricy jewelry. Taking pity on the deserted “bride,” robbed of her jewelry as her man deceives her, Bimal drives her to the nearest railway station and buys her a ticket. Romantic hope begins to soar but the woman leaves quietly. An utterly dejected Bimal kicks Jagaddal. In no time the old wheeler begins to create trouble but Bimal pulls a handsome amount of money and decides to repair it against the advice of the mechanic. Roaringly the machine comes back to life but fails to meet the steep physical challenge lying ahead in the hilly roads. The engine stalls, once for all. A despirited Bimal decides to sell it off as scrap iron.





Endlessly, endlessly,
The definition of mortality
The image of the engine
That stops.
We cannot live on that

— George Oppen 

a time comes when the speaker’s face is on focus
the listener  melting
a bit in the noise-chain of the machinery around
moon rising
as unconsciousness becomes sundown
a bamboo shrill flutes
attached feathers shake with the hips
a constellation of heads lifting from the puranas
a collective to reckon
at that moment the lens tilts
a fresh blue hot steel chip
on the machine shopfloor  —
umbilical snap
a loitering sycamore cone as proof of life
piston insane with a rage of energy
firing up somewhere in the margins
some bush behind the bonfire
a staged byplay to which we didn’t add ingredients
yet this jambalaya bowl
to which we’re made to belong     by coercion
⌂   ∞   ≈   ⌂   ∞   ≈   ⌂   ∞   ≈   ⌂   ∞   ≈
a time has passed    but the quiet examination of that    which came to surface in me      the surface of the deck    where evaporation had abandoned for us now    a residue of life    basic crystalline   colorless purity    gathered from the underneath of thick foliage      fresh subjects meant for the village whole     an array of waves    where the oddest fish of lesser fins    could still bear the archetype
⌂   ∞   ≈   ⌂   ∞   ≈   ⌂   ∞   ≈   ⌂   ∞   ≈

Abstractions and narrations

In his essay on sound (republished in Chalachitra Manush Ebong Aro Kichu [Films, People and More] in 2007, Calcutta: Dey’s Publishing) Ritwik Ghatak draws our attention to the sound track of films, and highlighting its differences with ‘silent’ cinema.  He locates five elements of the sound track, which are incidental noise (ambient), effect sound, dialogue, music, and silence. While Ghatak writes about his films like Komal Gandhar (1961) and Subarnarekha (1962) on one hand he produces a very complex structure by using songs of different genres; on the other, he shows how by quoting Fellini he evoked the sense of decadence amongst the Indian bourgeoisie. Interestingly, while music in cinema is perceived as the potent weapon of the creator (‘brahma-astra’), silence for Ghatak is the most meaningful element of the sound track.
  ⌂   ∞   ≈   ⌂   ∞   ≈   ⌂   ∞   ≈   ⌂   ∞   ≈
i skip the meal for  a bottle                   as it empties                 
i leave it to roll
out of blue reach                     onto the streets                    
a silent roll
impatient  projector’s job                   that has to run                                      or roll-control
silence in one of the five little fry-bowls that came with the meal
i skipped for a bottle                   now rolling
the car driving straight into it                     the ambience of cackling wheels
that’s element two
there’s a closeness to noise                  pattern breaks
speech rushes                                     
meaning perturbs the acoustic effect
that’s item  three
there’s a bush near the mirage                                   
that’s number four
to where i go to resolve the haze
a face behind its shroud that helps
a dialogue begin
and when all my selves have squared to rest
a harmony commences in  fifth  symphony
⌂   ∞   ≈   ⌂   ∞   ≈   ⌂   ∞   ≈   ⌂   ∞   ≈
One may use this structure as the means of examining one of Ghatak’s early and most striking films, Ajantrik (1958). While the influence of IPTA [Indian Peoples Theatre Association] tradition on the art of narration of Ghatak is well known, it is also well accepted that, Ghatak has obsessively dealt with more or less a singular theme, or the memories and trauma of the post-partition generation (an otherwise neglected issue in popular cinema). This theme of partition culminates into his somewhat discursive last film Jukti Tokko Goppo (Reasons, Arguments & Tales, 1974), where he draws a trajectory from the partition to the youthful Naxalite movement and the waning of cultural movements.
Apparently, Ajantrik address a different theme despite the deployment of the melodramatic form, and the use of archetypes. It is the story of Bimal the obsessive taxi driver, his car that is ironically named Jaggadal, and the arid landscape of Bihar. Ghatak wrote (Movie Montage, 1967),

[y]ou may call my protagonist, Bimal, a lunatic, a child, or a tribal. At one level, they are all the same. They all react to lifeless things almost passionately. This is an ancient, archetypal reaction.

⌂   ∞   ≈   ⌂   ∞   ≈   ⌂   ∞   ≈   ⌂   ∞   ≈
an archetype is a kind of readiness a river
learns to acquire as it blooms
the skill to erode    to deposit    to acknowledge
objectively the petaloid being connected
at the origin of  collected  self
a series of mirrors of different kinds
so the face’s projected possibilities
stack like envelops impregnated parchments
of little suspense a plethora so to speak
detach the petals      bring them to a close inspection
the harmony needs to be better explained
⌂   ∞   ≈   ⌂   ∞   ≈   ⌂   ∞   ≈   ⌂   ∞   ≈
By using, Campbell (see ‘Manabsamaj, Amader Aitijhya — o — Amader Prochesta’ [Civil Society, Our Traditions and Efforts]) Ghatak builds the plot of Ajantrik by using archetypal motifs. He insists that there are “two types of minds,” the “tough-minded,” who are “inert and reactionary”; and as opposed to this the “tender-minded” who are the “progressive impulse.” While suggesting that these two face each other in human history, Ghatak elaborates on how this is worked out in the film. He writes, while Bimal is an archetype, Bulki the madman, is his “absurd extension”;  and the tribal Oraon, are his “sublime extreme.” According to Ghatak, Piyari Singh, who is Bimal’s opponent is “tough-minded” while Bimal remains “tender-minded.” My note comments on how these structures of oppositions are worked out through the sound track, and how the sound track possibly narrates themes of loneliness, separation, journey, and madness.
⌂   ∞   ≈   ⌂   ∞   ≈   ⌂   ∞   ≈   ⌂   ∞   ≈
I was once told about structures of opposition
in an early architecture class
about how civilizations of binary taste and value
of archetypal motifs of fine discord
have preferred to grow on both sides of rivers
and avenues
loathing the other with the progressive impulse
of  a lunatic
that a whole character can embody a part of another
that there can be an almost archetypal
ancient tough-minded reaction
to the orifice of a tender mind
from which oozes a sublime fluid of absurd density
forms our cosmic law of fragmentation
that can both dissect and reverse parts of us
onto ourselves
making our faces turn inert and reactionary
as they passionately retort to lifeless things
lifeless inanimate objects     lumps of iron lets say
a jalopy to be precise
that obscures its ability to hide along with
the grime and goo of memory
many faces and expressions of human history
that films with their  larger-than-life habit training
fondly tend to record these themes of
and madness
apt with the soundtrack of an afternoon’s amphitheatre
where we sit-and-draw
a day like ourselves
talkative and sonorous
unsoundly refulgent
⌂   ∞   ≈   ⌂   ∞   ≈   ⌂   ∞   ≈   ⌂   ∞   ≈

In the first instance, Bimal and his car move through a massive desolate landscape. The extreme long shots and the composition where Bimal and the car have decentred locations, situate the plot of the film. After a while, Bimal realises that Jaggadal is thirsty. Therefore, he goes to fetch some water. An extreme long shot taken from the other side of the river shows Bimal filling a can. However, the effect sound is way too louder than what the actual noise can possibly be. This is further heighten when Bimal pours water into Jaggadal’s radiator (mouth) and Ghatak uses the sound of a person gulping down water. The close-up of Bimal’s face shows that he is deeply content, and is intensely involved with this machine. Sometimes wayward cows and Bimal’s off-tune singing disturb the eerie silence of the barren lands. Jaggadal (his car) apparently does not ‘like’ the song and screeches. Bimal takes out his napkin and covers the head light, or the Jaggadal’s eyes (!) Then he shouts even louder, “Kaalo meyer …” [a song dedicated to Goddess Kali]. In terms of plot development, nothing particular happens in this sequence. Nevertheless, the extreme long shots of the landscape, some cows, and the deployment of sound-silence establish the theme of the film. To use Kumar Sahani’s words (Filmfare, 1976),

[a]fter demonstrating the romantic extension of a character’s sentiments into nature, Ritwik Ghatak immediately counterpoints it with his distinctive 180 [degree] panoramics on empty landscapes. Nature, in the end, is grandly indifferent to human joy or sorrow.

⌂   ∞   ≈   ⌂   ∞   ≈   ⌂   ∞   ≈   ⌂   ∞   ≈
moving time   
and as the car moves  
it makes recurrent impressions made by subjective reactions   
like rain for instance    its ability to symbolize itself 
by reptition    
through drops and drips     drips and drops     
steam and haze    mud and tropical banks     
melting a narrative that belongs to no one    
not even the protagonist                   
who might be placed a little off-center  
to suggest eccentricities
that make humans like hickory
or may be a willow                   a solitary willow  
underpinned at the origin of circular landscape
formed by hands   that have lost all cards and the game   at the void end of a transiberian journey   
a tree   
under which he breaks down  from overbearing realities   but teardrops don’t work like rain    
the wind bends the man and his rooted metaphor
in opposite ways 
⌂   ∞   ≈   ⌂   ∞   ≈   ⌂   ∞   ≈   ⌂   ∞   ≈
Bimal appears like an archetypical outsider, moving with zest on the fringes.  Moreover, as Bimal moves around the place, Ghatak produces a montage of images of the working people and the factory lines, which are caught in the context of industry, modernity, and work. A rhythmic sound pattern produces dance like moments with man (and woman) and machine. Caught in the times of war, Ghatak comments on the patterns of modernity. According to Subrata Bandyopadhyay (“Indian Cinema,” 1977/1978),

Ajantrik remains a rich experience of a study of a basically agrarian society moving towards industrialization. It has been handled with great deal of tenderness and humour, arising out of the artistic exaggeration of humanizing the machine …. It was possible for Ritwik to get away with this seeming unreality, by placing it in the background of tribal areas, with their child-like primitive myths. 

In another sequence towards the end, after Jaggadal refuses to move as it were, and in fact, starts moving backwards; furious and disappointed Bimal caught on the thin line between the imaginary and symbolic pushes Jaggadal to the extremes. Suddenly, the landscape resonates with a sound of a trumpet. The camera seems to pan over the sound (Ghatak’s infuriating pans are an integral part of his style). Then with gusto, a snakelike, powerful and charming trumpet enters the frame. The Oraon have arrived. The tribal dance is a beautiful play of sound, image, and rhythm. This supposedly excessively long sequence ends with the tribal almost overtaking Jaggadal, and thereby producing strange juxtapositioning of the primitive and the modern. While Ghatak had made a documentary on the Oraon, this sequence seemingly uses various kinds of images to present such dualities.
⌂   ∞   ≈   ⌂   ∞   ≈   ⌂   ∞   ≈   ⌂   ∞   ≈
menaced by  a psychosis
one adds meaning and value to papery plain
to the non-renewable & biodegradable
the pyramid is inverted there is silicate dust on everything now
far far above from where the luster and fuzz is
deep down in the earth
in pygmy dumplings
in auric ores where the memory of dead canaries thrive
we’ve given up plotting itineraries to such usual chambers
we leave it to the rivers and dredgers
to dart from one scavenging to another
to offer in scoops sedimentary memory
of everybody’s  native drums
of everything’s silt and time
piled up deltalike on the plain
ambitious of forming landscapes  with quagmire
upon which we place this value proposition
of social and scientific  justice
⌂   ∞   ≈   ⌂   ∞   ≈   ⌂   ∞   ≈   ⌂   ∞   ≈
The theme of ‘madness’ becomes a powerful tool to examine structures of modernity. The location, uses of vast landscapes and Bimal’s free movement within this space, show the ways in which ‘madness’ appears acceptable within certain frameworks; and in fact, blends with the ‘sublime’ as we see Bimal becoming a part of the tribe, gulping down his pain in the dark. In the last sequence, when Jaggadal is torn apart and sold of as scrap iron, we see Jaggadal ‘bleed’ and make disturbing, uncanny noise. As a counter point, we see Bulki, the madman, who has forgotten his junk bowl and is happy with the new one. Having earlier abused Jaggadal as ‘lohar bachcha’ [fucking iron], Bimal now tells her ‘don’t go with hard feelings’ and stares with longing as Jaggadal’s body is carried away in parts. Suddenly we hear a horn blowing. Then, we see a child playing with it. Here with the striking last shots, Ghatak connects the sublime with madness, un-nurtured childlike behavior and the primordial.
⌂   ∞   ≈   ⌂   ∞   ≈   ⌂   ∞   ≈   ⌂   ∞   ≈
there are conditions of chronic inertia
that avoid thoery and all of its points of view
when you ask — why is this attachment ?
i refer to the frame that fixes a photo for itself
an unmoving one
like a jalopy is seen as a lump of iron
but then the pedal tilts
tilts it towards an internal combustion
the fizz and the burnt fumes
the entire olfactory sensation
begins to move people       one by one
photographs of moving people at once renditioned
with feeling action and speech     all moving as parallels
that simply help patients understand dream-images
by themselves
as nuggets
that make the only meal at the end of a long day
a chain of events in brief
that are somehow able to evoke
constantly repeatable sufferings of humanity
mounted on time’s wheels and amused in automation
⌂   ∞   ≈   ⌂   ∞   ≈   ⌂   ∞   ≈   ⌂   ∞   ≈

I can’t tell if the absence of a rear view mirror
would make motion difficult
moving into a fairly certain future
not hungry for a past like Orpheus
on a road not signposted by history in any way
coronates the wreath with freedom unrestraint and eternity
a society that wants to live only in today
obsessively tossing and turning the toy
of its paltry past right at the tip its nosy presence
grappling onto it          in a bid to make it a part
of its present continuous  
our démodé rider moves through it
with its beetle eyes wide open
never caring to notice if nature surrounds in grayscale
or in Geva Color
if it was wet or wry
the vehicle wobbles its way through to progress
I can’t tell if this spiral monotony   this change of coordinates
is in search of some future vector
whose sense is a direction that cannot be foretold
we aren’t going to be even curious to know
if progress has anything to do
with moving forward or backward
we’ll watch morning’s fog above the white picket fence
as if the does came here losing the  forest trail
all young  and childless
wetskin and quiet
dwindling through the mist of unspokenness
to reveal to us that life lives on      so do they
beyond the contrapment of all rear view mirrors
direct and frontal
making room for the car to be part of its play
part of its nebula
through which the car moves not knowing
about its own disappearance
like the writer of this tale
who his story loses
into the silver voice of another teller
where it shines
like a starlet


Ritwik Ghatak: A short life sketch

Apart from being a stalwart of an Indian cinema of social realism, Ritwik Ghatak, is perhaps one of the most truly original filmmakers with no cinematic predecessors. As Satyajit Ray, had once famously said, “For him Hollywood might not have existed at all.” All of his films were made in black and white with privately arranged paltry funds often struggling at the distributor's end. His maiden feature got to the theaters a quarter century after it was made. Major films include Nagarik (The Citizen, 1953), Ajantrik (The Unmechanical,1957–8), Bari Thekey Paliye (Running Away From Home, 1959), Meghey Dhaka Tara (The Cloud-Capped Star, 1960), Komal Gandhar (Soft Note on a Sharp Scale, 1961), Subarnarekha (The Golden Line, 1962), Titas Ekti Nadir Naam (A River Named Titaas, 1973), and Jukti Takko Aar Gappo (Reasons, Arguments and Tales, 1974). He was a noted writer of short fiction, cine commentaries and essays. An incurable alcoholic, Ghatak succumbed to his addiction amidst unstoppable misery and negligence in 1976.