At 83, Surama Ghatak regrets that she hadn’t asked Indira Gandhi to restore her husband’s films. Ritwik Ghatak’s wife speaks of a life less ordinary
She is all of 83 and has weathered many a storm to be wedded to filmmaker Ritwik Ghatak. Having lost her daughter recently, Surama Ghatak now lives in the hope being able to protect whatever remains of her husband’s work to keep the legend’s memory alive.
When you look back at your lived life, why do you think you fell in love with Ritwik Ghatak?
When I came down to Kolkata, I used to stay at my aunt, Sadhana Roychowdhury’s residence. During those days, I had joined the south squad of IPTA. I had known that he had made Nagarik and had first seen him at the felicitation of a Russian delegation at Technician’s studio. Later, I saw him come over to my aunt’s place to discuss theatre. Once he had referred to me and asked my aunt who that Das Kapital was at her place! We shared a common interest in theatre and he started taking classes to teach me. Meanwhile, I was given a part in Nicher Mahal. But since his relations with the party weren’t smooth, my aunt categorically asked me not to interact with him fearing that he would soon be expelled. Though charges were brought against him, I decided to continue interacting with him till he was proven guilty. He had taken me over to his house to get me introduced to his family. Later on, when he went to Bihar to shoot two documentaries, he would write to me.
Bhishon sneher chokhe dekhten amake. His letters would describe his experiences of discovering Bihar and how inadequate he felt for not having me by his side.
Amake bolten ami naki debir moton meye. Aar debi bolte ekhane uni bojhaten emon ekjon jar moddhye khoma, sneho, momota, nirobota ar snigdhota achhe.
In some of his early letters to you, Ritwik Ghatak had written that his whole family was surprised how any woman could fall for a person like him — someone with dirty toes, who smoked beedi and wore ankle-length dhotis...
Yes. In a letter written to me in 1955, he had mentioned how his family members had been overwhelmed after meeting me. His niece, Tushki, had even been surprised how I had taken a fancy to him. ‘Ami tomar motei upojukto noi, michimichi tomake dobachhi. Lokhhi mohilati jole porlen. Ei hochhe tar suchintito obhimot, barir sobar katha theke bojha gelo tomake biye korte pere ami dhonyyo...” — these are the exact lines he had written in a letter to me before our marriage. Time and again he’d mention that my letters to him had been his source of inspiration. And then, there were lighter moments too. Once before our marriage, I had expressed my apprehensions about how my in-laws would take to the fact that I used to constantly suffer from cough and cold. He had brushed aside my fears humorously saying: ‘Soshurbari eshe hanchikashir bodnaam er bhoye nai ba mara gele. Hashi-kashi somet grohon jokhon korei phelechhi, jokhon matha dhorar karone kono court of law e divorce admit korbe na, tokhon ogotya taake hanchi somet i nite hobe...”
How did your life change in Mumbai when he got a job at the Filmistan studio?
When Salil Chowdhury had sent him a telegram informing him that he might get a job at the Filmistan Studios, everyone at home was delighted. Some even said that I was proving to be lucky for him. Initially, we used to stay at Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s house in Mumbai. Later on, we moved away. In search of work, Keshto Mukherjee too had stayed with us for a year. Life was very busy what with he working at Filmistan, rehearsing to stage Biswarjan and penning other articles. But what was getting stifling for him was the demand to write stories that were more Bollywood. He wasn’t cut out to think that way and neither did he want to do it. Before putting in his papers, he urged Sashadhar Mukherjee of Filmistan Studios to make a department for experimental film-making. That would include a low budget, no stars, no good equipment, no fancy name in technicians, no massive sets, no legendary music director and also, no colour. All they would have were ideas and would have to shoot outdoors to know that any story can be a great story with proper treatment (which in this case, would mean camerawork). His suggestion was to allow budding makers to see the world through the lens, explore possibilities at the editing table and design creative soundtrack. Rejecting smug complacency, he quit his job at Filmistan wanting to fight tooth and nail for what he called ‘intoxicating film-making’. Before leaving for Kolkata, I remember going over to watch the shooting of Madhumati, the script of which he had penned. We’d often go over to Balraj Sahni’s Juhu residence. One night it got so late with discussions that we had to stay over at his place too. While I knew that staying back in Mumbai would ensure a steady income, I was clear that I never wanted him to chase money. As his wife and friend, I wanted him to be the uncompromising artiste that he was always meant to be.
How difficult has it been to live with an uncompromising artiste?
One has to understand my own upbringing and philosophy in life to have clarity about my stand. My mother died when I was very young and I had to struggle a lot during my growing up years. Relatives ousted from Bangladesh would regularly come to stay over with us at our Shillong home. And I had to take care of everything. Having joined the Communist Party while still being a student, I had to go underground too. Before my marriage, I had been lodged in a prison for a year and eight months where my fellow inmates were female prisoners charged with murder and theft. I have even lived with a mad woman in prison. Someday, I plan to publish my prison diaries of Shillong. Biyer aage uni praye i bolten je tuition kore songshar chalate hobe ba bostir kache ghor bhara koreo thakte hote pare. Hardships, therefore, didn’t scare me.
But how do you answer allegations of having left him in the lurch when he needed you the most?
I have heard such allegations too. But few know the truth. Repeated failures and occasional instances of not being able to release his movies had begun to take a toll on him. He had taken to drinking beer while shooting for Ajantrik. Ektu khelei kichhui hobe na... ebhabei shuru. When Satyajit Ray had watched Ajantrik, he had said: ‘Ritwikbabu, boi ta shomoy moton release korle apni pothikrit hoten’. The film was never a commercial success and neither was Bari Theke Paliye. Frustration increased and so did his frequency of drinking. The last nail in the coffin was when Komal Gandhar flopped. It wasn’t easy for me to make ends meet with three children and his liquor addiction. I couldn’t complete my Master’s degree and had no job either. In 1965, he took to country liquor and even skipped taking a bath. His eccentric style of living took its toll on my health too. Along with my three children, I left for Shillong. Meanwhile, he took up the offer of vice principal of the Pune Film Institute. He’d often come down from Pune to Shillong in a very critical state. In 1969, he was admitted to a mental hospital. Hemanga Biswas’ family was of great help then. They used to regularly send him food. Our financial expenses were taken care of by my father and brother. Meanwhile, my health had started deteriorating too. I stayed alone with my three kids and also had to battle my own illness. Sometimes when he came home, he would say: ‘Lokhhi poisa dao, drink korbo’. It was so frustrating and I had told his doctor that if I got a job, I would definitely leave with my children. Initially the doctor had wondered what would have happened to him if I wasn’t around to take care of him. I had said that all that he needed was to get rid of his alcoholism.
Leaving him still must have been difficult...
It takes a lot of strength for a woman to be able to take such a decision. I gradually started understanding that I wouldn’t be able to raise my children if I had to financially depend on an ailing and alcoholic husband. I had got a first class in home science for the PG diploma course and continued to try for a job to earn a living so that my children’s school fees could be taken care of.
Jokhon dekhi abar moder adda boshche barite, ami thik korlam baritai tule debo. He had wanted his books and records. I had refused since I knew he would trade them off to buy liquor. I wanted to preserve them for our children. He asked me to just keep the ceiling fans. I never knew that he would even sell them to keep his liquor supply chain flowing. And yet, I remember the look in his eyes when I was leaving home to take up a job in Santhia to teach in a school...
But you were still in touch in Santhia...
Yes. Five months later, he wrote to me. Funny bit was that there was absolutely no mention about what had happened that drove me to move out. He made me the producer of Jukti Takko Aar Gappo. He even told me that he had also got a partner for me to finance the film. Later on, I became the sole proprietor of the film. That the film never got released was tragic. The government has the ownership of the film. Though we lived apart, he would often come down to Santhia to meet the children. Of course, there has been bitter acrimony over his alcoholic addiction and his failing health. But we always remained friends and parents to our three children. When my daughter went to see him at the hospital, he told her: Tunu ma! Tomar baba toh ar banchbe na. Kannakati koris na ma.’
What is your understanding of the relationship between Ray and Ghatak?
Both of them had mutual respect. Both, with their unique styles, had it in them to take the Bengal film industry forward. My husband loved Pather Panchali and Aparajito.
Are director and actors who worked with him still in touch with you?
Mrinal Sen is very sympathetic towards my family. When I needed a job, both Mrinal Sen and Satyajit Ray had written recommendations for me. Ashutosh Gowariker had sent a copy of Jodhaa Akbar to us. I loved the movie.
Finally, do you have any regrets?
Anek bar chesta korechhi anake shusthho korar.
But in vain. I thought things would change when our son grew up. I have a feeling that he wanted to start life afresh. That belief was only reinforced after I was given a new suitcase that had some of his belongings. I spotted a black jawahar coat in the suitcase. It was the same one that he had worn when he had played himself in the death scene of Jukti Takko Aar Gappo. I never wanted him to wear that coat again but he would always say: ‘Lokhhi toh amar mara jawa shojhyo korte pare na. Tai jawahar coat ta dekhte pare na’. Indira Gandhi was very fond of his work. She had sent me letters and funds too. But I regret never having asked her help to release JTAG. That’s been a big regret. At 83, I am still trying hard to protect whatever remains of his work and keep his memory alive. Despite being so unwell, he never lost focus of his philosophy or his creative urge. He lives on in my memories. I have such fond recollections of him shooting a documentary of Baba Allauddin Khan saab in Maihar. There was a footage of Annapurna didi playing the veena with Swaran Rani and I flanking her. I wish that documentary had got made. Ritwik Memorial Trust is doing its bit. My younger daughter passed away some months back. My son, Ritaban, has put the finishing touches to my husband’s Bagalar Banga Darshan, Ronger Golam and completed his unfinished documentary on Ramkinkar. He has also made a film titled Unfinished Ritwik. He is now working on adapting Bibhutibhushan Bandopadhyay’s Ichhamati. My elder daughter, Samhita, has made a docufeature titled Nobo Nagarik and is penning a memoir. My husband’s words still ring true in my ears: ‘Lokhhi, taaka ta toh thakbe na, kaajta thakbe. Tumi dekhe niyo ami mara jawar por sobbai amake bujhbe’. Today when his movies are critically acclaimed internationally, I wonder if he was a soothsayer too!
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