Thanks to the recent restoration efforts spearheaded by Martin Scorsese, A River Called Titas has become Ritwik Ghatak’s most canonized work. This might deserve some negotiation but for the purposes of this piece, it should be acknowledged the importance of a figure like Scorsese or a company like Criterion plays when it comes to forming a film canon, as well as controlling the narrative of film history. I preface my thoughts on Ghatak’s film not because it is bad and his other films are superior, but because I find framing this work as being on its own, even if unintentional, creates a wealth of problems. Ghatak’s earlier work is more restrained, while here he seems to be swinging for the fences, throwing in narrative movements that would be categorized as melodramatic in any other context. His eyes are now capable of capturing poetry in every shot. It might help to think of A River Called Titas in the same vein as Mikio Naruse’s Floating Clouds. Both films are reflective of their filmmaker’s career, but both films are heightened, melodramatic epics compared to their more usual, down-to-earth efforts.
A young girl, Basanti watches from a distance as her crush, Kishore and his best friend, Subol, learns the basics of becoming a fisherman. We jump ahead many years, and the two boys have become men. Kishore is arranged to be married to Rajar Jhi, but their honeymoon must be restricted to the fishing boat belonging to the two men. Rajar Jhi and Kilshore have one evening together before she is kidnapped by bandits. She washes up on dry ground, still barely alive, but the incident has made Kilshore unstable. More time passes, Rajar Jhi now has a son, presumably from her one night with Kilshore. She arrives in town and grows close to Basanti, who was once married to Subol, but he died the following day. Basanti agrees to take care of both Rajar Jhi and her son, Ananta, but her abusive father is constantly criticizing her decisions.
The narrative shifts in the first hour alone and plentiful and abrupt. There seems to be a general consensus that A River Called Titas is a victim of the arthouse cliche “it’s hard to follow.” Ghatak’s editing here is as relentlessly elliptical as the more well celebrated Nicolas Roeg. Unlike Roeg, however, Ghatak’s cut don’t immediately call attention to themselves. While Roeg might cut a sequence that actually spans a minute in the character’s time, Ghatak’s editing is so graceful and fluid that years seem to casually drift within each shot. Again, like Roeg, this is disorienting, if not entirely maddening but it perfectly underscores a film that is very much about the heavy things. What better way to communicate the precious passing of time then to make pass time so quickly that the viewer can hardly get their bearings?
I will admit that tonally, the more pronounced “tragic” element of the film that takes over during the second half is a bit too much. Ghatak is at his best here when he focuses on Basanti and Rajar Jhi. The two are able to build a friendship despite the fact that Rajar Jhi seems far too intimidated to make any effort in befriending anyone. This sounds critical, but the film gives us the details that make understand why she has arrived at such a closed off demeanor. It is not an uncommon narrative trope for a woman to be mysteriously quiet, but usually, this “mystery” is never mined to reveal her own past, indeed her own human-ness. Instead, it is fodder for male fantasies about “different” and “interesting” women, who often read to a more critical viewer as just a male construction of a submissive heterosexual partner. Rajar Jhi, however, is still reeling from what life has thrown at her, she seems unsure about every inch of the ground she rests her feet on. Every movement and gesture is deeply calculated, sure perhaps Ghatak acknowledging Brecht (who was a major inspiration) but also just Rajar Rhi’s personal protocol to maneuver in a world that has done everything to mute her presence.
Basanti, who kind of grows into being the more central figure of the film, is equally remarkable. She’s dealing with an almost identical tragic past, yet her coping mechanism is one of anger rather than reluctant acceptance. She’s got a temper, one that she manages to keep in check save for two violent eruptions. During these two instances, Ghatak confronts the audience with something frustrating: who are we to criticize a woman such as Basanti. She lashes out at her mother, sure, but she does so in defense of Ananta. Rosy Samad as Basanti, manages to shift to different levels so quickly, not unlike Ghatak’s handling with time itself, that the results can be frustrating. Fittingly, such a word wouldn’t even begin to describe the pressures affecting her inability to be recognized and viewed as a human being.
While Ghatak goes all out in trying to create a transcendent, epic, poetic (and so on) cinematic masterpiece, he does not exactly fail. Yet, I find the film’s angling towards this final, transcendent moment to be not nearly as interesting as the aforementioned relationship between Basanti and Rajar Jhi. The moments where their friendship is experienced are easily the happiest in the film, and it presents something rare in all of cinema. Here we have two women and young boy subconsciously morphing into a family. This isn’t about duty, as much as it about love. Their family is one on the social outskirts, absolutely not malleable enough to be squeezed into the expectations of a heteronormative family. Unlike countless European art house films about two women creating a deep connection, Ghatak never even hints at something sexual. Basanti and Rajar Jhi still say “they need a man” but they seem to be aware of this not as an emotional need, as much as a financial one. Both are empowered by their ability to see through the faults in the society that has left them completely dry.