It takes all but two minutes of Ritwik Ghatak’s The Cloud-Capped Star for money to be discussed. Saying that money is a primary theme of the film might evoke some groans, how often do we expect works of arts to communicate something deeper, whatever that means. We often expect the grandest of artistic statements to not dabble in something so common and superficial? The binary between the grand and the everyday is, of course, a completely false one. Ghatak’s characters are motivated by money, their unhappiness and despair is fueled by their inability to pay the rent. The Cloud-Capped Star‘s biggest accomplishment is that it is as poetic as it is pragmatic. A drama that creates a rhythm of daily existence, but captures and frames the routine is such a mesmerizing way.
Neeta breaks her sandal on her way home, but instead of purchasing another pair, she finishes her commute barefooted. Awaiting her at home is her brother, Shankar, a talented singer with no means of income. He knows Neeta is bringing home her monthly salary, and hopes she might be willing to share her earnings. Younger siblings Gita and Mantu also ask for some of Neeta’s earnings, as they seek to acquire new clothes. Putting the rest of the family before herself is just a part of Neeta’s life, even though her mother scolds her for doing so. With both of her parents unemployed, Neeta is the family’s main source of income. To continue her role, she puts her romance with Sanat on hold. She delays her own happiness, with the expectation that one day, she will be repaid for her sacrifice.
We’ve known Neeta for a very short time when she reads a love letter sent from Sanat. She holds the letter with so much devotion that it might as well be an actual person. She gazes into the sky, presumably to dream of a lovely future. Then, she is immediately interrupted by her brother, Shankar, who begins to tease her for the letter. This early moment builds a structure that is followed throughout. Neeta’s moments of happiness and rest are fleeting, and they are likely to be interrupted. Her family expects everything of her, and when she takes time to pause from her unreasonable duties, someone comes along to correct her or criticize her for forgetting about the moon when she only gives her family all of the stars.
It sounds a little too dreary to say that Neeta is doomed, but her situation is one that can never quite be appreciated. Her family can acknowledge her personal sacrifice, but they never seem to be fully aware of its weight. The only time her devotion is mentioned is in arguments. For example, her mother praises her in passing, but she mentions her as an example when criticizing Shankar and his lack of work. Acknowledgement comes but only with the expectation that everyone else should be working as hard as she is, never is the idea that she is working far too hard floated through someone’s consciousness. Neeta’s love interest, Sanat, suggests that she’s “not cut out to endure this” but even here, something seems to be missing. Neeta’s reply, “It doesn’t matter” is quite telling. Sure, she’s not cut out to endure this, but nobody is cut out to endure suffering.
Sanat himself suffers, though he tells us that he suffers for an ideal. To be more direct, he is basically turning down job offers to pursue his academic interest, with the hope of a more worthy career. Throughout the film, the people around Neeta look down on “physical labor” in spite of the fact that they can’t even pay the rent. Neeta gets such a job to earn some extra money for the family, but another personal sacrifice is seen as shame. Her father asks, “Is this what the middle class has sunk to?” The family can’t pay rent, sure, but physical labor is something beneath them. Once again, everything is expected of Neeta, yet everything she does is unfairly scrutinized. As a woman trying to take care of her family, her suffering is seen as trivial next to the “artistic” or “political” suffering of her father and Sanat, the latter who willfully chooses such a life. Little do they know, her suffering is far more political.
There are some who would hesitate to call Ghatak’s film political, if only because the idea of the “political film” evokes an idea of a film far removed from his world. I don’t like the phrase, simply because it implies a genre, one that is often used to describe experimental and consciously political works of Europeans like Godard or even Pasolini. Ghatak, like Naruse before him, is extremely political even if the vocabulary of Marxist theory is absent. I love Godard and Pasolini, for the record, but this image of the “political film” ignores The Cloud-Capped Star or When a Woman Ascends the Stairs, to give one Naruse example. Like Sanat’s consciously political suffering in this film, the musings of men is given more weight. Sure, Ghatak was a man, but it is easy to see his film gendered feminine. Those critical of the film accuse it of being melodramatic, a term that evokes femininity and something less authentic. It is something meant to undercut the political implications of such a film, after all shouldn’t Marxist theory be left to solemn white males? The answer is, of course, no it absolutely shouldn’t.
The irony in all of this is that Ghatak himself was vocally political and a member of Indian Communist Party, but such a detail contradicts the way western film scholars construct narratives around Asian filmmakers. This is the narrative that focuses on Yasujiro Ozu’s spirituality, the one that ignores his queerness and his radical politics. It’s the same narrative that focuses the attention on Satyajit Ray and applauds his humanity, but in the same breath dehumanizes the dense and vital history of the rest of Indian cinema and its contributors. This all seems like an off-topic tangent, one that suggests a simplistic reading of western film criticism. It’s related to my larger point, though. The Cloud-Capped Star is a deeply political movie, even as it is not a “political film” in the European tradition. It’s a movie about existing in a world that does everything to get rid of you, to achieve happiness despite the obstacles being endless. At one point, Neeta remarks, “All my suffering will vanish.” She’s wrong, of course, but that’s the tragedy.