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Ghatak's war between 'Man and Machine'

4 November, 2021 18:09:03
Ghatak's war between 'Man and Machine'

Ritwik Ghatak and his prized pupil Kumar Shahani used to watch the Lumières’ L’Arrivée d’un train à la Ciotat (Arrival of a Train at Ciotat Station, 1896) over and over again, and insiders say, they laughed as they found the idea of ‘one machine looking at the other’ rather funny. This episode somehow influenced Ghatak’s film Ajantrik. Set in Bihar around the activities of a taxi driver who lives at a bus station, it was Ghatak’s first film to be released commercially.

It’s just a lump of iron. Why this attachment? A question asked of taxi driver Bimal (Kali Banerjee), the central character of Ajantrik, regarding his dedication to his very old and battered 1920 taxi, called Jagaddal. This taxi driver’s relationship to his car somehow draws a parallel to Ghatak’s own attempts to explain what it is about the cinema that draws his commitment. Ajantrik is a movie where a mingling of the human and the mechanical elements take place and is portrayed superbly when Bimal pauses pensively to say: “That I’m a machine. I like the smell of burnt gasoline. It makes me high…”

The connect Bimal feels towards his taxi announces a profoundly human attachment and dedication motivating him. Bimal holds onto his car, Jagaddal, for fifteen years, against the prevailing trend among his peers who gave up old cars and upgraded to new ones. Bimal calls those new cars, ‘fashionable whores.’ Jagaddal thus is elevated to the status of a human being and Ritwik Ghatak brings out this human element through his camera, sights and sounds, epitomised by his attention to frequent autonomous movements of Jagaddal’s headlights. Sounds of drinking and exhalations of satisfaction exude from the car among descriptions of Jagaddal’s health and durability. According to Bimal, in comparison with other cars, Jagaddal never ‘catches cold’ or ‘gets tummy aches.’ That Bimal believes in Jagaddal’s independent agency is summarised in the final test of the car’s strength, after it has received new parts.

‘I’ve pampered you enough,’ Bimal warns, dropping several large boulders and as the car collapses or ‘dies,’ Bimal smashes the windscreen and bursts into tears, his head resting on the steering wheel. And thus, Ritwik Ghatak superbly excels beyond the ‘man and the machine.’

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