A River Called Titas Review
For such a driven, fiercely passionate director, Ritwik Ghatak’s cinematic career was surprisingly unprolific, producing only nine films before his death in 1976 of which A River Called Titas was the eighth. Considerably less than his more famous contemporary Satyajit Ray who averaged a film a year over the same period that Ghatak was making features (or indeed the immense numbers that India as a whole produces year in year out), one of the effects of the comparatively limited output is that each film can often contain enough ideas to fuel what in another director’s hands would make up a trilogy or an entire series of works. A River Called Titas is a particular case in point being at once epic and achingly remote. Taken from an autobiographical novel by Advaita Malla Barman (adapted by Ghatak himself), it begins as a relatively small-scale tale of the tragedies that befall a mother and her son before digressing via a number of loosely connected episodes into the equally tragic tale of a fishing community at large. Even the river, seemingly the film’s sole constant, is slowly dying.
Just as this storyline is at times difficult to pin down, so too is the manner in which Ghatak has approached it. Fundamentally a melodrama - two hours plus of murder, suicide, insanity and starvation - A River Called Titas makes the odd move of more often than not favouring a documentary approach. A non-professional cast, the local dialect and location shooting are all wholeheartedly employed, bringing with them a genuine feel for the rhythms of early 20th century Bengali life. On the other hand this also provides a mixed bag of performances as these same rhythms can make some of the dialogue heavy scenes rather interminable and lacking in momentum. Yet Ghatak also refuses to settle on a single specific approach and on more than one occasion resorts to the more typical style of broad strokes Indian melodramatic acting. Once again this proves a test for his performers yet, in all honesty, their rawness does have often beneficial results. The overwrought mannerisms have always had a far greater resemblence to silent movie acting than any of the more modern styles, but when employed correctly can have an instinctive feel, however overblown it may ultimately be. That Ghatak tends only to use these techniques at major dramatic moments also works in the film’s favour as it is doubtful that his performers could achieve the required results from a more realist standpoint.
Nonetheless, the decision to mix and match styles does produce a certain clash. Of course, popular Indian cinema has always been a strange hybrid, a single feature being able to contain elements of comedy, action, fairy tale and musical with seeming ease, yet Ghatak’s more wilful combinations mark him and his work out as distinctly “other” even amongst such company. Indeed, as well as the melodramatic and documentary forms, A River Called Titas also sees the director indulging his passion for avant-garde techniques. Anyone familiar with Ghatak will be aware of his famed experimental use of sound, an aspect of his filmmaking which still stands out as remarkable to this day and is especially prominent in this particular film. Amongst numerous examples there are two especially stunning instances: firstly, a wedding night scored only by the nervous heavy breathing of a young bride-to-be; and secondly, the manner in which the mid-point interval is marked, whereby the dialogue is slowly drowned out mid-speech by the sound of torrential rain.
Visually, too, Ghatak produces the remarkable and unexpected, so much so that at times A River Called Titas can resemble a John Grierson travelogue at one moment and an outtake from a hitherto undiscovered Paradjanov delight the next. (It is to cinematographer Baby Islam’s credit that both extremes are photographed with equal beauty.) Interestingly, these moments never appear quite as incongruous as they do on paper. Certainly the balance is never quite maintained but they do serve to punctuate the film, acting as occasional breaks from the admittedly extremely downbeat subject matter in much the same way as the shifts in acting styles do. Moreover, these occasional flights of fancy also serve the overall purpose of the film insofar as they provide an ironic counterpoint; is the tragedy not all the more greater if the daydreams of those affected are utterly unattainable.
That said, A River Called Titas remains an awkward and, at times, frustrating work. There is often too much for the viewer to take in whilst the sudden lurches in focus and style can prove confusing. However, this is also a film made with immense conviction from a director who could never be accused of compromise, and as such perhaps it is the viewer who should do just that. After all, with so much going on there are plentiful excuses for repeated viewings.
Judging the presentation of Indian films always proves difficult. A regular viewer of the small but welcomes batches that appear intermittently on Channel Four will be fully aware of the faded and heavily damaged prints that exist no matter how old the picture may be. (Even discs of newer releases, Asoka for example, suffer from scratches and other blemishes.) If this particular disc were of Casablanca, say, and not A River Called Titas then the audience would have every right to be upset, yet in such a context the result is decidedly favourable. Certainly, there are patches of some quite horrible damage, but the fact that the film was crisply photographed in black and white (despite having been made in 1973) means that there is still much to impress, plus the issue of faded colours is handily sidestepped. Moreover, some of the defects coincide with a particular camera set-up (at one point there is a noticeable juddering effect) suggesting that the problems are inherent with the film and not the print. As for the 1.33:1 ratio, this would appear to be correct frame size especially when the low-budget is considered and the fact that there are never any awkwardly framed shots to suggest otherwise. The sound is an easier prospect. The disc retains the original mono and whilst there is evidence of crackle and other damage at points, this never really encroaches on an appreciation of Ghatak’s imaginative aural collages.
As for extras these are limited to an introduction and sleeve notes (both provided by critic Derek Malcolm) and a brief biography of Ghatak. The introduction is, of course, the main attraction and Malcolm usefully splits his limited time between a discussion of Ghatak himself and the film at hand. Of course, five minutes does not allow for an in depth approach to the film, but then the piece is intended merely as an introduction and as such serves its purpose well. (English HOH subtitles are available for this special feature.)
As a final note, please be aware that this disc is region 0 and presented in the NTSC format despite being released by a UK company.