MAN AND THE MACHINE – on Ritwik Ghatak’s AJANTRIK (THE PATHETIC FALLACY)
After a hiatus of over five years since Nagarik (The Citizen, 1952), a film that unfortunately did not see the light of the day during his lifetime, Ritwik Ghatak made his second feature, Ajantrik (The Pathetic Fallacy, 1958), based on a short story by renowned writer Subodh Ghosh (1909-1980). The film depicts an obsessive relationship between an eccentric, lone-wolf cabdriver, Bimal (Kali Banerjee), and his 1920s Chevrolet jalopy, affectionately called Jagaddal (which literally means “immovable” in Bengali).
The film begins with a madcap scenario: A young bridegroom (Satindra Bhattachrya who played the lead role in Nagarik) and his uncle are in a desperate situation. The road is hazardous, with streams swollen with heavy rain, which makes it harder for them to reach the wedding before twilight (the most auspicious moment for a Hindu marriage). Bimal must therefore drive the wedding party to Jhalpur, but Jagaddal’s jittery screeches, jarring halts and loud brakes only worsen the passengers’ plight.
The sense of the surreal permeates the film as Bimal engages in a private conversation with his car that, in turn, responds by turning on its headlights, as if they were probing eyes, and with audio and other signs. As a narrative on fetishism, Ajantrik thus revolves around Bimal’s bizarre relationship with his car, and with an ensemble of characters (many not featured in the original short story) that together create a rich topography of desire, pleasure, frustration and pain. Despite various fragmented human relationships with children, local town and tribal people, Bimal becomes increasingly alienated.
Since Marx’s Capital, machines have often met with stern criticism. Marx argued that despite being a productive force, machines were used to produce more and more surplus value for the capitalists. Talking about “commodity fetishism,” Marx contends that the “magical, mystical, and enigmatic character of commodities” originates not in their use value but their exchange value. Such fetishism is a disavowal of human labor. Ghatak himself had a turbulent relationship with the Marxist movement in India: He was eventually suspended from the Party, for criticizing the stringent social-realist cultural line in his letter, “On the Cultural ‘Front’: A thesis submitted by Ritwik Ghatak to the Communist Party of India”, 1954, Calcutta), and in Ajantrik he constantly tried transgressing the boundaries of socialist realism.
Still, in India’s popular and cultural milieu of the 1950s, the car was suspected of being an agent of cruel and merciless automation, responsible for taking away jobs from people who were part of agrarian economy advocated by Gandhi. In Hind Swaraj (Indian Home Rule), Gandhi writes, “It is the machinery that has impoverished India. (…) Machinery is the chief symbol of modern civilization; it represents great sin.” Gandhi’s ideas played a crucial role in shaping the political psyche of modern India, even though the developmental model of Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru included mechanical, industrial and technological aspects. In Some Thoughts on Ajantrik, Cinema and I (1987), Ritwik explains, “The idea of the machine has always had an association of monstrosity for us. It devours all that is good, all that is contemplative and spiritual. It is something that is alien to the spirit of our culture – the spirit of ancient venerable India. It stands for clash and clangor, for swift, destructive change, for fermenting discontent.”
Popular depictions of human-car relationship in Bollywood of that time treated the subject from the perspective of political economy. B.R. Chopra´s Naya Daur (New Era, 1957) showed the human and the machine as incompatible. Mehboob Khan´s Mother India (1957), on the other hand, put an unflinching faith in industrialization, as capable of attenuating the plight of the poor and evoking a communitarian spirit. By contrast, Ajantrik neither indulges in communitarian rhetoric nor does it subscribe to the western model of modernity and consumerism. Ghatak’s take is more intuitive and inventive, describing a more organic fetishistic relationship.
There are telling moments of Bimal’s identification with his car. In one scene, he protects Jagaddal from the local kids throwing mud at it. In another, he dresses up and poses with Jagaddal for a photograph as if the two were a married couple. Very few people empathize with Bimal’s fondness for Jagaddal: the little boy, Sultan (or Hari, the first one a Muslim name and the second one Hindu), ‘Mistry’ (literally mechanic) and a frivolous runaway bride eloping with her lover (missing in the original story). Ajantrik is strewn with scenes of Bimal driving Jagaddal through the rugged landscape, with some sharp cuts from extremely long takes of the moving car to documentary-style shots of cattle and herds. The several shots, such as overhead wagons, lonely tribal woman in front of the factory, railway gates and finally a frenzied race between the visibly dilapidated old car and a train, emphasize the contrast between nature and the mechanical world.
Ghatak situates the entire mise-en-scene in the tribal region of eastern India. In his thesis, “Alternative Belonging: Modernity and Material Culture in Bengali Cinema, 1947-1975,” Suvadip Sinha writes: “The tribal people appear on screen at crucial moments of the plot. The vignettes of the marginal life of these people, outside the tumult of the town, creep in as a syncretic reminder of an alternative. They come through the sudden interjection of a scene showing their festive parade, the shrilling sound of their bugles, their flying Bairakhis (flags). These elements are often shown through disjointed, abrupt and unexpected shots. By inserting these visual elements (…) Ghatak tries to create what James Clifford terms as modernist collage.”
As Jagaddal’s condition declines, Bimal accepts reality and sells the car as scrap-metal to a junk dealer. After the latter expresses his disappointment at the car’s ramshackle state, the camera cuts away to show a madman (also absent in the original story) who has replaced his old, crooked aluminum-pan with a new, shiny one. Thus the man-machine relationship comes full circle: from pre-modern attachment to capitalist reality. As Bimal sees a child playing with the leftover horn of Jagaddal he acknowledges his delusion. The smiling child makes him realize his animism—a belief that treated pre-modernist objects as magical and larger than life.
In this last part, Ghatak shows a visually haunting image of a Christian cross, used as a motif throughout the film. The cross evokes the plight of India’s Christian minority, treated as social outcasts and taking on jobs that were looked down upon by the Hindu elites, although it is never clear whether Bimal himself is a Christian. The child and the cross also symbolize the cycle of life and death. In the end, as Kumar Shahani notes in the Encyclopedia of Indian Cinema, the film presents “a universalized leitmotiv of cultural dismemberment and exile that evokes an epic tradition by drawing on tribal, folk and classical forms.”