Probably the finest yet less popular parallel filmmaker of India, Ritwik Ghatak made his second feature film Ajantrik (The Pathetic Fallacy/The Mechanical Man), which is the Bengali for non-mechanical, in 1955. It is not his best but it is certainly a very well thought experimental landmark (for Indian especially Bengali cinema) at filmmaking with both sound and picture playing a huge role in the process. Though this is his second film after Nagarik (1952) (it released after his death), he proves his technical brilliance, innovation and ability as a master storyteller.
The film revolves around a cab driver in a mining town (near Hazaribagh, Jharkhand), Bimal (Kali Banerjee) and his just about wreck of a fifteen year old 1920 Chevrolet, whom he calls Jagaddal and cares as a mother does to her child. The relation between the man and machine is portrayed in depth throughout the film. This is one of the first films to characterize an inanimate object; the car is personified with its swaying headlights, various sounds depicting its emotional state and Bimal talking with “him”. He is happy that townsfolk call him “mechanical” but feels sad as they do not take Jagaddal as a “human”.
The story shows how Bimal and his life changes through a series of journeys with passengers of various social and economic class moving for different reasons. Though the car looks shabby and the parts are old, broken and torn, the car runs well and provides for the much needed daily bottom line for Bimal. One fine day, he takes a young woman and her escort to a dak bungalow; he develops a fondness for her. After some days he finds her desolate and takes her to the station. In the hustle to catch the train she leaves her baggage in the car. To Bimal’s dismay, Jagaddal breaks down when he tries to deliver her belongings. The people of the town mocks him, calls the car names but he adamant to change it. The only person who is friendly is a little boy whom he takes for a ride occasionally. To everyone’s astonishment, Bimal, the cheapskate, spends large sums to cure his Jagaddal. Bewildering everyone, Jagaddal is cured. Death being ultimate, his rebirth is short-lived and the cause of death is engine burst. Grief-stricken, Bimal decides to sell Jagaddal as scrap, thus creating a black hole in his heart, which tries to engulf him. Ultimately he understands and accepts life as it is.
Ustad Ali Akbar Khan orchestrates a graceful score for this piece, where sound is a very important aspect of its dramaturgy. The music which is gracefully simplistic is combined with an avant-garde use of natural sound. The different sounds of Jagaddal depict his change of emotions, his degrading health finally resulting in eternal rest.
The scenes are aesthetically composed, highlighting the mood of the scenes along with portraying the relation between the characters. Ghatak’s frequent use of deep focus is similar to the works of Orson Welles, but he was unfamiliar to Welles’ (and also other European and American auteurs’) work. The opening scene of the film uses this technique to characterize the people, to illustrate the surroundings and to paint the background. His use of allegories throughout makes the film an artistic and visual brilliance. After being called “mad” and thrown mud by the kids, Bimal takes his car on a river bank, wipes the insult from his mind to start anew. It is as if the river washes away his wounds of insult along with the mud. The scene just after the opening where the boy is taking the man to Bimal for hiring his car is shot from behind the bell. Bells are common in temples which are the last resort of suffering people; here the man tried to hire other cabs but all refused, so for a final try he comes to Bimal. A scene near the end is filmed similarly, but it illustrates the end of Jagaddal, as bells ringing signify the end. Close-up and medium shots are used to show the connections; the shot of Bimal watering the radiator shows his closeness to Jagaddal.
Ghatak, the genius, brings out great performances from all the members of the cast. Kali Banerjee is brilliant in bringing out the anger, joy and inner conflicts of Bimal. The use of the lunatic a character shows the vision of the director. The lunatic represents people who are frightened by modernization, who cannot cope up with the transition to the modern and industrial world where emotions are rare and human relations are fragile. Bimal’s unquenchable love for his car is tested when he is attracted towards the stranded girl. Along with it Jagaddal’s jealousy is shown when he breaks down preventing Bimal from reuniting with her, thus completing the personification of the car. The death of Jagaddal is sketched beautifully when his parts are carried off in a bullock cart, as if it is the funeral procession of a deceased in cart like coffin.
The film follows a linear narrative pattern and with its simplistic beauty is true work of an exquisite panache. This is a must-watch film which depicts the relationship between man and machine in a modernizing world. Initially Bimal cannot accept the loss of his closest being. But when he hears the horn of Jagaddal being played by a child, he smiles with graceful sorrow. He feels that he has to accept life as it is, where joy and agony coexist in harmony with nature.
Film Score : 86
Director: Ritwik Ghatak Screenplay: Ritwik Ghatak Story: Subodh Ghosh Music: Ustad Ali Akbar Khan Camera: Dinen Gupta Editing: Ramesh Joshi Cast: Kali Banerjee, Kajal Chatterjee, Gyanesh Mukherjee, Kesta Mukherjee, Master Deepak