The Cloud-Capped Star (1960)

“And like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capped towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself—
Yea, all which it inherit—shall dissolve,
And like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.”

‘The Cloud-Capped Star’, directed by Ritwik Ghatak in 1960, is an Indian domestic drama set in Calcutta following the Partition of Bengal in the late 1940s. Supriya Choudhury plays Neeta, a young woman who uses her tuition money to help support her family. Her parents are remote and eccentric, her sister vain and her elder brother is a dreamer focused on his career in music. Gradually, Neeta’s life erodes around her as her generosity leads to the loss of her fiancé, he job and finally to her contracting tuberculosis. It’s a strange movie, the dark subject matter is balanced by the comedic portrayal of particular male characters, most notably Neeta’s brother and father. The performances are melodramatic, and the drama is heightened and punctuated by an expressionistic soundtrack: the story unfolds with a background noise of whip-cracks, gurgles and the weird, ethereal singing of the brother. It’s this that stood out for me. In a sense watching Satyajit Ray’s Apu trilogy from the late 1950s (‘Pather Panchali’, ‘Aparajito’, and ‘The World of Apu‘) makes this world, and the neo-realist style of the film, a very familiar one, but where it really comes into its own is with the way it sounds: the music and effects. The director I was reminded of, oddly, was David Lynch whose cinematic universe is full of dark noise, rumbling and abstract groans. As with Ray’s films there is also something familiar in the symbolism in ‘The Cloud-Capped Star’, for example, the use of trains to suggest escape or the intrusion of modernity on rural life. It’s an emotionally rich film about refugees, but one in which the characters’ status as such, and their poverty, isn’t placed at the front of the story. As such, Ghatak allows the political subtexts of his narrative to sit comfortably behind the simple tragedy of Neeta’s life.

Would I recommend it? Yes – it’s a richly engrossing film with a real emotional kick at the end. Watch with Satyajit Ray’s second Apu film: Aparajito.

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