Wearing its melodrama firmly on its sleeve, The Cloud-Capped Star takes aim at the pre-eminent cornerstone of Bengali life – the dreaded and revered family unit – and subsequently proceeds to chew it up and spit it out with unbridled venom. Resting his gaze upon the trials and tribulations of a relatively bourgeois home in post-Partition Kolkata, director Ritwik Ghatak unearths only desolation, degradation and despair. His tale is woefully familiar: a self-sacrificial heroine, too benevolent for the unforgiving world that so spitefully disregards her, suffers an elongated decline into anonymity. But Ghatak’s work is suffused with a generosity in spirit and an ingenuity in technique which aggrandises an otherwise predictable tragedy; the film ultimately attaining a stratum of effusive spiritualism that’s singular in essence and breathtaking in experience. Our characters’ various states of dysphoria thus find themselves illuminated by humanistic brushstrokes which tactfully balance empathy alongside the director’s acuminous critiques. Star‘s compendium of politics, psychology and passion consequently scales depths of feeling that belies its parentage, gradually filtering its genre’s embellishments before culminating in a conclusion that marks an apex in exorbitant realism.
With a narrative founded upon simplicity, Ghatak offers up a parade of types – fickle fiancé, superficial sister, artistic (read: lazy) brother, hapless father, bitch mother from Hell – and uses them to repudiate the standardised deference to the family (although the pessimistic depictions of the film’s peripheral characters quite probably extends the grievance towards society as a whole). His veneration of Nita (our ever-suffering protagonist) as some sort of downtrodden saint is thus contrasted with the reduction of her relatives’ personalities to digestible traits: avaricious, self-absorbed, even hateful. Whilst Star‘s early scenes establish an aura of playfulness and warmth in these familial interactions, Ghatak’s plotting is swift in exposing the callous heart of a desperately unhappy home: consider how the recurrent bickering of the parents, initially played for comedic value, finds itself tinged with genuine contempt as the film progresses; or how the amoral vanity of the sister eventually results in the collapse of the film’s key relationship. Constantly harassed by the feuding, rapacious clan that raised her, Nita finds herself driven into the misery of total subjugation; deluded by a misplaced obligation to a group of individuals intent solely upon devouring her already-overstretched income.
Though seething with anger at the traditions that dictate subservience to a potentially detrimental institution, the director acknowledges that shared familial bonds are indubitably natural – and thus, the problem confronting our protagonist is that of escaping her own nature; the issue compounded by the contradictions and limitations of the society in which she lives. In one of the film’s bittersweet ironies, it’s Nita’s fellow females – the permanently-embittered mother and the jealous sister with their grossly overinflated senses of entitlement – who most vigorously wield the axe of the patriarchy against her. Indeed, the only characters who appear to offer genuine concern for her debilitating plight prove to be her father and elder brother – theoretically the film’s two foremost exemplars of male dominance. Ghatak’s conception of the patriarchal order is loaded with similar subversions, and one notes that not one of the men in Nita’s life conforms to our expectations of alpha masculinity. The qualities that unite these would-be patriarchs instead reveal themselves to be cowardice and weakness, thereby resulting in a glaring inability to head so unsettled a household. It’s accordingly left to Nita to unwillingly emerge as the breadwinner in a full-time, thankless role that extinguishes her private desires (ideals and sentiments are still very much a luxury in so precarious a middle class) whilst leaving her utterly at the mercy of an unsympathetic public domain. She abnegates out of ingrained beliefs in the power of duty and devotion (“We all love each other, but we shy from saying so”), but these beliefs will come to be ruthlessly dismissed as deceitful fallacies. Amidst this mishmash of personal and collective needs, Ghatak’s message resounds loud and clear: men are merely the faces of a system that’s incapacitated without the support of women like Nita – women who exist in the background, suffering silently, invisibly.
Just as inescapable as our heroine’s spiritual incarceration is the technical flair of our director, fearless in the exploration of his creative potential. Ghatak’s stylistic idiosyncrasies embolden the film, at times courting hagiography (low-angle shots during unwanted epiphanies immortalise Nita as a goddess in turmoil) whilst in other instances repelling it (at her lowest ebbs, she finds herself shrouded in the darkness of shadows – a tactic whose effect is heightened when recalling that one of Star‘s most noteworthy elements is its astounding depth of field). The director appears as adept when wallowing in the rich pastoralism of the Bengal landscape as he does when interrogating the disordered urbania of a developing metropolis. Thus, picturesque long shots contrast with near avant-garde flourishes, the oscillations in style alluding towards a bifurcated crisis that extends beyond Nita’s increasing hysteria. The clues to this turmoil’s source lie in Ghatak’s cluttered soundscapes, themselves roaming the boundaries of diegetic and non-diegetic space: the frenzied amalgam of drums and sitars; the howling horns of passing trains; the unsettling cracks of a not-distant whip; and always, always the mumblings of a vibrant, restless society. The director aurally embeds his protagonist’s suffering into the wider narrative of his divided homeland and, in his most inspired move, borrows from Bengal’s rich musical heritage to reinforce the point: Star explodes into cathartic relief when brother and sister engage in a sorrowful rendition of a poem by the region’s cultural hero, Rabindranath Tagore, a moment that completely upends contemporary understandings of music in Indian cinema. Ghatak’s manoeuvres posit the film as some sort of modernist Bengali folk opera; his measured deployment of temporal ellipses allowing his politicised sentiments to engulf the audience much like one of the torrid cyclones that so frequently batter his motherland’s terrain. The director’s pronouncements on Partition and its traumas – infiltrating and corrupting even the most sacred of human relationships – could not be more apparent. Behind this assessment however, there lies a tribute to the resilience of a sequestered populace, clinging to their dream of eventual unity. Nevertheless, as Ghatak’s harrowing coda so poignantly realises, there are certain dreams which simply cannot be.
Into the high country we ride. A lakeside idyll, sometime in the 19th(?) century. The picturesque scene exists in an achromatic epoch, though the attire of a delicate young maiden (possibly with child?) and the scurry of a man on horseback allows for an informed guess. No matter, the dissolution of this harmonious vision is merely around the corner: assertive stooges escort the damsel (yes, with child) to a solemn, possibly religious gathering where her father, “El Jefe”, awaits. His power: self-evident (henchmen everywhere, all others silent in deference); its nature: to be left unclear. Who impregnated his daughter? The girl in question admirably attempts defiance in response to her inquisition, but this is clearly a world with little to no room for such feeble feminist stances. A few seconds later, her arm now broken, she cries out: “Alfredo Garcia!” – and Fortune’s wheel can halt its turning. Destinies have now been determined: Sr. Garcia’s head is to be severed to appease this vengeful patriarch, and he who commits the deed will be rewarded substantially. For those that have it, money can buy anything. For those that don’t, it can buy a whole lot more.
But wait! This is not the 19th century. Cars pile out from El Jefe’s compound as his lackeys begin their hunt, and stock footage of aeroplanes suggest a temporal proximity that inverts our understanding to date. Furthermore, we soon learn that Alfredo Garcia is already dead – a fact that the lackeys remain oblivious to, but which certain others are only too happy to capitalise on; the task of severing the cursed man’s head now considerably alleviated. (Sanctity is a concept that went six feet under long before our ‘new’, contemporary setting.) One such other is Bennie, our irascible host for the remainder of this macabre adventure. A barfly-cum-pianist, he lives inside a permanent hangover; a gringo out of water, prowling the sleaze-dens of Mexico in search of lost time – not even a poor man’s hero. He barks and he snarls, primarily at women (male chauvinism is the prevalent order here), and he sniffs out the scent of a dollar like only a lamentably unlucky loser could. Still, a swipe of a blade and a theft of a head and the future shall be his. As he insists to the gay hitmen who hire him: “Nobody loses all the time!” (Oh yes they do, Bennie.) Is this what life has come to? Profiteering from death? Amorality colours the walls of every bar, every motel room, every heart. The shattered dreams of our exhausted troubadour have no place in the realm of social reality, and so they must be relocated – forced to lurk along the peripheries of plausibility. But surely, there must be something else… anything else…
Love! Elita. A battered siren, former flame of Alfredo Garcia himself; a woman so entrenched in resignation that she embraces a would-be rapist with a tenderness that betrays her history of heartache (worry not, for she “knows the way”). Is she Bennie’s saviour? Together, they enact a desperate, tequila-soaked romance invested with the transformative passion of fatalistic hope. Her conscience is yet to be savaged to the point of disrepair, so she attempts in vain (half-heartedness?) to save him from Fate. She: “Jesus, just being together is enough!”; He: “No it’s not, baby. It takes pan, bread, dinero.” Alas, salvation is not an option here, and so the pair must succumb to the capitalist vagary that’s orchestrated by an oversized bigwig whose name they’ll never know. Dinero, after all, will help them withstand the increasing desertification of their souls. No longer will the rivers of their miserable, septic little world flow with sorrow: a skull for deliverance equals an escape from perpetual mediocrity. Yes, it makes perfect sense. In pursuit of their happily ever after, Elita leads Bennie to Alfredo Garcia’s resting place – and, in an eerie twilight assailed by invisible ghosts, they unearth his casket. Its door – a portal into an alternate universe – is creaked open, and Bennie stares into the abyss. A momentary existential crisis is swiftly discarded, and a sword is finally raised.
There’s nothing sacred about a hole in the ground, or a man that’s in it. Or you, or me.
Welcome to the death march! Was it not that all along? How misguided we were to believe otherwise. (Did we really believe?) The road to Hell is paved with bodies… carnage, everywhere. Beware the no-hoper armed with no hope; the loneliest man in the world. Heroism is dead. Machismo is dead. Love is dead. Somewhere, a headless corpse is filling the world with howls of laughter. Perhaps a coping mechanism? Futile and cruel. Horribly cruel. Even drink won’t solve this quandary – there will be no release from the charnel house of emotions that we’re in. What to do? Where to go? Gaze into a mirror (who’s the fairest of them all?)… no, it’s too much. Rambling soliloquies in the company of decaying flesh clearly make better sense. Alfredo Garcia turned out to be the perfect wife! Alas, Bennie is not the perfect husband. How pitiable this soul is. How despondent, how pathetic. Blistering sadness now overwhelms the universe alongside the irrational and the absurd. We must sink to the deepest depths of despair – to lose oneself is to find oneself. STOP! A revelation: this road trip must continue. Drive! Drive through the eschatological wilderness and towards the maker’s hacienda. Escape from the quagmire and persist in the quest for truth, a truth that’s ceased to exist… that may never have existed. (Cruel. Horribly cruel.) The impending victory will be pyrrhic, but fear not for at least we have the slaughter. Yes, slaughter: a bloody ballet; a mesmeric act of beauty that relieves us from a wretched, thankless existence. Surrender to it. Surrender to the slaughter, Bennie. Surrender to life.