André Bazin’s discussion of neorealism in “An Aesthetic of Reality: Neorealism” (1) brings forth an interesting contrast between two different directing approaches towards realism by positing the choice between “one kind of reality and another” – the technical and the natural – in his choice of directors Orson Welles and Georges Rouquier. Although Ritik Ghatak’s films should not be lumped into the same breath with Italian Neorealism, the general concept serves as a rich platform from which to discuss the role of lighting within Ghatak’s Meghe Dhaka Tara (The Cloud Capped Star, 1960). By nature, lighting presents the same spectrum between technical and natural in its technical challenges. As will be stated multiple times, it is impossible to ascertain the exact effects used, if any, on each shot. However, there are undoubtedly purposeful uses of lighting, which invites analysis into the purpose and success of its usage. The primary factor in the degree of control the director has over lighting is location, usually due to the vastly different feasibilities of lighting manipulation between indoor and outdoor shots. In The Cloud Capped Star, the movie anchors itself to the clay-walled house of a family driven closer and closer to poverty, where the difficulties of an outdoor shot continually bleeds in through the latticed windows and gap-filled walls. Thus, time, in addition to space, becomes another factor in the choice of lighting for Ghatak, where the usual technical details of lighting are augmented by the naturalistic presence (or absence) of the sun. As Raymond Bellour writes in “The Film We Accompany,” “the cinema here [in Cloud Capped Star] recognises itself in its ever-tested limit, so difficult to attain, between interior and exterior, realist image and mental image…” (2) Though Bellour was specifically referencing the relationship between sound and image, this limit between interior and exterior expresses itself through use of lighting in the film as well, particularly in the way that interior pervades exterior, exterior into interior – which creates a complete world in which the inner struggle and outer struggle reflect one another almost fatalistically. Given Ghatak’s concern with the Partition of India, this saturation between inner personal turmoil and public division and strife is what enables the melodramatic aspects of the film to coincide with his social-minded aims.
The tension between interior and exterior, technical and natural, is made apparent because of the melodrama at the core of the film. As a film seeking to push the inner state into the external, the usual aesthetic of over-the-top, heightened contrasts is present both within the elongated gazes and repetition of both diegetic and non-diegetic sound. To this end, Bellour speaks of image in the film as “never purely ‘inner’ enough, finding itself by nature (in all realist cinema) always too close to the surface of things, bodies and faces, and therefore lacking, except through words, the ability to tell us what a character feels at the most inner point of himself.” (3) It is even more difficult, then, to conceive of lighting as expressing interiority, as it is on the contrary too removed from the surface of things, bodies and faces, emanating as it were from an external source to illuminate “things, bodies and faces.” Yet, at crucial moments, Ghatak manages to transform the external nature of lighting into the palette of inner expressionism, rejecting the documentary-style greys of Italian neorealist films for deep exaggeration befitting the melodramatic tone of the film. At other times, the externally removed and objective character of light is left alone to simply illuminate the mundane and the everyday.
The relationship between inner and outer as a part of the tension in technical and natural approaches to realism is best explored through the scenes most expressly tied to the natural – the repeating episodes with the tree by the lake, to which the film returns to five times. Bellour comments upon the expressiveness of the opening shot, but its ethereal quality is in many ways enhanced by the mist-like effect of a frame flooded with light. Though it cannot be determined with certainty whether there was post-production editing or change in exposure, the image presents a strong contrast between the strong dark mass of the tree and “great hole of white light, a vanishing point which follows the tree’s descending curve.” (4) The repetition of outdoor shots with this tree recalls the pastoral calm and power of the very first shot, and serves as a place of encounter. When later at a darker part of the narrative a reprisal of this shot occurs with Nita’s (Supriya Choudhury) fiancé Sanat (Niranjan Ray) conversing flirtatiously with Gita (Gita Ghatak) under the same branches, the scene is plunged in dark shadow. Nita’s approaching figure is difficult to make out, even as she comes closer and closer to the camera, engulfed as she is by the overcast branches.
The camera pans and follows Nita from her pause at seeing the two, turning to follow her as she retreats into the distance.
The next frame of Gita and Sanat presents the black silhouettes of their figures under a smaller riverside tree against the grey white blank of the water and sky. Their presence becomes no longer nuanced or defined as fiancé or sister, but as caricatures of misfortune in Nita’s life. Further uses of darkness appear and coincide with narrative turns as the film progresses its way towards Nita’s destructive end. When her father is injured on the tracks, the blackness of the night engulfs the tracks that injured him as well as the entire family when they gather around his injured body. The manipulation of dark and light within this natural space signifies the completeness of the world within The Cloud Capped Star – meaningful encounters (negative or positive) throughout the narrative are achieved through unique combinations of space and time as well, not simply objects in isolation.
With indoor lighting, the meaning achieved through outdoor lighting is challenged, and the two states are often brought into dialogue with one another. In particular, the exterior invades indoor scenes through every opening – window, crack, or doorway, with dark and light then interacting in a tangible way with the bodies of the actors. In the first scene that introduces us to the father and mother, the doorway is framed in the centre, with the father in the foreground arguing with the mother in the background.
With the frame only wide enough for each of the characters, the frame of light serves to box each of the characters within rather than suggest escape or passage – and indeed, the father leaves by approaching the camera, rather than through the back door. An additional use of the lighting through open doorways occurs when Nita and Mantu (Dwiju Bhawal) are making selfish requests while eating with their mother. At first, the mother dominates the foreground by taking up nearly half the frame, with Gita on the left. In the distance out the window, Nita’s figure can be made out.
Then a small pan to the left reveals the presence of Mantu, leaving the mother out of the frame.
This tight framing then makes a final pan to the left that reveals the doorway to the courtyard, through which Nita and Mantu scramble out to pelt their older sister with shopping requests. In the almost blinding light of the courtyard, the three siblings are staged in the back of the shot, enveloped in white as sounds of their greed-induced delight drifts back to the figure of the mother, still within the shadow of the room, her face troubled and body angling to block the doorframe.
Bellour describes the movement from indoor to outdoor as a “physical dialogue between shadow and light,” (5) one which is also mapped superficially to the interior-exterior divide. An additional use of the doorway as a frame within a frame appears during Nita’s exit from Shankar’s (Anil Chatterjee) new apartment after he has deserted her for her sister. A large archway filled with light takes up the bottom right of the frame, which is shot from a low angle. Her figure then fills the entire frame and blocks the light from view.
Her slow descent down the stairs away from this light takes on terrible meaning with a low angle close-up of her anguished face holding her throat, where her despair situates her visually below the frame of light as well, perhaps in reference to a happiness she can no longer obtain.
It is striking that doorways and windows perform an aesthetic function within the shot by providing “frames within frames,” and yet remain mundane and real in their function as passages from indoor to outdoor. The commonplace nature of these passageways points to the extent that the aesthetic of expression is mixed with the aesthetic of reality in this film. The darkness and brightness of the outside world retains the potential to express emotion and mood, while the extent to which that expression diffuses into the normality of the indoor space is mediated through real physical barriers. It is no accident that the set of their home is full of such holes and open doorways, as they are also the family’s badges of poverty.
The extent to which extreme internal expression can burst out of the film through this relationship between indoor and outdoor lighting is best illustrated with the goodbye scene between brother and sister as they both sing in an engulfing blackness. Previous shots in the brother’s room have been consistently dark, especially during other times of song. Given the strong contrast between the two “venues” in which Shankar sings – the first being the well lit trees, where his songs were expressive of joy and performance, and the second being the darkness of his room, where his songs are reverent and solemn, it is no accident that the two contrast so strongly in lighting. Out of all of the shots thus far, including of Shankar’s other performances, this scene is one of the blackest. Even still, the holes along the wall let in small pricks of light much like stars in a night sky, which bring to mind the repeating phrase of the film and its title – The Cloud Capped Star.
Bellour even points out during the close shot of Nita’s distressed face the presence of “two white marks which violently sparkle in the dark background of the shot,” (6) much like a halo. Though the impact of the scene holds through its editing and powerful use of music and sound effects, there is added outpour in emotion by swallowing the two up within darkness. A similar effect can be recalled from the singing scene in Agnès Varda’s Cléo de 5 à 7 (Cleo from 5 to 7, 1962) when the camera repositions itself to frame a black wall behind Cleo (Corinne Marchand). In that scene, the black background abstracts the moment and renders it timeless and space-less, a moment frozen within the inner evocations brought forth by song. Though the scene between Shankar and Nita is not completely abstracted, the darkness expresses at once an intimacy and isolation between the two, as well as an element of inner emotion and longing brought to the surface. Once more, it is unknown how much of this indoor shot was crafted through control of shadow and light, but the darkness of the frame is heavy and purposeful given the ease with which the scene could have been lit with subtlety. At the end, as Nita keels over and cries, the frame is almost entirely dark. It is a scene of extremity, where the internal is not invaded with brightness, but with darkness, and marks the strongest outpour of anguish thus far in the film. However, the scene remains rooted within its context of space and time, as both the gapped walls of the room and the lateness of the day contribute strongly to the darkness of the scene.
A scene following this one that addresses both outer and inner aspects of lighting is one where Nita is looking out of a window at her place of work following Shankar’s departure and the onset of her illness. The scene begins with her point of view on the rooftops of the city, and the scene is scaled up a notch in brightness for one fraction of a second. The fact that this shot reflects Nita’s gaze is not made explicitly clear until the camera pans in a tight shot to the left and reveals her coughing at the window.
Then, with the camera stationary on close-up of her upper torso, she begins to slowly turn away from the window. As she does, the light grows in intensity to the point where the window reflection turns entirely white and certain textures disappear off of her white clothing.
In the same way that the audience is privy to Nita’s mental deterioration through the sounds of whips lashing, this flash of blinding light (accompanied by the high notes of a flute) also signals a cruelty of fate, where a world of opportunity beyond her desk job – marriage or career – have been lost to her. The shot does not end with Nita turning away from the window, however, as the camera slowly moves back to reveal her at her desk, in an unassuming palette where the only high contrast is of the light through window.
This continuous shot reveals the mundane as it is following moments of evocation and emotion. Repeatedly throughout the film, the lights are raised to greater brightness while the shadows are drawn darker and deeper. These moments are not the constant defining aesthetic in the film, however, but rather spaced out in between long stretches of neutral lighting and the mundane. As Bellour points out, “it is necessary at the outset to situate things in their narrative context, if only to grasp how, in the most banal scenes, those that serve to present the characters to us or to introduce conflicts with their local, social and historical dimension, everything is carried… by what I have called disequilibrium.” (7) Light plays a dual role of both illumination and intensity, where the image reflects the mundane while stretching its own visual limits at moments of conflict and collision that reaches beyond the surface of things. On an aesthetic level the external – a light source – becomes indicative of the internal – an inner state of being, while also remaining grounded in the ordinary.
Later, another contrast in similar shots drives home further the extremes of indoor lighting. When Shankar returns home and visits his sister in the midst of exultation and happiness, a repetition of an earlier shot where he struggled with Nita for her love letter occurs. Yet by this time, Nita’s room has been continually engulfed in black, and Shankar’s entrance is into this dark space where in the previous room it had been filled with light streaming through the windows. Though the blackness of this shot is also significant in and of itself, the impact is also derived from its contrast to the earlier letter-stealing shot. The brightness of the earlier shot seemed trivial, registering little except by the extent to which the scene illuminated the joy on Nita’s face as she slowly turned from the window and reclined on her bed to read the letter. However, that brightness is brought to recollection in this reprisal shot, where not only is the camera placed at a greater distance, but the room is unnaturally filled with blackness. The impact of the scene derives itself, in fact, from this contrast between the lightheartedness of the earlier scene, and the tragedy of the later one.
Thus lighting creates volume, void and contrast, all of which are present in the original natural state of the world, but accentuated into emotion and mood through the technical tools of a filmmaker. Thus the binary conundrum choice that is posited by Bazin between the “equally pure kinds of realism represented by Farrebique on the one hand and Citizen Kane on the other” (8) is completely disregarded by Ghatak. And yet, despite a lack of concern with capturing reality, it cannot be said that Bazin would be able to lump the director into the contrasting “expressionist aestheticism of the German films.” (9) The moments of the mundane within The Cloud Capped Star are what give the extreme moments of lighting its power and impact, while also illuminating the heart of the film in its social concerns about poverty and partition.
1. Bazin, André. “An Aesthetic of Reality: Neorealism.” What Is Cinema? Vol. II. Berkeley: University of California, 2005. 28-29.
2. Bellour, Raymond. “The Film We Accompany.” Rouge 3, 2004. Translated by Fergus Daly. Originally published in Trafic 4, 1992.
8. Op. cit., Bazin, 29
9. Op cit., Bazin, 16