Masterpiece of Indian cinema ends in tragedy for selfless heroine

Ritwik Ghatak’s 1962 film ‘Meghe Dhaka Tara’ is streaming via the Pacific Film Archive. Also reviewed: ‘A Crime on the Bayou,’ documenting the 1966 trial of Gary Duncan.

The Cloud-Capped Star. Credit: Pacific Film Archive

My knowledge of Indian cinema is, admittedly, a wee bit lacking. Sure, I’ve seen many of renowned director Satyajit Ray’s films, the occasional golden-age Raj Kapoor feature, and a smattering of more recent Bollywood epics such as the wonderful cricket musical (yes, cricket musical) Lagaan — but there’s plenty still to discover.

Considering that India is (or at least was, pre-COVID) the world’s most prolific producer of motion pictures, it’s a tragedy that much of the country’s cinema has been lost or never made available to Anglophone audiences. Happily, though, there are plenty of exceptions — including Ritwik Ghatak’s 1962 masterpiece, Meghe Dhaka Tara (The Cloud-Capped Star), currently streaming via Pacific Film Archive.

Talk of a singular “Indian cinema,” however, obscures the particularities of the country’s regional film industries. The Cloud-Capped Star, for example, was shot in the eastern state of Bengal and reflects the history of that region, while its rich blend of melodrama and surrealism — the latter aspect amplified by Jyotirindra Moitra’s incredible score, which combines traditional Indian music with the dissonance of western avant-garde composers — stands in sharp contrast to both Ray’s more formal style and the bubblegum fantasies of mainstream Bollywood.

Beautifully lensed in black and white by cinematographer Dinen Gupta, the film tells the story of Neeta (Supriya Choudhury), a young woman supporting her Pakistani refugee family on the outskirts of Kolkata. Debtors are after her retired schoolteacher father (Bijon Bhattacharya); her brothers, Montu (Dwiju Bhawal) and aspiring singer Shankar (the brilliant Anil Chatterjee), seem incapable of holding down a job; and, perhaps worst of all, her flirtatious sister, Geeta (Gita Ghatak), has her eyes on Neeta’s suitor, Sanat (Niranjan Ray).


Gainfully employed Neeta forgoes a badly needed pair of new sandals so that Montu can acquire a pair of soccer shoes, gives Shankar a few annas so that he can get a shave and patiently listens to her mother’s constant complaints about the family’s lack of funds. Her generosity, alas, will not be repaid: By the final reel, a double dose of tragedy awaits the selfless young heroine.

Based on a story by Shaktipada Rajguru, the film’s screenplay — penned by Ghatak — is thoroughly engaging, but keeps the melodrama at a relatively low boil. Coupled with Gupta’s gorgeous photography and Shankar’s heart-rending singing (Chaterjee was, of course, dubbed by a playback singer), The Cloud-Capped Star may not be as well known as Satyajit Ray’s films, but is just as good as the best of them.

A Crime on the Bayou. Credit: Larsen Associates

A Crime on the Bayou (currently playing at Landmark’s Shattuck Cinemas) documents the 1966 trial of Gary Duncan, a Black Louisiana man charged with assault and battery after he lightly touched the elbow of a white teenager in rural Plaquemines Parish. I wasn’t at all familiar with the case before watching the film, but Duncan’s trial led to a significant Supreme Court ruling that bolstered defendants’ rights.

Duncan’s attorney was Richard Sobol, a young Jewish lawyer who also ended up in jail after coming under the baleful gaze of the parish’s powerful president, Leander Perez. Perez was a real piece of work — A Crime on the Bayou shows him unashamedly flying the white supremacy flag on William F. Buckley’s television program “Firing Line.” Loud and proud racism, apparently, didn’t get you de-platformed in the 1960s.