Home Video Hovel: The Cloud-Capped Star, by David Bax
Like so many tragedies, Ritwik Ghatak’s The Cloud-Capped Star starts off feeling like a comedy. Every character and scenario is so flush with emotion–most of it happiness–that it feels as if they may burst into song. One of them, on multiple occasions, does; The Cloud-Capped Star is not a full bore musical but is punctuated by the beautiful rehearsals of Shankar (Anil Chatterjee), an aspiring singer. As the situation of our protagonist, Neeta (Supriya Choudhury), worsens, so does the singing of Shankar become more plaintive. What starts out as a tale of a bright girl with an overbearing, browbeating mother (Gita Day) becomes a devastating illustration of how expectations and duties can make a woman bitter.
Neeta is looking forward to her future. When she graduates from school, she’ll get a job that will allow her to marry her sweetheart Sanat (Niranjan Ray) and look after her mother and father (Bijon Bhattacharya), all while supporting her brother Shankar’s dreams of fame and fortune. But when her father is injured and no longer able to work, she is obliged to take care of the family, first delaying and then losing, one by one, each of her dreams, all the while growing sicker and sicker.
Ghatak and cinematographer Dinen Gupta’s skills at framing and blocking provide insight into Neeta’s mindset. Take, for instance, one of the opening shots. Neeta looks on in close-up profile as Shankar sits by the river, practicing a song. Meanwhile, a train passes in the background. Not only is the image stunning, it lets us know that Neeta loves Shankar and hopes that his eventual success will help carry her into her future. Ghatak returns again and again to this foreground/midground/background kind of staging; Hou Hsiao-Hsien must have watched this film closely.
Beneath Ghatak’s humanistic, empathetic portrayal of a woman being ground down runs a furious polemic about the lives the many who live hand to mouth. Even before Neeta must abandon her schooling, we receive constant reminders that, for the provincial proletariat, survival often means giving up on what you want.
Criterion’s Blu-ray comes from a new 2K transfer overseen by the Film Foundation World Cinema Project and Cineteca di Bologna. It retains the image clarity and contrast needed for Gupta’s deep, layered shots. It’s also remarkably clean. The audio is a remastered mono track that occasionally sounds a bit trebly in a way that oddly fits Chatterjee’s high, keening voice.
Special features include a new conversation between filmmakers Saeed Akhtar Mirza and Kumar Shahani and an essay by film scholar Ira Bhaskar.