Before Satyajit Ray, Indian cinema had yet to make much of an impact on the rest of the Western world. Despite the large quantities of film being produced in India at the time, most were produced exclusively for an Indian audience and stayed that way, but with the arrival of Ray’s debut Pather Panchali, Indian cinema experienced a boon in Western exposure, and a glut of other filmmakers followed in the great auteur’s footsteps, forming a movement known as Parallel Cinema. Unlike some of the commercially-driven Bollywood product that often stayed within genre conventions, these were films that attempted to present a realistic picture of a modernising, fast-changing India, dealing with the issues within Indian society at the time, from poverty and healthcare to gender roles and industrialisation. These films perhaps remain the only group of Indian films that have been to any extent widely seen by Western cinephile audiences; it’s a shame because it’s hard to believe a nation of one billion people has just been producing exclusively over-the-top Bollywood pap that gets meme-ified on Youtube for the past 30 years, but that appears to be how cinema distribution works.
Nevertheless, The Cloud-Capped Star is a fine example of a generation of Indian cinema which attained deserved international acclaim. Directed by Ritwik Ghatak, who is probably Parallel Cinema’s second most acclaimed director after Ray, The Cloud-Capped Star is a much more sprawling, melodramatic, perhaps even unfocused work than any of Ray’s films. It tells the story of Nita (Supriya Choudhury), a young woman living with a large middle-class family attempting to juggle education, work and a love life. Unfortunately, a mixture of bad luck and bad choices makes things extremely difficult for her. Her older brother, a musician-in-training, is otherwise completely penniless and always borrowing money. Her mother does nothing but complain about everything in sight. Her sister runs off with Nita’s boyfriend and marries him. Only her father seems to take effort to care for her, and he finds himself in an accident which effectively ends his formerly secure career, forcing Nita to work full-time to support her family, which she does without hesitation.
Without a doubt, The Cloud-Capped Star stands firmly in Nita’s corner; it’s a film unafraid to point out the unfairness of Nita’s lot, both as a woman and as a victim of sudden poverty: the relative security of her family’s middle-class lifestyle is thrown askew with her father’s accident, forcing multiple members to either leave home or take up unsecure work, whilst the pressure for Nita to marry and go into domesticity, setting aside her education, frustrates both her and her family. In this regard, The Cloud Capped Star is a fascinating cross-section of a family caught in the midst of a crisis: all sorts of various aspects of Indian society are strewn across the film, from the musician brother’s hopes and dreams of becoming a star, to the dangerous factory work that Nita’s younger brother finds himself doing to help the family stay afloat. Dreams of a better life permeate all the film’s characters, the realities of financial insecurity chip away at them.
Unfortunately however, Ghatak’s direction is a lot less focused than Ray’s. Whereas Ray had an innate ability to focus on small details in his character lives and use them to poetically expound on their trials and tribulations, Ghatak is more scattershot. Parts of the film feel like comedy, other parts feel like pure melodrama, whilst others are restrained chamber dramas, and the tonal inconsistency is quite frustrating at times. Ghatak knows how to frame a shot for sure; The Cloud-Capped Star is an achingly well-composed film visually, characters always framed in such a way so as we can always study their expressions and faces – just as well too that the performances are generally superb and for the most part subtly underplayed.
In addition, there are, as so often in Indian cinema, musical scenes spread throughout the film, and it must be said these are the film’s strongest. The Cloud-Capped Star is not especially a musical (there are only three or four songs at the most), but they are especially powerful musical pieces, sung from the depths of the heart, as if the character’s cannot contain their sorrows no longer.
Yet the film’s length and overall structure is a troublesome drawback. Once the general tone of the film has been set – that Nita is being forced through no fault of her own to support her family – in the first 45 minutes, The Cloud-Capped Star does little more than repeat this theme for the next hour or so. There is little variation or progress, with Nita simply becoming more harried, tired and ill as time goes on, until the film’s final act, thus creating a large space within The Cloud-Capped Star which is simply repetition. Well-shot repetition it may be, but it is repetition nevertheless; yes Nita has it bad, yes things are getting shittier, but the need to constantly reinforce this fact disappears completely after half an hour at the most. It leads to a lanky, unfocused film that ends up hurting the central humanistic ideal of the film.
The Cloud-Capped Star is flawed for sure, and on this evidence Ritwik Ghatak lacks the control, sharpness and observation of human nature that Satyajit Ray was so quietly and brilliantly able to display throughout his career. However, the basic core of the film – its cinematography and its performances – are pretty strong, and the film’s progressive and intelligent look at a contemporary Indian family is engaging. Despite its length and lack of focus, it broadly works. And there’s always the music, the beautiful music…