Partition, Cinema and Prosthetic Memory: On the Cinematic Works of Ritwik Ghatak and Nemai Ghosh – Sriparna Datta


Cinema is an altogether different medium of artistic expression from literature. Its power of capturing the present has complicated the concept of memory and postmemory. The experience of a geo-political event like partition passes from one generation to another through memory. But what happens when the first-hand experience of partition is captured in a cinematic work? This essay will engage with this complex phenomenon of Indian history reflected in Nemai Ghosh’s Chinnamul (The Uprooted) and Ritwik Ghatak’s Meghe Dhaka Tara (The Cloud-Capped Star). In addition, I shall emphasise how Ghosh and Ghatak use the technique of telling and re-telling stories to recreate the partition memory in a more complex manner. However, in bringing these two works together, this article will discuss the idea of prosthetic memory and trauma related to the Bengal partition. 

Keywords: partition, cinema, prosthetic memory, memory, trauma

The present upheavals in Indian politics and the growing religious discrepancies across the country have re-invoked the memories of partition (of India and Pakistan). The ghost of partition seems to haunt us to this day. Today, the event has become a supreme example of overt religious polarisation and inhumane power politics. The experience of a geopolitical event like partition passes from one generation to another through memory. However, the stories of partition lay scattered among the people who experienced it and the later generations of survivors have a minimal understanding of the event. This may avail them to understand the urgency of the situation and source these memories. Nevertheless, getting a sense of it is difficult. Once, renowned writer and a first-generation partition survivor, Krishna Sobti, noted that “it [partition] was difficult to forget and dangerous to remember” (Butalia, xiv). However, for the present generation, the saying would probably have changed to ‘it [partition] is difficult to remember but dangerous to forget’.

Reflecting on the experiences of the ‘second generation’, Eva Hoffman writes that ‘second generation’ memories are those experiences inherited from the ‘first generation’. However, in Hoffman’s words, as quoted by Frosh(2019), “[a]nd yet, at the same time, this is exactly the crux of the second generation’s difficulty: that it has inherited not experience, but its shadows.”(p. 1) These ‘shadows’ of the experiences have been transmitted through many literary and non-literary mediums as well. Various attempts like memoirs, films and museums capture and preserve these memories. However, Hoffman’s observation of the second generation as having “inherited not experience, but its shadows”, is a polemical issue today, especially in relation to Landsberg’s concept of ‘prosthetic memory’, which will fundamentally guide the arguments that follow.

After the partition of India, numerous artistic works across and beyond the subcontinent commemorated the mental trauma and sufferings of this territorial split. Among all the works, a significant portion is contributed by the Bengali films of the late 20th century. This article aims to excavate the complex issues of memory as reflected in cinema and cinema in itself as memory. In so doing, I chose to analyse the cinematic works of the two masters of Bengali cinema Nemai Ghosh and Ritwik Ghatak that exclusively deal with the fictional realities of partition. The first film among the selected works is Nemai Ghosh’s Chinnamul (trans. The Uprooted), released in 1951 and the other one is Ghatak’s Meghe Dhaka Tara (trans. The Cloud-Capped Star)(1960) from the partition or refugee trilogy. This essay sheds light on how the event of the Bengal partition is rendered by both these filmmakers in their selected works and how these works, as repositories of images; serve as memories to the later generations.

Cinema and Memory

The advent of photography and cinematography in human history have revolutionized the notion of memory and made it even more problematic than ever. Since the arrival of the ‘digital memory banks’ like films, theories and critical debates have been exceedingly trying to locate the complex relations between machine memory and human memory and how these memories are responding to one another. Over the past few decades, collective memory is crucially informed, shaped and, in some cases, installed by mass media, especially by cinema. “Cinema, in this view,” writes Kilbourn (2013), “is both a form of collective memory and a medium from which the viewer may glean information about the past—however banal or trite or inaccurate”(p. 27). Alison Landsberg called this memory “prosthetic memory”. While defining the term Landsberg importantly said that prosthetic memory is ‘someone else’s past, another’s memories’ (Kilburn, 2013, p. 124). While watching a cinema, the audience often feels a retreat from the ‘real world’ to the world of cinema which effectively generates the “fellow feeling”. Fellow- feeling, Landsberg (2003) says by quoting Scheler, is man’s “innate capacity for comprehending the feelings of others, even though he may never on any occasion have encountered such feelings (or their ingredients) in themselves” (p. 146). However, the prosthetic memory gained through cinema is repeatedly questioned by recent scholarship, the major concerns being the historical ‘accuracy’ and the ‘authenticity’ of the past depicted in cinema. At this point we may take into consideration Urvashi Butalia’s observations on the partition, where she writes, 

James Young says, whatever “fictions” emerge from the survivors’ accounts are not deviations from the “truth” but are part of the truth in any particular version. The fictiveness in testimony does not involve disputes about facts, but the inevitable variances in perceiving and representing these facts, witness by witness, language by language, culture by culture (Butalia, 2017, p. 14).

Both the filmmakers Ghosh and Ghatak, whose works are the centre of this essay, were the survivors of partition and had first-hand experiences of it. Their films, albeit fiction, relate to reality and evoke ‘fellow feeling’. Chinnamul and Meghe Dhaka Tara narrate the perilous conditions of the refugees from different perspectives. Nemai Ghosh’s Chinnamul (The Uprooted) displays the lives of people before and after partition. Interestingly enough, it is the first neorealist film made in India.

Having realistic shots woven into its fictive body, the film delves deep into the problems of being uprooted. The real images which Ghosh’s hidden camera captured consolidate the dismaying aura of partition. While Nemai Ghosh investigates the lives of people before and after partition, Ritwik Ghatak engages with the psychic dilemmas caused by the event. He sought to subvert the geopolitical chasm by procuring cultural unity between the east and western parts of Bengal. “As I tried to master the tradition of the whole of Bengal,” he wrote elsewhere, “I felt sure that the union of the two Bengals is inevitable. I am not here to judge the political implications of this, but the cultural impact of this is of great value to me.” (Rajadhyakha, 1982, p. 15). In so doing, Ghatak used the images and concepts of the Great Mother archetype which gradually leads us to the Jungian notion of “collective unconscious.” (Jung, 1959) The mother archetype is significantly portrayed to delineate the origin. Therefore, his work is not a mere account of the social condition of the post-partition Bengal but invites us to recall the entire evolution of human history. The cinematic works that the essay engages with thus reflect the individual as well as the collective memory of partition.

Chinnamul desh in memory

A landmark film in the Bengal film industry, Nemai Ghosh’s Chinnamul provides a rare cinematic display of partition. It narrates the story of an uprooted village after partition and the myriad subsequent problems encountered by the villagers. The film has scarcely attracted the attention of scholars. However, its partly realistic and partly fictional renderings of partition demand a critical reading of the text. The film very instinctively upholds the mental trauma and sufferings of the partition survivors. Here, my sole concern is to focus on how the film is accounting and recounting the socio-political event and how it offers a reinterpretation of the place called ‘desh’ ( trans. native) as represented in the movie. 

The film is about the lives of Sreekanta and his villagers. In my observation, the film can be categorised into two parts for a better understanding of it; the first one depicts the life before partition and the second part consists of the post-partition conditions. The movie opens with serene rustic scenarios of the village Naldanga in Dhaka district. The villagers were hitherto unknown of the hullabaloo happening in the upper strata of politics. Sreekanta, a gregarious person newly married was weaving his dream for his family and desh.  He says, “hard times will not stay forever…Don’t the birds build their nests braving the storm?” (Chinnamul,1950) Sreekanta, here, is represented as a prototype of Bengali youth, a revolutionary face of Bengal. 

The later part of the movie shows how the cataclysmic event of partition befell the lives of people. The image of a dagger that appears in the movie suggests the religious riots happening around the disputed areas. Amidst the growing tensions, characters Madhu Ganguly and Muzaffar Khan appear like ‘arch-devils’. Sreekanta could not escape the conspiracy mended by the two antagonists and gets arrested by the police. Both Ganguly and Khan start usurping the land by spreading rumours of the tumult and suggesting villagers leave the place immediately in the absence of Sreekanta. The friendship of Khan and Ganguly is significantly portrayed to insinuate the fact that religious differences did not exist in the relations maintained by the upper section of the society, but it moulds the power politics played by them during chaotic times.

The film vividly depicts the mental trauma of the uprooted people. An elderly woman’s cry, “I shall not leave my husband’s household” (Chinnamul, 1950) empathically reveals the pain one undertook during forgoing his/her ‘desh’.  The filmmaker reflects the trauma that people experienced through multiple instances in the movie. The plot depicts the villagers taking shelter in a rail station in Calcutta post-partition as refugees. Later they are shifted to a large house by a volunteer. During this process, Sreekanta’s wife, after begetting a son, dies. Her desire to set up their home in ‘desh’ also dies with her. Her death instantly made them, what Ghosh perceives as ‘uprooted’. The demise of the mother metaphorically connotes the loss of the motherland. From now on, both the mother and the motherland will exist in the memory of the newborn. The characters who appeared before us are the faces of the time. The film thus is not only a memoir of partition; it is also an inscribed memory to the later generation of viewers. The movie depicts how the first part of the narrative transforms into the second part’s memory. The use of flashbacks in the cinema reinstates the fact that their motherland exists nowhere except in memory. 

Meghe Dhaka Tara: Revisiting the Memory of Partition

Meghe Dhaka Tara (The Cloud Capped Star) is the most celebrated film in the entire oeuvre of Ritwik Ghatak. Desolation of myth into reality and reality into myth as displayed in the film is a unique phenomenon in Bengali cinema. Although much has been discussed on Ghatak’s use of the mother goddess archetype, much is left undiscussed. The concern of this essay is to excavate how this film deals with the individual and the collective memory. Meghe Dhaka Tara narrates the struggle of a refugee family, where the elder daughter of the family Neeta undertakes the responsibility to re-establish life after partition. Here, Neeta is represented as the mother goddess Uma. However, the portrayal of  Neeta as an archetype mother at the beginning, represented with great élan gradually recedes towards the end. In the last scene, Neeta emerges as an individual with her own right to live. Here, the filmmaker depicts the character as a prototype of an oppressed woman who remains largely silent. Thus, Ghatak not merely foregrounds the oppression faced by women, but also negates the age-old myth of a self-sacrificial, strong mother and the romantic false consciousness that is traditionally associated with such roles. (Rajadhyaksha, 1982, p. 75)

Neeta’s heart-piercing cry, ” Dada, ami bachte cheyechilam (Brother, I wanted to live)” is the pithy denial of the romanticised myth that she hitherto assumed to be embodied. The portrayal of Neeta’s suffering and her death enables the audience to ’empathise’ with the character and relate that to the larger framework of partition trauma.  According to Landsberg (2003), “the connection one feels when one empathises with another is not simply a feeling of emotional connection, but a feeling of cognitive, intellectual connection – an intellectual coming-to-terms with the other’s circumstances.” (p. 147). And this empathy is generated by the mass ‘production and dissemination of memory’. (p. 148). Landsberg calls this empathy a part of ‘prosthetic memory’ that ‘one did not live…[but] indeed ‘personal’ memories, as they derive from engaged and experientially oriented encounters with the mass media’s various technologies of memory’.(pp. 148-9). By evoking empathy towards the women’s desire to live, Ghatak upturns the reiteration of the structure of patriarchal dominance that places women at the suffering end of the partition. Towards the end of the film, Neeta remembers her life and tells Sanat that all through her life she committed a sin by not protesting against the wrongdoings; therefore she has to do ‘prayaschitta (trans. atonement). Meghe Dhaka Tara thus is a critique of the Bengali tradition and revisits its parochial avenues over again. 


‘Memory in the age of technical reproducibility’ (Lansberg, 2014) demands a reimagining of the term ‘postmemory.'(Hirsch, 2008) The notion that “postmemory is ‘postmodern’ memory as it names the ‘trauma’ of not having experienced trauma” is repeatedly questioned. The memory of partition when mediated through cinema or other mass media significantly changes the concept of postmemory. If memory is different from postmemory in the sense that postmemory is an “actively constructive”, “imaginative process”, and “ an act of identification and creative response” then the experiences of the past events we gather from mass media like cinema have a concrete base. Films that are discussed in the essay do not solely portray the event of partition but the partition as it was experienced by those who witnessed it. It is through these cinematic works that contemporary generations get a sense of the subtle psychic experiences of the people who had a firsthand understanding of the event. Thus, all these works avail us to become conscious about the ‘unconscious legacies’ of the past and present. As Frosh (2019) writes, “the present is filled with the ‘traumatic encounter that has come before you’ (p. 105), and this means that every individual is in contact with the trauma which literally ‘came before’” (pp. 5-6) them or they happen to view. Therefore, the imaginations of later generations are infused with the ‘shadows of the experiences of others. As Frosh argues, “they may find themselves inhibited in relation to moving forward precisely because they are not truly ‘post-’ at all” (p. 9) as we are still encountering partition in our everyday lives.  While defining the term ‘trauma’ Kilbourn (2013) writes, “For Cathy Caruth… ‘trauma’ is not in the original event or experience but in the re-experiencing, via memory: it is memory that is traumatic, not the original experience per se” (p. 133). Hence, trauma “does not require ‘reading’ or ‘decoding’ but witnessing, objectively and after the fact” (p. 133). The old woman’s cry for her household in Chinnamul, the life of Neeta in Meghe Dhaka Tara and the destruction all around are true depictions of a traumatic event. In this sense, cinema and the other audiovisual forms of prosthetic memory transcend trauma across generations and make the viewers ’empathise’ with characters. 


Bhaskar, I. (2019, September 10). The Cloud-Capped Star: A Cry for Life. The Criterion Collection. Retrieved February 13, 2022, from 

Butalia, U. (2017). The Other Side of Silence: Voices from the Partition of India. Penguin Random House India. 

Frosh, S. (2019). Those Who Come After: Postmemory, Acknowledgement and Forgiveness. Palgrave Macmillan. Retrieved from 

Ghatak, R. (1987). Cinema & I. Rupa and Co. 

Ghatak, R. (2021). Chalachitra Manush Ebong Aro Kichu. Dey’s Publishing. 

Kilbourn, R. A. J. (2013). Cinema, Memory, Modernity: The Representation of Memory from the Art Film to Transnational Cinema. Routledge.

 Landsberg, A. (2003). Prosthetic memory: the ethics and politics of memory in an age of mass culture. In P. Grainge (Ed.), Memory and popular film (pp. 144–161). Manchester University Press.

Rajadhyaksha, A. (1982). Ritwik Ghatak: A Return to the Epic. Screen Unit. 

Author Bio

Sriparna Datta has completed her Masters in English Literature from University of Gour Banga, Malda, West Bengal. Her works have been published from Café Dissensus Everyday and Aparjan Patrika (Bengali Magazine). She also contributed a chapter in the book titled Identity: Quest and Questions. Her research interest covers Memory Studies and Gender Studies.