An online film journal for Indian Cinema
Before Mrinal Sen and Satyajit Ray responded to the political unrest in Calcutta with their respective treatises on the Naxalite movement, the Bengali film maker Tapan Sinha had already mounted a powerful neo realist critique with his 1968 film Apanjan. All three films that I have mentioned feature a male character, symbolising the Calcutta middle class youth, undergoing a political crisis. Another characteristic of Naxalite cinema in the 1960s and 1970s is the repeated emphasis on the tenuous relationship between the old and new generations of Calcutta. In Apanjan, director Tapan Sinha attempts to bridge the generation gap by depicting a relationship between a gang of politicised youth and a fragile old widow who has come to Calcutta from the rural village. The film’s loose narrative cuts between Anandamoyee’s (Chhaya Devi) recollections of her problematic life with her husband (a theatre actor) and the contemporary violent unrest on the streets of Calcutta. Anandamoyee’s political naivety not only points to an illiteracy that she acknowledges to Ravi who leads the gang of dissidents but makes her appear out of synch with the real world. Interestingly, it is Anandamoyee’s incongruity that makes her so appealing to the disillusioned gang. Anandamoyee is lured to Calcutta by distant relatives to act as a glorified servant in the house of a middle class family. When Anandamoyee discovers the true intentions of her cynical relatives she is disgusted and leaves to care for two street children.
Sinha criticises the middle class Calcutta family as selfish and deeply unsympathetic. Their exploitation of Anandamoyee suggests an ideological indifference to what was happening in Calcutta during the late 1960s and additionally their comfortable lifestyle also represents them as symbols of a corrupt bourgeoisie. The gang conflict and the political election being contested by two candidates is an aspect of the film’s wider political context that bypassed my minimal understanding of Calcutta during the late 1960s. I think this is an ideological aspect of the film that would certainly indicate strongly that Tapan Sinha was directly addressing the sensibilities of the Calcutta youth in particular. Although the film doesn’t really hold together, as it seems to initiate too many narratives and resolves very few of them, it is the surprisingly moving ending that gives Sinha’s film a particularly frightening political edge. The ending is executed with the blunt and painful urgency of Pina’s sacrifice in Rossellini’s Rome, Open City. It’s as if the machine gunfire from the streets of Rome echo through the transparent spaces of film history, arriving in Calcutta with a similar political anguish. Just as the children in Rome, Open City watch on as Don Pietro is executed so do the two orphaned street children in Apanjan look on as Anandamoyee’s dead body is loaded into the ambulance. In the final shot of the film, the two children chase the ambulance through the streets of Calcutta. It is a ghostly image as Sinha employs slow motion to make everything appear even more hopeless in what was a time of uncertainty and dread. Apanjan is a key work of Bengali cinema and deservedly belongs in the company of Sen and Ray’s films on Calcutta.