Chalchitra / Kaleidoscope (1981, Dir. Mrinal Sen, India)

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This semi-comical snapshot of the middle class Bengali experience in Kolkata is apparently a minor work in Sen’s oeuvre. The story is slight; a young Bengali man Dipu (Anjan Dutta) aspires to be a journalist and as a sort of test of creativity, the editor of a newspaper (Utpal Dutta) asks Dipu to write a story based on his own middle class experiences. The story of Dipu trying to write is merely a pretext for Sen to remain connected with the urban landscape of Kolkata, a return to the richness of the city spaces, last probed with such pleasure since his Kolkata Trilogy. The socio-political urgency of Sen’s cinema after the aesthetic and thematic experiments of The Kolkata Trilogy never really went away from his work – he remained just as connected with the social milieu of the city. For instance, the uninhibited camera roaming freely through the fish market recalls Interview (70) when Ranjit meets his uncle, the first of many self-referential instances. Later, when Dipu tries to flag down a taxi in the bustling streets of Kolkata, Sen adopts an erratic editing style, articulating a blinding disorientation reminiscent of the street cinema of The Kolkata Trilogy, in which characters are liberated and imprisoned by the city in a scarring psychological duality.

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The Dream Sequence.

There is probably a consensus that Sen made two trilogies. The Kolkata Trilogy (1970 – 1973; Interview, Calcutta 71 and Padatik – although you could probably argue for Chorus too, which was released in 1974), and The Absence Trilogy (Ek Din Pratidin/And Quite Rolls The Dawn – 1979, Kharij/The Case Is Closed – 1982 and Ek Din Achanak/Suddenly, One Day – 1989).  I would argue Chalchitra is part of another trilogy, although much looser, but nonetheless important, which also includes Akaler Shandhaney/In Search of Famine (1980) and Khandahar/The Ruins (1983). The abiding theme in this trilogy is concerned with the media apparatus (film crew, photographer, journalist) and the role of the middle class in terms of mediating the politics of representation, exploitation and the gaze. In Chalchitra, Dipu’s urge to sensationalise the mundanity of the middle class experience constantly backfires on him because numerous opportunities for journalistic fodder are met with resistance from the people he encounters notably his mother (Geeta Dutt). It is only when a little boy poses the banal question: ‘How many ovens are there in Kolkata?’ does Dipu finally finds something to write about – pollution, smoke and coal. But this degree of obscurity points to something elemental about the middle class mentality and which results in Utpal Dutta enquiring if Dipu is a communist, a question first posed in Ray’s Pratidwandi (1970), and which seemingly never went away from the psyche of the older generation of Kolkata. Chalchitra features an elaborately staged but very comical dream sequence, clearly a manifestation of Dipu’s jumbled, anxious mind, and which features microcosmic imagery of smoke, women, the police and the press. There is a danger of dismissing Chalchitra as a minor, insubstantial work. However, once situated as part of a loose trilogy, the film takes on an added resonance and deserves a further look.

KHARIJ / THE CASE IS CLOSED (Dir. Mrinal Sen, 1982, India)

A cold front has swept across the city of Calcutta, bringing it to a near stand still. But it’s not just the weather too blame for the prejudices harboured by a middle class family residing in Calcutta. One day an impoverished father, Hari (Dehapratim Das Gupta), comes to their home with a proposition; will the family take on his young son Pupai (Indranil Moitra) as a child servant? At first, the family are reluctant. They criticise the last child servant who only remained with them for a few months before absconding. Eventually they agree and Hari tells them he will return at the end of each month to collect the wages for his son. As the cold snap continues, one morning Pupai is found dead on the kitchen floor. The death comes as a shock to the family. A police investigation is opened into the death of the boy and the family are scrutinised for failing to properly care for the child servant. As the investigation progresses it becomes evident Pupai died from carbon monoxide poisoning and slept in the kitchen because he was cold. Mrinal Sen uses the death of the child servant as a searing political symbol, examining the politics of class and the wider monstrous void that exists between the lower and middle classes of Calcutta. In one particular revealing exchange, the father Anjan (Anjan Dutt) goes with his friend to seek legal advice if the case was taken to court. When Anjan exclaims that Pupai was a member of the family and treated the same, his disingenuous words are rebutted by the lawyer. The lawyer states quite bluntly that Pupai was not treated the same as he was made to sleep under the stairs, given little money, and ultimately regarded as inferior; any positive interaction was minimal from the family and so they had a role to play in his death.

It’s very tricky to deal with class and particularly the exploitation of servants without descending into either ideological rhetoric or wild sentiments but by keeping the narrative within the context of the melodramatic form Sen fixes his gaze within the moral sanctity of the Bengali family. Whilst Anjan begins the process of coming to terms with his class prejudices, his wife Mamata (Mamata Shankar) is clearly ridden with guilt but is unable to even acknowledge her seemingly unnerving lack of empathy for both Pupai and Hari. Whilst the impact of Pupai’s death should have affected Mamata to recognise the entrenchment of her class prejudices, she actually views the death as a familial disgrace. In many ways, Mamata’s ignorance is contrasted with the emotional outpouring of Hari who at the end transforms his anger into a dignified closure. Hari’s actions might be dignified but there is a moment that Sen conjures up at the end, pointing to a potentially incendiary conflict that might come about one day if such destructive prejudices were challenged head on. Ideologically, the relative invisibility of Pupai as a symbol of the lower class is contrasted sharply with the privileged and protected son of Anjan and Mamata. When Hari comes to claim the body of his dead son and considering he is grieving, Anjan and Mamata feel obligated to let him stay. However, their middle class guilt is horrifyingly manifested when they hastily attempt to compensate their negligence by offering Hari the living room as a place to sleep. Hari rejects their conciliatory and premature offering, choosing instead to settle for the kitchen in which his son died and elucidating the falseness of Anjan and Mamata’s reactionary gesture. Kharij is one of Mrinal Sen’s most accessible works and like many of the films he directed in the 1980s it was the family that became a key political thematic. Kharij was awarded the grand jury prize at the Cannes film festival in 1983 and nominated for the Palme d’Or.

AKALER SANDHANE / IN SEARCH OF FAMINE (Dir. Mrinal Sen, 1981, India)

It is clear to see Mrinal Sen’s 1983 film Khandhar is in fact an extension and a companion piece to his 1981 film Akaler Sandhane considered by many to be his masterpiece. Thematically both films use the figure of the artist – in this case a film maker to interrogate the conflict between the old and the new, tradition and modernity and the lower and privileged classes. The introspective film maker (Dhritiman Chatterjee) is perhaps the closest Sen came to representing his own anxieties about the film making process. Similarly like Khandhar the journey from the urban to the rural is a central motif as it permits Sen to question the legitimacy of the film crew in their exploitation of an impoverished Bengali village for suitable cinematic mise en scene. The narrative follows a film crew attempting gallantly but ultimately failing to make a film on the Bengal famine of 1943 (genocide perpetrated by the British empire and World War II) that resulted in the deaths of at least three million people. The crew arrive with noble intentions but their boisterous and pretentious manner as artists remains unchanged pointing to a cultural ignorance that goes somewhat unchecked. What becomes apparent as the crew begin filming the more difficult sequences is the gaping economic, social and cultural divide that exists between the privileged urbanites from Calcutta and the impoverished Bengali villagers. When one of the actors who has been cast to play the role of a prostitute absconds to Calcutta the film maker foresees the production stalling. Encouraged by Haren (Rajen Tarafder), a highly co-operative villager with acting aspirations of his own, he demands they find a suitable girl from the village. When the villagers finally discover that the role is that of a prostitute, local prejudices come to the fore and they feel their trust has been betrayed. They eventually refuse to co-operate with the rest of the filming and the crew is forced to close down production and finish the rest in a studio. The advice to leave the village comes from a respected benign school master who criticises the film crew for their inability to understand and accommodate for the poverty of those they are trying to represent in the film. It might be fine to make a film on poverty and attempt to educate other people about the famine of 1943 but what about the failure to address poverty in rural India – this is a statement put forward by the headmaster at the end and the degree of directorial self criticism in this equation suggests the crew use the gaze of the lens as a means of disguising their own shame and even guilt. Additionally, the sympathy demonstrated by the crew towards many of the villagers is momentary and full of pity as we know and they know that once filming is complete they can simply retreat from such impoverishment to the comforts of their privileged lifestyles.

The level of social criticism articulated by the head master is complicated further by the self reflexive nature of Sen’s approach who makes direct parallels drawn between the fictional dramatisation of the famine and the real desperation and servitude faced by the villagers. Smita Patil plays herself in the film whilst in the production she plays the role of an struggling mother. Sen uses her character to deconstruct the false nature of acting and the unreal processes actors go through before they can perform competently. Sen does this by having Smita Patil confront the actual truths behind her character in the shape of two dispossessed women in the village. Coming face to face with the loneliness of an old woman (Gita Sen) who spends her days tending to her incapacitated husband not only taps into a sense of imprisonment but it is a feeling rendered doubly visible in the exhausted figure of Durga (Sreela Majumdar). The impact the film production has upon the village is starkly realised in the metaphorical assertion that it is the urban educated elite who accelerate the poverty as the pressure on village resources leads to someone questioning if the film crew are in fact corrupting their identity, traditions and way of life. Akaler Sandhane is a multi layered ideological critique that manifests many of the familiar authorial tropes representative of Mrinal Sen. It is also one of the great statements on the film making process and deserves to stand alongside Kiarostami’s masterful Life, and Nothing More (1990), Wender’s The State of Things (1982), Godard’s Contempt (1963) and Truffaut’s Day For Night (1973).

KANDAHAR / THE RUINS (Dir. Mrinal Sen, 1983, India)


The gaze of the photographer Subhash (Naseeruddin Shah) is one that shows little compassion for the predicament of those imprisoned in the past. Whilst the initial reaction to marry Jamini (Shabana Azmi) is motivated by sentiment, it holds no actual validity or merit when the decisive moment arises. Subhash sees reality through the lens of his camera – it is a critical distance that stops him from becoming emotionally involved with the subject. The image of Jamini he captures frozen in the milieu of the feudal ruins transforms her plea for escape into a ghostly memory akin to the photos hanging grotesquely in the photo studio of Subhash. He is strictly an observer and preserver of reality which is an aspect of his flawed and troubling personality that Jamini is unable to comprehend. Additionally, Subhash views the feudal past through a tourist like perspective. Jamini is rendered a prisoner of the past by simplifying reality through his photographic lens which essentially cannibalizes rural India and re-presents it as a collection of palatable and stereotypical images. If Subhash is a likely authorial expression of Sen the film maker then he directly implicates himself in the criticism that films allow audiences to pass through historical narratives as casual tourists – such is the guilt free journey taken by Subhash. Subhash feels the disassociating gaze of the camera empowers him and lets him unassumingly think he sees everything but Sen juxtaposes the urban gaze of Subhash with the ancient and truthful gaze of the bed ridden blind widow/mother of Jamini. The mother, a symbol of feudal decay, may represent the past but her failed attempt to construct a link between the past and present cannot transpire given the distance between the urban and rural is simply too extreme. A number of films come to mind that offer interesting formal links including Kamal Amrohi’s gothic noir Mahal (The Mansion, 1949), Antonioni’s L’Avventura (The Adventure, 1960) and The Passenger (1975). Kandahar is one of Sen’s most ideologically and stylistically complex works whilst the final image of the helpless Jamini (Shabana Azmi) reduced to a photographic memory is a haunting one.

PADATIK / THE GUERRILLA FIGHTER (Dir. Mrinal Sen, 1973, India) – ‘Go to war…’


‘PADATIK has something to do with the contemporary political scene…To my mind, I tried to analyze the political situation the way I felt it would be done. It could have been clearer but I felt that even this should be done. We had arrived at a point when the Left movement was lying low and the leftist parties were in disarray, losing perspective, and isolated, at a time when there was a need for unceasing self-criticism.’      –Mrinal Sen interviewed by Udayan Gupta, 1976

The final part of Bengali film maker Mrinal Sen’s Calcutta trilogy expands upon the prescient 1970s dilemma of the Naxalite inspired Bengali youth evident in both Calcutta 71 and Interview to make the questions surroundings political activism a central ideological debate. Satyajit Ray’s Pratidwandi (The Adversary), a study of the Calcutta youth appeared in 1971 as almost a thinly veiled response to accusations of apolitical abstention and whilst both Ray and Sen shared the young actor Dhritiman Chatterjee, their views on cinema, politics and ideology were in stark opposition to one another. Satyajit Ray was very openly critical of the New Indian cinema manifesto and particularly criticised film makers like Mrinal Sen for over indulging in the empty ideological, stylistic and aesthetic posturing of European new wave cinema including most notably Jean Luc Godard and Alain Resnais.


Writer and academic Ashish Rajadhyaksha’s latest publication ‘Indian Cinema in the Time of Celluloid: From Bollywood to the Emergency’ (2008, Indiana University Press) has been somewhat completely overlooked by most of the major film journals in the UK. It is one of the best written and ideologically sustained accounts of the relationship between Indian cinema and the wider context. Chapter 9 titled ‘The Indian Emergency – Aesthetics of State Control’ offers a remarkably alternative reading of the development of film policy during the 70s, discussing in detail the re-shaping of the FFC and the lively culture wars between Ray, Sen and Kumar Shahani. The Centre for the Study of Culture and Society has the full chapter available to download as a PDF file for free of charge (thank you) and I think to engage much more fully with the ideological questions being raised in such a politically radical film as Padatik, and elitist as it sounds, one must have a better understanding of the wider political, economic, historical and social situation of Calcutta and Bengal in the turbulent 1970s.

What Padatik offers is both a historical document on the political mindset of the burgeoning Bengali youth and a personal struggle from the film maker Mrinal Sen to make sense of Marxist revolutionary ideology and ascertain whether or not it is a misguided enterprise. The plot is as elliptical as many of the film’s made by the nouvelle vague, concentrating on Sumit, an uncertain member of a left wing political party, probably Marxist and harbouring strong Naxalite sentiments, who escaping from police custody goes into hiding. Interestingly, both Pratidwandi and Padatik may differ in their approach but they both attempt to deal with the same political questions – does the subscription to an ideological cause necessarily make one revolutionary? In the case of Pratidwandi, Ray comes to a conclusion that was at odds with the political reality of the time and whilst Sen’s ending is also tinged with a degree of Utopian totality, Sen’s representation of Bengali youth is fixed in a reality that sees the oppressed father and patriarch of the family instruct his son to continue fighting the system. Another interesting point to note is that Pratidwandi and Padatik are not just linked by the presence of Dhritiman but both make significant symbolic use of a funeral; Pratidwandi opens with the death of Siddhartha’s father and his funeral whilst Padatik closes with the death of Sumit’s mother and her funeral – the affects of political unrest are delineated starkly and the cost is measured in the loss of family.

Shot by Sen regular K K Mahajan who like Raoul Coutard became pivotal to the visual look of the new wave cinema, Padatik is surely one of Sen’s most radical works and deserves its place amongst films from the Bengali 70s era such as Pratidwandi. Even in the final shot, Sen reverts to using the freeze frame and holds on the angry face of Sumit but unlike claims for interpreting this ambiguously or hinting at an uncertain future, it is a self reflexive pause that extols rather than criticises revolutionary struggle. It is such an honesty that makes Padatik feel alive in today’s world of political re-awakening.

ANTAREEN / CONFINED (Dir. Mrinal Sen, 1993, India) – Disconnected


Adapted from a story by Punjabi writer Sadat Hasan Manto, Mrinal Sen’s disjunctive Antareen is a study of two lost souls unable to make a concrete emotional connection. Compared to the political films Sen directed in the 60s and 70s, Antareen feels somewhat tame and at times apolitical. The premise sees a struggling writer confined to an old mansion in Calcutta in an attempt to find inspiration for a new novel. However, one night the writer (Anjan Dutt) receives an anonymous phone call from a woman (Dimple Kapadia) who simply wants to talk. The writer soon discovers through the telephone conversations that the woman seems trapped in her life and has in essence been cut off from society. Additionally, the relationship seems to trigger a new creative energy within the writer and he uses the intimacy of the woman’s experiences as a means of writing his new novel. The dilapidated mansion in which the writer stays is shown to have a life of its own – it is a colonial past that bears down upon those who inhabit it. In terms of characterisation, the mansion, which is effectively represented as a haunted house, acts as an appropriate psychological landscape for the loneliness of the writer and the woman. In terms of form, Sen employs various Brechtian devices including direct camera address to construct a narrative that is cleverly being imagined by the writer’s words. In a way, the momentary encounter on the train platform in the closing moments is reflexively manifested by the writer and the woman through an imaginary connection but their distance even when they are so close suggests such a deliberate encounter is purely an illusion as empty as their broken gaze. I’m not sure if I want to label Antareen as a minor work in the oeuvre of Sen as it certainly underlines a cinematic radicalism consistent with what has been a career of intellectualism. On a side note, Sen’s 1983 film Khandahar (The Ruins) starring Naseeruddin Shah and Shabana Azmi will be playing in a new print at the Glasgow Film Festival next week.

EK DIN PRATIDIN / A DAY LIKE ANY OTHER (Dir. Mirnal Sen, 1979, India)

 

 

 

 

 

 

Released in 1979, Ek Din Pratidin marked the beginning of a new phase in the career of Mrinal Sen yet in many ways this is far superior to his earlier work including Calcutta 71 and Interview. The story focuses on a middle class Bengali family in which the oldest daughter, Chinu (Mamata Shankar), is the sole breadwinner. One evening when she fails to return home, the family fears the worst. Events unfold over the space of a few hours and as the family awaits the return of the daughter, tensions amongst them come to the fore. The family lives in what is a large multi storey mansion and they pay rent to the despotic landlord who taunts all the tenants with the threat of eviction. The claustraphobic nature of the settings as most of it takes place within the confines of the house gives the film a particularly strong theatrical feel. Like Ghatak’s Meghe Dhaka Tara to which Sen pays explicit homage is the concern with which the film explores the position of the working woman in a new Bengali society and the forces of conservatism and tradition that threaten to destroy her reputation. Like the best melodramas, Sen looks at both women and family whilst suggesting how both seem to dysfunction in the face of poverty. The daughter’s failure to return home provokes an angry response from the youngest daughter who accuses the family of harbouring a selfishness that exploits the familial sentiments of Chinu. It becomes shamefully apparent to both the father and mother that their daughters existence prevails solely to keep intact the structure of the family and to also sustain what dignity they have left.

The search for Chinu leads her brother to hastily visit the local morgue in which he comes face to face with accident victims. It is a nightmarishly shot sequence and tellingly illustrates how their dilemma is not an isolated one and exists in a wider social malaise. This is repeated later in the hospital when Sen has potential relatives and family members directly address the camera as they wait to identify the body of a dead girl. When Chinu finally does arrive home safely at dawn, the landlord reacts angrily by threatening the family with eviction, citing the failure to maintain a level of moral decency as the cause of their supposed transgression. Perhaps in the most overtly political moment in the film, the son reacts violently, condemining the landlord as a hypocrite and a symbol of conservative ideology. Ek Din Pratidin is a remarkable film, underlining Sen’s urgency as both a political film maker and social commenator on Bengali society. I can see now why he is held in such high regard by critics and Sen deservedly earns his position alongside respective Bengali auteurs like Ray and Ghatak. Now that Ray and Ghatak have both been given their dues as influential and key film makers in the realms of Indian Art cinema, Sen’s contribution and body of work still needs to be celebrated and analysed further. On a final note, Ek Din Pratidin was financed by the NFDC when the funding body was working at its peak. Currently, the NFDC website is asking for bids for the radical updating of their current website and also the introduction of a new VOD (Video On Demand) service. If both of these services come to fruition then it could potentially open up a whole new area of cinema and research that has often been inaccessible and marginalised.