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.
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.
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.
It is clear to see Mrinal Sen’s 1983 film Khandharis in fact an extension and a companion piece to his 1981 film AkalerSandhane 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 (DhritimanChatterjee) is perhaps the closest Sen came to representing his own anxieties about the film making process. Similarly like Khandharthe 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 (RajenTarafder), 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. SmitaPatil 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 SmitaPatil 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 (SreelaMajumdar). 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. AkalerSandhane 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).
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.