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.