Calcutta 71, 1972. In the book The Essential Mystery: The Major Filmmakers of Indian Art Cinema, John W. Hood proposes that the Bengali famine in 1943 was a watershed event that would deeply mark then 20 year old Mrinal Sen and lead to his politicization and involvement with the left-leaning Indian People’s Theatre Association. In hindsight, this convergence between personal and cultural history also seems to provide the underlying link between the overarching portrait of contemporary life in 1971 Kolkata with its prevailing images of the Naxalite insurgency, and the three self-contained, period stories presented in the film, each a crystallization of the spirit of the times and a harbinger of things to come. Framed through the perspective of a doomed, anonymous 20 year old militant student whose restless spirit hovers over the city to confront its legacy of poverty, underprivilege, and cruelty, each story exposes society’s complicity in the unraveling of a natural crisis into human catastrophe.
The first installment, 1933, based on Manik Bandyopadhyay’s The Right to Suicide, underscores the everyday realities of life in the flood-prone city, where life remains in a state of transience, caught in a perpetual cycle of construction and destruction, transformation and decay. Capturing an impoverished family’s futile attempts to weather the monsoon rains from their dilapidated home, as the head of the family (Satya Bannerjee) increasingly shows his frustration and helplessness by lashing out at his adolescent daughter and a stray dog, 1933 illustrates the inhumanity imposed by an entrenched caste system that continues to reinforce arbitrary power structures even within the inescapable reality of impotence and destitution, a corrosive cycle that perpetuates a sense of entitlement (that, in turn, leads to complacency in its illusion of expected privilege) and oppression of the weak.
Adapted from Prabodh Sanyal’s The Disgraced, the second episode, 1943 examines the wide-reaching toll of the famine, from an early montage of desperate villagers converging in the already overcrowded city to beg for food, to a day in the life portrait within the relative comfort of a middle class family, where a young widow, Shobhona (Madhabi Mukherjee) struggles to support her mother and younger siblings. Relocating to Kolkata after giving up custody of her son (having moved into an apartment building under murky arrangements with the owner), the family is compelled to face their degraded circumstances when a cousin, on his way to a new civil service job in Delhi, pays an unexpected visit. Contrasting fond memories of their idyllic lives in the village against the austerity of their new life in Kolkata, Sen reinforces the idea of the famine as a juncture of paradise lost, a complete rupture from the past. Moreover, in confronting the mother’s instigations to solicit money from her neighbor (by sending her teenaged daughter to run errands for him), and her son (by goading him to exploit his employment at a tea shop), Sen parallels the family’s decline in status with their moral prostitution (a theme that also surfaces in Satyajit Ray’s Distant Thunder, where the erosion of social class is created by the commonality of despair.
The intersection between (artificially created) class disparity and food shortage also provides the framework for 1953 in its tale of two cities – one, propelled by urban development and agricultural reforms stemming from Jawaharlal Nehru’s five-year plan, the other, relegated to the sidelines of economic transformation. Based on Samaresh Basu’s The Smuggler, the film challenges the notion of national unity that the consolidation of the railways symbolizes in its segregation of passengers between the working class and the poor, uneducated backwards classes who stow away on trains to panhandle, or smuggle food through the porous borders of (then) East Pakistan for sale in the drought affected villages. Devolving into a symbolic class war between the privileged passengers (as embodied by a health conscious traveler who epitomizes the Darwinian capitalist model: survival of the fittest) and the young, impoverished smugglers, Sen alludes to the perils of complacency and displaced retaliation (a theme that also recalls the father’s impotent rage in 1933) that also underlies the anonymous stranger’s social indictment. Revisiting the transgressions of the past, the disembodied stranger becomes the nation’s figurative collective consciousness, confronting society’s tendency to reconstitute human suffering as distant histories removed from everyday reality. Culminating with the portrait of contemporary Kolkata in which a politician (Ajitesh Bannerjee) hypocritically expresses his concern during a lavish dinner party over the flood of refugees arriving into the city from Bangladesh as a result of the war for independence, the image of famine victims repurposed as wall art encapsulates the aestheticization of tragedy as abstract spectacle, and humanity’s moral imperative to reclaim art from its bastardized role as status symbol to its ideological origins as an instrument of social revolution.
Ek Din Pratidin, 1979. The opening shot of Ek Din Pratidin is of a rickshaw passing through the narrow alley of a deserted residential street, framed between the discolored, weather-beaten walls of a pair of dilapidated boarding houses. This curious image of decaying structure and narrowed field of view proves to be an incisive preface to the claustrophobia, entrenched social class, and inescapable scrutiny that befalls a middle-class family when the family’s sole wage earner, the eldest daughter Chinu (Mamata Shankar), fails to come home from work at the usual hour. An early establishing sequence of the family indulging the petty whims of the youngest son Poltu after he returns from the doctor’s office following a minor playground mishap illustrates the underlying cultural disparity as the often punctual (and all too reliable) Chinu’s tardiness goes unnoticed by the family until the coddled boy demands her personal attention. However, when late afternoon turns to evening and Chinu has still not returned home, the parents’ reactions to Chinu’s unexplained absence begin to betray the underlying social rigidity and cultural myopia that has trapped them in their present (and gradually declining) circumstances, as the mother’s (Gita Sen) concern turns to hostile indignation over Chinu’s presumed insensitivity towards the family, and the father’s (Satya Banerjee) apprehension is reduced to aimless uncertainty and self-defeated inertia for fear that a full-fledged search for his missing daughter may uncover a delicate situation and cause the family embarrassment.
A voiceover narration of the evocative history of the residential complex juxtaposed against the image of the now crumbling tenement walls indiscriminately – and indiscreetly – lined with rows of hanging laundry similarly reinforces this moribund existence as mistreated tenants are resigned to inaction (and the landlord’s judgmental intrusiveness) by the delusive security of rent control, essentially trading their modicum of dignity for convenient economy. Despite the family’s attempt to keep Chinu’s absence a private matter, her disappearance soon becomes the main topic of conversation (and conjectural gossip) among the prying neighbors, polarizing their opinions within the spectrum of those who see the situation as the intrinsic folly and lamentable consequence of women’s independence and others who recognize the hypocrisy innate in the family’s financial dependency on the young, unmarried woman and their ingrained, patriarchal expectations of her continued subservience. Visually, Mrinal Sen illustrates the innate contradiction in these archaic (and self-immobilizing) values through the recurring images of literal and metaphoric eroded façades: the derelict tenement, the landlord’s self-righteous reaction to a witnessed indiscretion of a passerby who relieves himself on a public street, the family’s ensuing existential crisis after Chinu’s disappearance (and the implicit thought of losing their primary source of income). It is within this context of critical introspection of their accepted, socially imposed roles that the final shot of the mother wistfully gazing out into the courtyard, framed against the window of their ground floor apartment becomes, not one of resilient, ennobled dignity, but of acknowledged self-imprisonment and insignificance.
In Search of Famine, 1980. Nearly a decade after the release of his three-part magnum opus Calcutta 71, Mrinal Sen would rekindle the specter of famine, exploitation, and poverty within the collective consciousness of contemporary society to create an equally haunting and introspective exposition into the nature of human suffering in In Search of Famine. Structured as a film within a film on a Calcutta-based film crew as they converge on the rural village of Hatui in order to shoot a film set during the Bengali Famine of 1943 (a wartime, man-made famine caused by the diversion of food supplies by the British colonial government to support the military campaign in Asia), In Search of Famine is also a trenchant examination into the universality – and perpetualization – of class division, ignorance, cultural arrogance, and economic polarization.
A seemingly informal tour of the crew’s guest accommodations and the surrounding estate grounds of the impressive, but deteriorating, near empty zamindari that will also serve as a setting for one of the film’s more lavish sequences incisively captures the economic reality of the entire village, as the crew’s travel manager explains his difficulty in obtaining several sets of keys from their respective owners in order to gain access into all of the rooms of the estate after the individual heirs inevitably shuttered their inherited spaces over the years and moved away in search of a better life elsewhere. With the zamindari now singularly tended by the sole remaining heir still living on the premises, an elderly woman (Gita Sen) unable to leave because of the constant attention demanded by the care of her paralyzed, ailing husband, the estate has fallen into a state of disrepair and neglect (note the theme of paralysis and entrapment that Sen similarly captures in his subsequent film, Khandahar. Watching the crew’s activities from the balcony with equal measures of curiosity, estrangement, longing, and despair, the landlady’s only interaction comes from the daily visits of a poor young woman from the village named Durga (Sreela Majumdar) who works a series of odd jobs for several households (and subsequently, the film crew) in order to make ends meet after the amputation of her husband’s arm in a work-related accident. In still another fateful encounter, a weaver and former theatrical actor named Haren (Rajen Tarafder) attempts to curry favor (or more likely, employment) by insinuating himself into the elaborate production, acting as an ineffective, self-appointed liaison between the alternately bemused and skeptical villagers and the presumptuous film crew. Through their figurative subservience to the film crew, Sen creates an implicit correlation with the desperate prostitution of women during the 1943 famine (as suggested in the film project by the heroine’s association with construction workers from Calcutta).
Perhaps the most implicit reflection of the theme of pervasive, metaphoric famine is through a series of pictorial guessing games that the film crew engages in order to pass the time. Through randomly selected research photographs that the director (Dhritiman Chatterjee) has brought on location to study the “face of famine” – a sketch depicting the second century Gandgar statue entitled The Starving Buddha, a 1959 mini famine that ravaged Bengal, a 1971 humanitarian crisis brought about by the Bangladesh War – Sen refutes the notion that famine is an isolated historical incident brought about by the specific intersection of war, colonialism, social division, and food shortage, but rather, results from the conscious, socially motivated, symptomatic aftermath of man-made human suffering.
It is interesting to note that the symbolic sound of roaring machinery that is used to indicate the presence of (unseen) airplanes flying over the village during the film project (a motif that also evokes Satyajit Ray’s film on the 1943 famine Distant Thunder) is also repeated in the din of portable generators brought by the crew to power film equipment in the electricity-less estate, and further reinforces the idea of the cosmopolitan film crew as intrusive noise-makers within the rural (and essentially backward) village. Within this context, the interrupted conversation between the leading actress (Smita Patil) and the landlady as she shares her memories of life during the famine that is abruptly truncated by the sound of activated generators can be seen as a broader metaphor for the film crew’s delusive pursuit of capturing realism through aesthetic manipulation and artificial construction. In essence, the villagers’ disparate, but interrelated circumstances of abject poverty, misguided pride, and emotional compromise reflect the intrinsic dichotomy between the myopia of the film crew’s elusive quest to capture the authenticity of the 1943 human tragedy in their “search for famine” from the perspective of a privileged outsider’s gaze, and the economic, spiritual, and emotional impoverishment – the inescapable famine – that continues to define the everyday reality of the marginalized living in the periphery of their well-intentioned, but insulated gaze.
Kharij, 1982. The second film in Mrinal Sen’s thematically connected “absence trilogy” (along with Ek Din Pratidin and Ek Din Achanak) that examine the implications of a person’s unexpected disappearance from a middle-class household on the family’s moral consciousness, Kharij expounds on the trilogy’s clinical and uncompromising social critique of entrenched, dysfunctional bourgeois values and materialistic privilege that have led to indifference, discrimination, insularity, and exploitation. This prevailing attitude of entitlement and commodification is foretold in the film’s opening sequence: a conversation between an unseen couple from the back of a taxicab as the man offers to buy anything the woman desires after their marriage – a new apartment, car, wardrobe, or television set – only to be coddled with a declaration that all she needs in life to be happy is to be with him. The scene then cuts to the insightful image of the same man, Anjan (Anjan Dutt) a few years later, shaving in front of a mirror as he poses a nearly identical question to his wife, Mamata (Mamata Shankar) with the idea of using some of their disposable income from their successful careers to make their domestic lives easier. On a whim, Mamata proposes that they take in a houseboy who can help break coals for the stove, run errands, and be an attendant and playmate to their young son Pupai (Indranil Moitra) – a pragmatic request that, as Anjan subsequently rationalizes, would not only cost them little in terms of wages, but also in expenses, since he will invariably eat less than an adult house servant. Enlisting the aid of a neighbor’s servant, Ganesh, the couple visits the home of a widowed father named Haran, who because of recent famine in their rural village, is forced to send his son Palan away to work in order to provide income for the family and ensure that he will, at least, have enough to eat. However, when Palan succumbs to carbon monoxide poisoning one December morning after having sought refuge from the cold weather in the relative warmth of an unventilated kitchen, and the police are called into the apartment building in order to investigate the circumstances surrounding the boy’s death from apparently unnatural causes, Anjan and Mamata are forced to confront their own culpability in the senseless tragedy, even as they attempt to preserve their dignity, bristle at the inconvenience that Palan’s death has caused them, and attempt to defuse a potential scandal in the face of prying eyes and opportunists in the neighborhood.
As in Ek Din Pratidin, the atmosphere of tension and menace in Kharij serves as a framework for subverted expectation. Structurally, Sen establishes this pervasive sense of uncertainty from the beginning of the film, in the unseen lovers’ conversation that plays out against the image of the back of the taxi driver’s head – a prefiguring metaphor for what would prove to be an exposition into the couple’s subconscious that is also suggested in the image of Anjan in the mirror (in essence, his self-reflection), and is reinforced in the couple’s repeated, amplified calls to wake Palan and subsequently, in the neighbors’ attempt to break through the kitchen door when the boy fails to respond. Similarly, the protracted police inquest also reflects this anxiety by raising the specter of possible charges being brought as a result of the couple’s negligence (and which, in turn, Anjan is quick to divert the blame on his landlord by seizing on a police officer’s observation that a ventilator had not been installed in the kitchen), as well as the insinuation by a group of bystanders into the couple’s home after surrounding Anjan on the street under the ruse of asking what happened. But beyond facile illustrations of deflected responsibility among inconsiderate employers and frugal landlords, Sen also exposes an endemic culture of collective accountability, where exploitation of the poor and the weak are rationalized not only by economic necessity, but also socially enabled by an impotent intellectualism that reinforces the status quo – an implied complicity that is articulated in a passing conversation between two university educated men who see the tragedy as a moral imperative and propose conducting a seminar on the subject of child labor as a means of taking up the cause. Moreover, by chronicling Anjan’s desperate attempts to save face with the help of his influential neighbor (Bimal Chakraborty) by making accommodations for Palan’s father to stay for the night (a courtesy that the couple never extended to his son, who slept behind the open stairwell, along with the landlords’ houseboy, Hari (Dehapratim Das Gupta)), commenting to his consulting lawyer (Charuprakash Ghosh) that Palan was treated like a member of the family (a claim that the lawyer immediately refutes by citing his deplorable sleeping conditions, and Anjan’s accusatory posture in his reference to Palan’s earlier bout of illness as the boy having previously caused “trouble”), and attending Palan’s funeral rites (albeit to verify that the mourners do not publicly denounce him in his absence), Sen illustrates a pattern of self-interest and denial that intrinsically reveals Anjan’s struggle to confront his own guilt – an internal conflict that manifests itself in irrational fears that never materialize. It is the persistence of inerasable guilt that is evoked in the jarring soundtrack that accompanies Anjan’s final encounter with Palan’s father on the staircase leading to their apartment after performing their purification ritual, an invocation of unreconciled ghosts that reside, not in the realm between life and death, but in the recesses of a haunted conscience.
Genesis, 1986. Genesis prefaces to a strange and anachronistic fable of creation, as the narrator recounts a catastrophic drought that ravaged an unnamed civilization, leading to widespread disease and famine. The god dispatches an emissary with distinctively shiny shoes to take thumbprints of the inhabitants within a predefined geographic area that bounds the realm of his divine grace. The people relinquish their worldly possessions, and in exchange for their allegiance, the god provides for all their needs. In accepting the god’s care and protection, the people become eternally enslaved to him. Two adventurous friends, a farmer (Naseeruddin Shah) and a weaver (Om Puri), defy the god’s census and head out into the deserted landscape of no man’s land in order to carve out their own destinies in freedom and autonomy. But the desolate frontier proves to be far from paradise, as the farmer ineffectively tills the rocky and arid land, ironically uprooting skeletons instead of vegetation. In order to obtain basic necessities, the weaver has entered into a reluctant bartering agreement with an opportunistic trader (M.K. Raina) of dubious character to sell his textiles at a bazaar in exchange for food and supplies. It is a mutually beneficial arrangement that allows the two idealists to retain their sense of independence, away from the intervention of the god and encroachment of civilization, until one day when a lone, enigmatic young woman (Shabana Azmi) seeks refuge among the ruins. Her quiet vulnerability and unassuming sensuality captivate the two men who decide to welcome her into their isolated community, despite the trader’s cautious observation that her presence will ultimately lead to division and strife. The remark proves to be a portentous warning, as the woman becomes a source of friction for the two friends as they alternately vie for her attention, friendship, and affection.
Mrinal Sen creates a visually sublime, incisive, and provocative examination of civilization, interdependence, and human desire in Genesis. Through recurrent imagery and repeated patterns of behavior, Sen illustrates the pervasive malady of servitude, the irreconcilable dilemma between societal altruism and individual attraction, and the innate darkness of the human soul: the assumption of the role of master (the omniscient god, omnipresent trader, and competing suitors); the consuming possessiveness, territoriality, and jealousy among the characters; the transience of corporeal existence and personal sanctuary. By distilling the narrative, cast of characters, and mise-en-scene into a microcosmic exploration on human nature, Sen presents a spare, indelibly haunting, and poignantly tragic tale of paradise found …and lost.
Acquarello 2002-2008 [reprinted]