From Calcutta Quartet to introspective works, Sen’s films ruthlessly expose the middle class and challenge societal norms. Subha Das Mollick studies the visionary filmmaker who captured the essence of Calcutta in his films, blending Marxism, experimentation, and political beliefs.
On the eve of his departure to Calcutta from his native place Faridpur, to pursue higher education in the big city, Mrinal Sen asked his parents, “Do you think that I am a genius?” Seeing his parents perplexed, he provided them with the answer by quoting Aldous Huxley, “We are all geniuses upto the age of ten.” Mrinal Sen was then seventeen years old. His genius gradually came to the fore in the big city he adapted as his home for the rest of his life.
Mrinal Sen had told film critic Shoma A Chatterji in an interview, “Till today for me, Calcutta works as a stimulant and an irritant. I am both touched and shaken by its vibrancy and youthfulness, its humour and flippancy, by its greatness and meanness.” Calcutta has been a central character in many of his films, particularly his Calcutta Quartet consisting of Interview (1971), Calcutta 71 (1972), Padatik (1973) and Chorus (1974). This quartet chronicles a turbulent phase in the history of Calcutta, brought about by the Naxalite Movement, influx of refugees from East Pakistan and the Bangladesh Liberation War, rising unemployment, breakdown of the education system and imposition of President’s Rule.
The quartet also marks a phase in Mrinal Sen’s career where he went berserk in his experiments with form and expressed his political beliefs in the most vociferous fashion. He examined his city through the lens of Marxism, even though he was never a cardholder of the Communist Party of India. In his own words, he was a ‘private Marxist’. In these films documentary reality rubs shoulders with fable like treatment turning the city into a dream (nightmare) scape, voyeuristic mode slips into direct address mode and a dispassionate observer makes way for a passionate provocateur. As a director, Sen would not lull his audience into complacent popcorn viewing, but jolt them into action, much the way Eisenstein had put crackers beneath the seats of his audience in one of his ‘agitprop’ plays.
Eisenstein had once said, “The Revolution introduced me to art and art, in its own turn, brought me to the Revolution”. His aesthetics and ideology was shaped by the Revolution. Mrinal Sen was never a part of Revolution. The closest he came to active resistance was when at the age of eight he was arrested by the police in Faridpur for being a part of the procession and singing ‘Vande Mataram’. He was kept in police custody for an hour for this seditious activity. However, as a child, he heard his father speak eloquently about the Bolshevik Revolution in Czarist Russia. So, like many a Bengali youth, he must have formed romantic ideas about the Russian Revolution.
In Calcutta, he got a chance to watch Battleship Potemkin at a Calcutta Film Society screening. British Film Institute had given the film to Satyajit Ray on permanent loan when he visited BFI during his tour of England. Like most members of the audience, after the screening he felt like kicking anybody in uniform. Later, Sen made it a point to watch Battleship Potemkin a few more times. Deep in his mind he had realized the power of cinema as a provocateur. Twenty years later, when he made Interview, the first film of the Calcutta quartet, through the agency of his protagonist Ranjit, he threw stone at a society that was totally insensitive to the predicament of a young man who did not have a proper dress to appear in a job interview.
In the film Interview, Ranjit belongs to the upwardly mobile lower middle class society of Calcutta. He works as a proofreader at the press of a Bengali magazine, but he dreams of living in a bigger house and marrying a girl above his station. He has set his eyes on a job that would fetch him more than double his present salary plus commission plus other perks. But to get that job he would have to appear in an interview, looking smart in western outfits. From his humdrum middle class Bengali existence, he has to teleport himself to the world of the ‘sahib’ — a colonial legacy that hangs heavy on the city. So in a rather comic scene, we find Ranjit desperately trying to learn how to tie the knot of a necktie.
A crisis precipitates when he realizes that the only suit he possesses is at the dry cleaner’s. First the dry cleaner’s receipt cannot be found and then it dawns on him that the dry cleaners of the city are on strike. The working class in Calcutta are waking up to their rights and they are taking to the streets to demand these rights. The present strike is a manifestation of the agitations of the working class. The middle class apparently has no empathy for the working class. They are only concerned about the inconvenience caused in their lives as a result of the strike. Ranjit is a representative of this apolitical middle class with a blinkered view to life. Interestingly, while doing proofreading of an article at the press, he reads out loudly, “My father, in his deathbed, had lamented that communism is not likely to come to India in the next 25 years. But it took just five years for the transformation to take place. History is bound to unfold at its own pace.” In between the proofreading he tells the tea boy that this is his last proofreading task because he is about to get a big job. This little statement drives home the point that Ranjit is concerned only with himself and his future and is not interested in the bigger picture.
Early on in the film we see Ranjit travelling in a crowded tram. A girl in the tram is reading a film magazine and Ranjit’s blow up is there in one page of the magazine. When the girl notices the real Ranjit and recognizes him as the poster boy in the magazine, she is perplexed and excited. Ranjit looks straight into the camera and says that yes — he is indeed, the protagonist of a film being shot by Mrinal Sen, who has decided to follow him with a camera all day long, in true cinema verité style, to capture the drama in his everyday life. We get a glimpse of the cameraman KK Mahajan taking a handheld shot of Ranjit in the tram. Ranjit reminds his captive audience that at his expense the filmmaker is going to make money. Filmmaking, in whatever form, is after all, a business. Mahajan says “Cut” and goes out of frame. Ranjit too gets down from the tram. His fellow traveller looks at the camera and says, “Is this cinema? This is life — your life, my life, everybody’s life.” As he says these words, on the background is heard “Long live the revolution,Inquilaab Zindabad.”
With this little scene, Mrinal Sen not only breaks the fourth wall and makes his audience aware that they are watching a movie, but he also conveys to his audience that the movie they are watching is true cinema, perhaps a harbinger of the Revolution and not an opium for the masses. Evidence of this opium are scattered plentifully throughout the film in the form of posters and big hoardings with faces of stars. All the street scenes of Interview are replete with billboards of advertisements of alluring brands for the upwardly mobile middle class. The fragmented, disjointed, jerky style of editing of the street scenes is inspired by Eisenstein. It is also inspired by the fragmentary nature of city life, where contrasting ideologies and ideologues rub shoulders and cohabit.
Towards the end of the film Mrinal Sen again goes into a direct address mode by throwing questions at Ranjit as to why he is pretending that not getting the job does not make a difference to his life. It is as if the audience is trying to provoke him to take action. The audience, who have been with him all day long, is now hungry for a dramatic ending, a catharsis for pent up frustrations and disappointments. The provocation from the audience works and Ranjit takes action by picking up a stone to break the mannequin’s glass box and stripping the mannequin of its western outfit. It is an individual’s angst against an insensitive society driven by archaic conventions and illogical standards of ‘smartness’.
The shot of Ranjit breaking the glass is juxtaposed with shots of Inquilaab — the call to arms. Perhaps Sen had hoped that by applying Eisenstein’s formula of dialectical montage the idea of revolution would synthesize in the mind of the audience. If the solitary figure of Ranjit throwing the stone is thesis and the proletariats’ march for their rights is antithesis, then the audience may conclude that Ranjit’s angst is the spark that would kindle revolution among the middle class. However, it is not clear whether Ranjit, a representative of the upwardly mobile middle class, has his political awakening at the end of the hard and disappointing day.
The reality of the situation becomes clear in the next film Calcutta 71, that begins with the trial of Ranjit in the court of law. He is found guilty of destroying somebody else’s property. He narrates his entire experience of the day of the interview in court and the audience sees scenes of Interview as a recap of the film. Nobody points fingers at the system. It is the individual who has to be reformed.
This system has ripped the middle class of its values and put them along the spiraling track of poverty. In a medley of five stories set in different decades starting from the 1930s and penned by five independent authors, Mrinal Sen captures the predicament of the middle class ripped of its fragile respectability. In the process he also captures the system fraught with political turbulence and extreme economic challenges. Each story is deeply disturbing.
One of the stories captures the plight of a family of six on a rainy night when the leaky roof of their hut cannot shelter them from the torrential downpour. The man of the family goes out in the rain and in a fit of blind rage, hits the air around him with his baton, as if hitting the unseen enemy black and blue. He comes back and takes his family under the shelter of the portico of the Sarkars’ mansion. On their way through the downpour, they suddenly remember that they have not locked their leaking hut. The elder son goes back to do the needful. The family clings to the illusion that they are not completely dispossessed.
When they arrive at the portico, they find it choc-a-block full with men, women and children, all stripped of their basic dignity. Will this family join the ranks of the proletariat? The man mumbles to himself, “Children of God – all of them.” His wife asks him, “Did you say something?” Then she asks, “Will you not go inside?” He answers, “Are you crazy!” The camera slowly zooms into the couple’s faces caught between the rain and the proletariat.
Only in one story we see the bourgeois enjoying Jazz and alcohol at a party. With glasses in their hands and fancy food on their platter, they discuss the Bengal famine and congratulate themselves for the charity work they have done during the day. There is a politician among them, waxing eloquent about human rights and equal opportunities for all. Suddenly there seems to be a power cut and the screen goes dark. From the darkness emerges the voice of the revolutionary, just gunned down by the police.
The freshly dead revolutionary addresses the camera and earnestly tells his audience to shake themselves out of their complacence because soon they too will be dispossessed like the other families in the film – unless we unite to change the system.
As we see in the next two films of the Calcutta quartet, the system does not change. The oppressor is camouflaged and thus unidentifiable. However, Chorus, the last film of the quartet is structured like a fable – a nightmarish fairy tale. In this dreamworld, the thirty thousand people do get united against their new god when they realize that they have been drawn into another hoax. Their voices rise in a chorus.
But revolution does not come in the real world. Sen as a director, as a citizen, gets disillusioned. He realizes that the Revolution will never come. He changes track. His subsequent films are introspective, inward looking instead of being provocative and a call to arms. In films like Ekdin Pratidin (1979), Kharij (1980), Khandar (1984) and Aakaler Sandhane (1980), he has exposed the double standards and self centredness of the middle class. The city continues to play an important part in these films, as it did in his earlier films like Baishe Sravan (1960) and Akash Kusum (1965). Even if the drama does not unfold in Calcutta, the events in villages and small towns are precipitated by people from Calcutta.
In these films, Mrinal Sen’s cinema becomes a ruthless, rude mirror for the middle class. No other filmmaker has exposed the middle class in film after film as Mrinal Sen has. Middle class turns out to be the recurring motif in Mrinal Sen’s body of work, his defining characteristic as an auteur. There is no shadow of pretension, of sentimentality or feel good illusion in Sen’s cinema. The characters grow organically and so does the storyline. Sen himself has admitted in many an interview that he improvises a lot during shooting and he does not control his characters — so much so, that he does not know why Mamata Shankar did not return home one night in Ekdin Pratidin or where Shriram Lagoo disappeared in Ekdin Achanak (1989).
Mrinal Sen had never set his eyes exclusively on the box office. When his films like Bhuvan Shome did very well at the box office, he said that the film got popularity for all the wrong reasons. It seems that the viewing public who loved the film, had missed the point of the film. In Mrinal Sen’s centenary year, we the film buffs will do the maverick maestro a great service if we re-evaluate his films and give him the place he deserves in the history of Indian cinema. He was the lone walker along the path he chose to traverse and he was ahead of his time. Some may find his films loud and outlandish, some may get irritated by his overstatements. But few other Indian filmmakers have dared experiment with form and content the way Mrinal Sen has done in film after film.
(All pictures are courtesy Subha Das Mollick)
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