In the 1990s, Mrinal Sen introspected his life as an artist by evaluating his previous artistic efforts. As a result of this evaluation, Mahaprithibi was made and became one of the most important films in his oeuvre. This article attempts to scrutinize how Mrinal Sen’s worldview changed over decades by analyzing Mahaprithibi in particular.
In the early 1970s, when the city of Calcutta (now Kolkata) was engulfed by the fire of revolution of the Naxalite movement, Mrinal Sen participated in the entire process with his radical filmmaking, creating his famous ‘Calcutta Quartet’ comprising Interview, Calcutta 71, Padatik, and Chorus. Describing himself as a ‘private Marxist,’ Sen understood the unstable time and the urge for radical change. Unlike his contemporaries, Satyajit Ray and Ritwik Ghatak, who were somewhat doubtful and generally indirect in their films addressing guerrilla warfare and youth’s fight against social imparity and exploitation, excepting Ghatak’s last film Jukti, Takko ar Gappo, Mrinal Sen became the mouthpiece of youth angst and conveyed their stories from the streets through his films. In his own words, as a ‘propagandist pulpit.’
Times changed; the Naxalite movement failed, and the radical change the people had dreamt of never materialized. With that, Mrinal Sen’s filmmaking philosophy also changed. While in the ‘70s, he took cinema to the streets of Calcutta, by the 1980s he cocooned himself in the inner world of the middle-class household to capture the internal politics of interpersonal relationships. During this period, the previously erratic roaming around the streets of Calcutta with a handheld camera to capture the time’s instability transformed into a stoic calmness. For many film viewers and perhaps for Sen himself, this calmness was a state immediately preceding a storm ready to erupt. Soon, a glimpse of the probable storm came with his 1991 film Mahaprithibi.
In comparison to his films from the ‘70s, Mahaprithibi drastically departs from his kinetic and visceral filmmaking philosophy. Yet, it brings back some of his past filmmaking tropes like the use of documentary footage, wordplays on the screen, or directly quoting scenes from his previous films. Whereas in the ‘70s, he used all these as a stylistic feature perfectly capturing the unstable zeitgeist, in Mahaprithibi, it came out more as a scrutiny. And by scrutinizing, he tried to question the audience and perhaps himself about the relevance of his past films and his role as a filmmaker.
To ask these questions at the tumultuous time of the film’s release was crucial for a radical filmmaker like Sen. As the ‘90s came, the communist regimes across Eastern Europe fell one after another and marked an end to an important period of human history. With this event, a homogenization of ideologies seemed to form as capitalism, communism, and socialism all got mixed up. American political scientist Francis Fukuyama addressed this issue in his book, ‘The End of History and the Last Man’ (1992), stating, “What we may be witnessing is not just the end of the Cold War or the passing of a particular period of post-war history, but the end of history as such… That is, the endpoint of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.”
As a lifelong believer in communism, this situation of ideological mix-up was disheartening for Mrinal Sen. For him, this mix-up nullified the idea of the people’s past revolutionary efforts, and suddenly they became irrelevant. Personally, he probably felt that he became irrelevant too. A man who vehemently called out the exploitations and asked for resistance against them in his films suddenly found himself at a loss. He understood that somewhere down the line, something wrong had occurred. And with the characters of Mahaprithibi, he tried to introspect that gap.
Mahaprithibi tells the story of a middle-class family in Calcutta, where the matriarch commits suicide just before her son is returning from Germany. The family members try to find out the possible reasons for the suicide, yet the more they try to dig deep, the more questions arise than getting any answers. Moreover, the film showcases interpersonal relationships, where the lack of trust between the characters is evidently portrayed in the larger context of the new world order.
The matriarch’s son, Somu, left for Germany at a time when the family needed his emotional and financial support the most, at the time of the eldest son, Ranju’s death. He told everyone that he was going for just six months, yet he did not return for another six years. Why is he coming back now, at this time of apparent stability, both in and out? By coming back, is he not fooling himself? By coming back after so long, can he make things right so late? The matriarch asks him all these questions in her last letter to him.
In the larger context of the new world in the contemporary times of the ‘90s, when the Soviet Union was on the verge of collapse, these questions were valid for everyone who became complicit with this apparent stability like Somu. Sen designed this character as a total opposite of the characters of his ‘Calcutta Quartet,’ where they were young, idealistic, and nonconformist, with a belief that a social change would come one day. Maybe their belief was utopic, yet they were strongly committed to it until they were crushed on the streets. In this film Sen showcased that the belief was not only long lost but with a personal economic stability, brought an insignificance towards that belief as well.
He realised that this new world order was nothing but a band-aid to a deep cut. This stability was troubling for Sen. A man who saw the unstable times from the streets couldn’t recognize anything in this homogenized new world. The Calcutta, once he captured as a boiling point of resistance against social injustices, now becomes stoic filled with apathy. He made this distinction clear from the first shot of the film, where we see calm Calcutta streets, completely opposite to the streets filled with dread and rebellion in his ‘70s films. This time the streets are empty with no crowd picketing or processioning, no one is being chased down through the narrow alleyways or no sound of firing bullets can be heard. Yet, everything else is happening unrestrictedly – the paperman is delivering the papers or the trams and buses are running without any obstacles, all in a mechanized way. This Calcutta is entirely alien from what we had shown in Interview or Calcutta 71. Although they dealt with dark subject matter, they were filled with life and energy. This new Calcutta in Mahaprithibi seems that it has no life left. In Mrinal Sen’s point of view, it becomes a ghost of its past self.
And not only does the city become unrecognizable for Sen, but also its people. The people seem too apathetic towards this drastic change in the world order. Even so, they watch this marker of the new world, the fall of the Berlin Wall on their television sets, as mere entertainment. With this, Sen portrayed a state of collective amnesia, where the past is forgotten, and the present becomes a farce.
But Sen was not romantic about the past nostalgia. Rather, he attempted to capture the contemporary times in retrospect with his earlier films. As the story progresses, we all come to know that the matriarch’s second son, Bulu, got involved in the Naxalite movement and was subsequently killed by the police. The death of Bulu in the dark alleyways of Kolkata is directly lifted from Sen’s previous film Calcutta 71, where a young Naxalite was seen running away from the police who was eventually shot to death. Sen used this exact same scene in Mahaprithibi and juxtaposed the past with the present. If we talk about the scene in Calcutta 71 first, we can see that the camera violently followed the young Naxalite and captured his fear and anxiety. And at the exact moment when the bullet was fired, the screen froze. Conversely, the death scene of Bulu from Mahaprithibi is captured in a static shot and mainly focuses on the reaction of the grieving parents.
By juxtaposing these two different depictions of a similar situation, Mrinal Sen made a clear distinction of his changing world view. In the past, he was more interested in capturing the external instability. But what about the instability inside the house? With time passing, he realized that he missed mentioning the fate of the families of these young rebels since the outside chaos affected the families deeply. And, once the outside world gained stability, it is time for the inside world to get unstable.
Mahaprithibi is the tale of this instability under the façade of the outside stability that comes with this new world order. To Sen, to survive in this new world, one had to be a conformist and had to act as an amnesiac, rejecting the past and creating a new narrative. The ones who couldn’t conform to this fact got no place in this world. They became fringe overnight, just like the matriarch in the film, maybe like Sen himself as well.
In Mahaprithibi, Somu represents the typical middle-class conformist, who has no commitment. He left home when his family needed him the most. And when he returns it is too late to rectify the past mistakes, or to even regret them. As an artist, I feel, Sen also realized that he himself made mistakes by not fully realising the different perspectives of politics and society. The fall of the Berlin Wall cleared the view in front of him. As a concerned people’s artist, Mrinal Sen heard the echoes of the collapse of the Berlin Wall in the middle-class bedroom of the Bengali society. When the world rejoiced and enjoyed over the collapsed Berlin Wall, history got buried under its debris. As Fyodor Dostoyevsky commented after Alexander Pushkin’s death, “Pushkin has taken many secrets to his grave. Our job is to dig them up and present them to the world,” Sen tried to dig up our unstable history and present it to the stable present, as he couldn’t be complacent with the truth and acted out of conformity. Rather, he would prefer to take the path of quiet rebellion just like the matriarch of Mahaprithibi.
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