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Shadows of Chaplin in the Polemics of Mrinal Sen

May 25, 2023 | By

Partha Pratim Ghosh explores the cinematic evolution of Mrinal Sen, from Chaplin’s influence to polemical narratives, a journey that mirrored his changing times.

Mrinal Sen with Satyajit Ray and Inder Sen

Mrinal Sen with Satyajit Ray and Inder Sen (Pic: Mrinal Sen family’s personal collections)

The Triumvirate, Ritwik Ghatak, Satyajit Ray and Mrinal Sen made their debut films almost in the span of same time in the ‘50s. Both Ray and Sen completed their first films in 1955. Pather Panchali had shaken the world. But Mrinal Sen lamented for his first film Rat Bhore throughout his life and wanted to forget it forever.

It is important to note, while both Ray and Ghatak are remembered with a distanced respect, placed in timeless classics, Sen is remembered more as a live participant of his surroundings, interactive, easy, and accessible to moving contemporaneity.  His cinema is a direct reflection of his social self. Like Jean Luc Godard, Mrinal Sen’s image is etched with a stamp of eternal youth, as opposed to a classicist.

Calcutta Film Society formed by Satyajit Ray and his friends in 1947 acted as a window for Ray to connect with European cinema and the golden classics of Hollywood, which shaped his universality. For Mrinal Sen, the films of Charlie Chaplin were an eye opener. He had authored a full-length book on Chaplin in 1953, before making his first film. Mrinal Sen’s reading of Chaplin remained to be an inspiration for him till the end of his film career.  We can trace shadows of Chaplin in the dynamic evolution of Mrinal Sen and his cinema at multiple layers.

Interestingly, Chaplin and Bernard Shaw met at London in 1931 and engaged in a debate. For Bernard Shaw, any work of art was to be propagandist for transmitting ideas. To Chaplin, art had no business other than creating artistry. Ironically, there was a dichotomy in Chaplin’s ideas about art and his films. Seeds of similar dichotomy were observed in Mrinal Sen’s very first film as well.

Chaplin’s own interpretation of his famous Tramp was significant for Mrinal Sen in many ways: – “That costume helps me to express my conception of the average man, of almost any man, of myself. The derby is striving for dignity, the moustache is vanity, the tightly buttoned coat and the stick and his whole manner are a gesture towards gallantry and dash and front tie is trying to meet the world bravely to put up a bluff and he knows that too. He knows it so well that he can laugh at himself and pity himself a little.” The above idea of the Tramp made inroads conspicuously in two Mrinal Sen films and Chaplin’s other shades and layers obliquely inspired Sen’s evolving phases thereafter.

Soumitra Chatterjee and Aparna Sen in Akash Kusum

Soumitra Chatterjee and Aparna Sen in Akash Kusum (Pic: Mrinal Sen family’s personal collections)

Akash Kusum, made in 1965, stands at the culminating junction of his first phase. It centers on Ajoy who struggles absurdly (like Chaplin, but not in a Chaplinesque style) to place himself in the upper echelons of aristocracy.  While doing so, he bluffs and pretends with his affluent lover and her family, only to discover himself under a pitiable situation of extreme humiliation at the end of the film, like Chaplin’s Tramp.

Akash Kusum, incidentally, initiated a series of debate between Satyajit Ray, Mrinal Sen, and Ashish Barman (story and co-script writer) which culminated in an unpleasant war of the words in the pages of ‘The Statesman’.  Ray acknowledged the stylish modernity of Akash Kusum, its editing and refreshing depiction of urbanity, but he questioned its topicality. To him, thematically the film was old fashioned and dated back to antiquity of Aesop’s fable of deluged crow. Interestingly, to counter Ray, Mrinal Sen brought the example of Chaplin’s Tramp, to draw a parallel with Aesop’s deluged crow and its futile effort to pretend like a peacock.

Chaplin’s Tramp and his absurdity of class positioning surfaced a second time in Bhuvan Shome in 1969, this time more subtly.  It stands as one of the major milestones of Indian Cinema. Mr. Shome, the formidable railway bureaucrat, who is just a cog in the wheel of a big system machinery, carries middle-class values and sensibilities hidden within him. He confronts similar class conflicts with his professional self. In his chair, Mr Shome is a ruthless bureaucrat. But during a vacation, his middle-class identity is unleashed in a remote village of Gujarat in contact with nature and birds. It is here that he is deeply enamored by the innocence of a rustic village girl Gauri. The experience softens his edges as he returns as a transformed man. He exonerates a railway worker (fiancé of the village girl), who was punished by him earlier.

With stylized editing, use of jump cuts and freeze shots, with framed zooming, with shaking camera movement shot with a handheld camera instead of smooth trolley shots, added with a background commentary, Sen induced a sleek and smart wit, which was totally urban, modern and refreshing. In spite of the unconventional stylization of narrative, Bhuvan Shome was successful at the Box Office.

bhuvan shome

Suhasini Mulay and Utpal Dutt in Bhuvan Shome

In his essay ‘An Indian New wave?’ Satyajit Ray explained that Bhuvan Shome didn’t break the popular and appealing tradition of its basic plot. As a result, Shome, a loner, earned sympathy of the audience for his lovable idiosyncrasies and the reform brought by a beautiful village girl had a touch of soft romance. The Indian audience is used to such sympathetic storyline, with happy circular conclusion. Mrinal Sen appreciated the interpretation of Ray, but never liked the reason, which made Bhuvan Shome a Box Office hit. He actually wanted to criticize the protagonist mercilessly, but the film turned out to be something else.  A Chaplin-like dichotomy surfaced in Mrinal Sen’s film for a second time.

In his formative years stretching over a decade, Sen was engaged in plot-based narratives and observation took a centerstage like Ray. Baishey Sravana was his peak of this period for fine artistry. The film proved that Sen could stick to a simple narrative and master it, had he wanted the same. But he had been searching for an alternative voice, a form to go beyond linear narratives. His own dialogues with the audience and a polemical film syntax were preferred by him in later years. We can trace glimpses of such dialogues in Bhuvan Shome, but not to the same extent as in his Calcutta Trilogy (Interview, Calcutta 71 and Padatik) – his films of ‘70s.

Baishey Sravana

​Jnanesh Mukherjee and Madhabi Mukherjee in Baishey Sravana (Pic: Mrinal Sen family’s personal collections)

His search for an alternative voice, to remain contemporary, can be traced in his reading of Chaplin again. Cesare Zavattini, the Italian master and an ardent fan of Chaplin mentioned in course of discussing on him – “The cinema should never turn back. It should accept, unconditionally, what is contemporary. Today, today, today.” Chaplin was searching for a similar alternative voice and preparing for a change under the ominous shadow of the Second World War – “I am sharpening the edge of the character. In the new film, he (The Tramp) will not be so nice. The people who liked him so vaguely, will have to make up their mind.” The change brought us The Great Dictator in 1940, followed by Monsieur Verdoux in 1947.

In the ‘70s, Mrinal Sen had to capture the heart of a politically turbulent Calcutta with a growing upsurge of extreme leftism. An unconventional style of rough and jerky film syntax, with a combination of News cutting, documentary, still shots and background commentary was adequately capturing the tempo and social unrest of the unsettling time. The thin line between a character and the actor dissolved. Brechtian alienation interplayed with his cinematic style (as in Interview). The actor and the character were talking to each other. The result was a polemical dialogue with contemporaneity.

With the Communist regime in West Bengal from 1977, Mrinal Sen’s polemical cinema of the ‘70s lost relevance and contemporaneity. The arrow of his polemical quest had to reverse its direction from external to internal realities, conflicts, and inner enemies. Deeply disturbing and self-introspective films, arguably the best cluster from him artistically, initiated with Ekdin Pratidin in 1979. This phase attained its height with Ekdin Achanak made in 1989. Interestingly, there is a recurring motif of absence and disappearance directly or obliquely in his last creative decade. In Ekdin Pratidin, the elder daughter of a lower middle-class family doesn’t return home from the office till early morning next day. In Kharij, the child labour, who works in a middle-class family suddenly dies of suffocation in the kitchen. The film evolves around his absence. In Ekdin Achanak, the professor leaves his family on a rainy day and never comes back.  In Mahaprithibi, a mother commits suicide and writes a letter before that. In Akaler Sandhane, the element of absence is subtle. The film revolves around a team of film makers, who visit a remote village to shoot a film on famine, but the real famine is absent. In Khandahar, the old ruin of a big edifice, dated back to feudal years, reflects the absence of a real palace, and connects the ruin with changed contemporaneity. There is one more absence. The fiancé of Jamini, the young daughter, who promised to marry her but disappeared never to come back. His absence was tragically replaced by Subhash, who came to spend a vacation in the old mansion along with his two friends.

In Genesis, Sen shifted his film space-time far away from society, in a remote desert to create a fable like reality. The absence of a social life, with elementary four characters (a farmer, a weaver, a merchant, and a young lady) helped to examine the roots of enmity and war at its most elementary level.

Om Puri Naseeruddin Shah Shabana Azmi in Genesis

Om Puri, Naseeruddin Shah and Shabana Azmi in Genesis (Pic: Mrinal Sen family’s personal collections)

Sen observed an element of absence in Chaplin’s last phase similarly. He consciously made his Tramp disappear.  The Tramp had been struggling so far to place himself amongst the respectable social hierarchy to earn a simple living. The Tramp became absent but evolved to the cast of Verdoux, who could place himself in the upper echelons successfully.  But he would attack the class from within.   He murdered women of wealth one after another to amass wealth.  Chaplin had forsaken his popular hero, broken his own image to reconstruct his funny idol into a post war political macabre manifesting itself on international issuesVerdoux justified“A single murder makes a villain, millions a hero.”

“Today, Today, Today” – Zavattini’s emphasis and Chaplin’s persistent reminder, appears to have never left Mrinal Sen’s creative life. In 1997 Sen lectured at the PC Joshi Memorial Lecture at Delhi, which was published later in the ‘Social Scientist’ journal with a heading ‘Rambling Thoughts.’ He explained his take on ruins and shared an amusing experience. Jointly with Shabana Azmi, he visited Colosseum Square. While Shabana was awe struck and busy taking notes, Sen was gently moving around. Shabana asked jokingly, “Are you listening to Nero’s violin?” Mrinal quipped instantly, “No, I was listening to the sound of a helicopter hoovering on top of the Colosseum. But sadly, there was no hanging Christ.”

Ekdin Achanak

Shabana Azmi and Uttara Baokar in Ekdin Achanak (Pic: Mrinal Sen family’s personal collections)

The ruins of Colosseum connected Sen with Federico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita. Subconsciously, Sen explained, ruins or a past opens a door between past and present. A connection and continuum between the past and the present shaped the narrative style of Ekdin Achanak visually. The nonlinear sequencing of shots and the pattern of editing dissolved the line between the past and the present to make a film time of organic whole. The disappeared Professor appeared from the past to speak to the present frequently.

Mrinal Sen made his last film, Amar Bhuban in 2002. From then to his death in 2018, except for the last few ailing years, Mrinal Sen was still mentally agile, living a socially active life. But he didn’t make any new films. Like the Professor of Ekdin Achanak, was he feeling out of place in a changed time? In Ekdin Achanak, the real disappearance of the Professor was completed when the treasure trove of his books, the world of him was demolished and removed from his home. That very day, the Professor disappeared forever. The shadows of Chaplin lost its relevance in Mrinal Sen thereafter. Probably having confusions in understanding roots of the changed time, Zavattini’s “today” also shifted to a grey zone. Like his Professor, Mrinal Sen disappeared from his creative world after the ‘90s.


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‘Bhuvan Shome’ – A Satire at the Austerity of Indian Bureaucracy

The Presence of Absence in Mrinal Sen’s Films

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Partha Pratim Ghosh is a senior Engineering professional. Being an avid reader Physics, Cinema and Literature are his strongest passions. He writes on cinema and poetry and is a poet himself apart from translating poems. His writings are published in various periodicals.
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