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The Presence of Absence in Mrinal Sen’s Films

May 18, 2023 | By

Three of Mrinal Sen’s seminal films — Ekdin Pratidin, Ekdin Achanak and Kharij — often referred to as the ‘Absence Trilogy’, filmed within a span of ten years, deal with a similar theme. Anuradha Warrier discusses what binds and separates each of them — a special feature in the Mrinal Sen@100 Series to celebrate the maestro’s centenary year.

Ekdin Pratidin

Gita Sen as the mother in Ekdin Pratidin (Pic: Mrinal Sen family’s personal collections)

What happens when someone in your family goes missing? When you look for answers and find none? When all you are left with is an inexplicable sense of loss, grief, even anger and resentment? Mrinal Sen looked at this very experience, within the confines of middle-class nuclear families in urban spaces, not once but thrice. In what is often referred to as his ‘Absence Trilogy’ – which comprises Ekdin Pratidin, Ekdin Achanak and Kharij – a member of the family goes missing, temporarily or otherwise. These disappearances become the nuclei of the crises that envelop each family, with disparate causes and consequences in each story. While filmed years apart, the central theme of absences unites these three very different films, dwelling as it does on what this means to those left behind.

In Ekdin Pratidin (And Quiet Rolls the Dawn, 1979), a young woman goes missing. Or, more accurately, she does not return from work. While the resultant chaos in the film has peripheral characters pointing fingers at the young woman’s morals, the family’s anxiety is mixed with fear.

In Ekdin Achanak (Suddenly One Day, 1989), Sen explores yet another absence. The person never returns, and the family are left to unravel the mystery as best they can.

In Kharij (The Case is Closed, 1982), which came in between these two films, it’s the loss of a young servant boy. There is no ambivalence about the fate of the central character here – the lad is dead. The young couple who employs him is thrown into a morass of guilt and fear.

kharij Mrinal Sen

A scene from Kharij (Pic: Mrinal Sen family’s personal collections)

In each of these films, you find a similarity among the characters around whom the narrative is woven. The young woman, the young boy, the professor, are all important to their respective family units, but they are also taken for granted. All three films rested on one singular event – the departure of these three people from their homes, whether that departure is unplanned, deliberate or accidental. All three films focus on what happens afterwards. Reactions in each film run the gamut from bewilderment, anxiety, fear, and anger, to grief, resignation and acceptance. But, as in all of Sen’s films, what is left unsaid is as important as what is verbalized.

In Ekdin Pratidin, the family is caught unawares by their daughter’s absence. A telephone call goes unanswered, the police come calling. And when, finally, the family gets the news of a pregnant woman in hospital, their reaction is mixed; coupled with the anxiety that it might be their daughter/sister, is the fear of social stigma as well as the unstated fear of losing their only source of income.

Ekdin Achanak

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

In Ekdin Achanak, it is a man who leaves suddenly – an older man, a husband, a father; a ‘respectable’ man; a professor! He goes for a walk one rainy evening – and does not come back home. His family, comprising his wife, a son, and two daughters – are left to grapple with the reasons for his disappearance. From events that follow, further questions arise – was he having an affair with a former student? He was an academic – was he also a plagiarist? The same reactions arise as in the earlier film – anxiety about his whereabouts, fears over his fate, coupled with, here, regrets over words said, and unsaid.

What’s also similar between the two films is the resolution, or lack thereof. In the earlier film, the young woman returns at dawn. She’s met by a silence that speaks louder than words. We are never told the reason for her absence; no one dares ask her where she was until then. Are they afraid of what she might say? Or is it because, by not questioning her and perhaps getting answers that might discomfit them, they can pretend that this was just another [normal] day?

Yet, disapproval shrouds the atmosphere – the mother turns and walks in silently; the neighbours take their leave, wrapping their censure around themselves; her brother, getting into fisticuffs with their landlord, rebukes her, asking her to go inside the house. The ‘Lakshman rekha’ is being reinforced. And she’s left to ask a rhetorical question – ‘Why does no one ask me?”

ek din achanak

Arjun Chakraborty, Uttara Baokar, Rupa Ganguly and Shabana Azmi in Ekdin Achanak (Pic: Mrinal Sen family’s personal collections)

In Ekdin Achanak, the man never returns. Neither the other characters in the film nor the audience know whether he’s left to begin life anew, or whether he is dead. Once again, the question central to the film does not rest on its answer.

What’s different, however, is the way in which both these films treat their central characters. In Ekdin Pratidin, which can be literally translated into ‘One Day, Everyday’, the young woman at the centre of the chaos is only present through her absence on screen. There are a couple of scenes in between where we get a glimpse of her, but it is her absence that drives the entire narrative. Every action/reaction or interaction/conversation between the other characters is reflective of her importance to the household. Yet, she’s circumscribed by that very importance, burdened by the responsibility that her father cannot shoulder by himself, and that her brother has shown himself incapable of shouldering.

As the night progresses, and news spreads about her non-return, the neighbourhood is rife with gossip – her life, her choice of work, even her morals become the topic for discussion. However, her family members are no better – they have different standards for their eldest daughter than the expectations they have from their son. Termed ‘worthless’, he’s free to wander about as he will, returning late at night, no questions asked. She’s expected to work, to contribute to the family coffers (her income allows her younger sister to study), but also return directly from work to the safe confines of the house.

On the other hand, in Ekdin Achanak, the reminiscences and discussions are filial, not societal. The man is treated more compassionately by the characters that people the film, who through the continuous flashbacks that drive the narrative, begin to understand him a little better. This narrative choice also ensures that the absent man appears on screen time and again, making him more ‘present’ and therefore, more fleshed out as a person. The daughters are forced to remember their father differently; the wife is moved to see her husband as more than a provider. All of them are compelled to re-evaluate what they thought they knew of him. Even the audience begins to see him through a different lens.

Sen’s framing device of scenes in the past segueing into the present, as well as fragmented conversations from the past that allow characters to express their regrets in the present, ensures a more nuanced portrayal of the male central character here than the female protagonist from the earlier film.

One can only assume that that was a deliberate choice for the film maker – keeping Chinmayi’s character amorphous in Ekdin Pratidin, and not revealing the reasons for her absence, allowed Sen to hammer in a salient point – why is it important why Chinmayi was absent? So that society can judge her and find her wanting? Or because we, as the audience, can defend or excoriate her as the case may be, and feel validated in our reasoning?

This deliberate approach is even more evident in Kharij, where we know from the outset that the character is dead. How he died, who is responsible, what are the consequences… these are all questions that Sen grappled with in his second film on what absences do to a nuclear unit. Kharij is initially set up like a whodunnit – a dead body in a locked room. Only momentarily, however, as we are soon swept into what turns into a psychological drama, in which the two other members of the household – a young, working couple – wrestle with their guilt, while also fearing scandal over the ensuing police involvement. Here, too, the film does not end with a neat resolution of crime and punishment.


Mamata Shankar and Anjan Dutta in Kharij (Pic: Mrinal Sen family’s personal collections)

In an interview, Sen insisted that providing a resolution allows the audience to feel that justice has been served; to return home, comfortable with their value judgements on the characters and the film itself. The lack of resolution, on the other hand, means that audiences are forced to question themselves, their own opinions and stances on societal double standards, class divisions, patriarchy, morality, guilt and repentance. Just like the characters in the film, the audience must also come to terms with the fact that they are mostly comfortable with the status quo. The filmmaker’s argument seems to be that life is never ever tied up in a bow.

These three films are some of Sen’s most introspective ones, and contain a stinging critique of social morality and middle-class privilege. Placed within the larger socio-economic and political landscape of the times, Sen held up a mirror to us, his audience, asking us to question our perceptions and our biases, forcing us to become involved in the lives of the characters whilst at the same time, not allowing them, or us, the satisfaction of closure. These films, deservedly seen as cinematic masterpieces, offer a fascinating psychological study of human nature, and an incisive look at a social fabric that dehumanises the ‘other’.


Click Mrinal Sen@100

for Critiques, Reviews, Interviews

— The Centenary Tribute Series

More Must Reads in Silhouette

Moviemaking in Calcutta

Mrinal Sen in Conversation with Italo Spinelli

Mrinal Sen: The Man Who Fought Through Cinema

Ekdin Pratidin – Mrinal Sen’s Indictment on Patriarchy

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Anuradha Warrier is an editor by profession, a writer by inclination, and is passionate about books, music and films, all of which she writes about on her blog, Conversations over Chai.
All Posts of Anuradha Warrier

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One thought on “The Presence of Absence in Mrinal Sen’s Films

  • Antara

    A wonderful analysis of three of Sen’s most talked about films and as you said, “a stinging critique of social morality and middle-class privilege.” Dissecting absence is Sen’s forte and he uses this postmortem to reveal the festering wounds of society and its facade of morality. Thanks Anuradha for this excellent study.

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