In 1947, West Bengal was the most developed state in India, Calcutta the biggest port. Distorted economic policies, however, had the effect of draining wealth out of the region. West Bengal’s per-capita income fell below the national average in less than two decades. There was a food crisis in 1966; in the absence of proper jobs and housing, even the urban middle class was beset by instability on all fronts. Police would routinely open fire on marching students and workers, while protesters retaliated by burning trains and buses; frequent strikes and disruptions became the norm. Residents grew accustomed to the sound of bombs going off at any hour, and to see every morning in the streets “bodies of young men riddled with bullets.”
This was the atmosphere in which both Ray and Sen made their respective Calcutta trilogies. Ray’s approach was typically humane: he etched out fictional portraits of three men trying, in their separate ways, to come to terms with the turbulence outside, their experiences indirectly reflecting the collapse of the city they had known. Sen plunged headlong into the chaos. He would travel with his cameraman to rallies, or to scenes of potential unrest. The intention, one suspects, was not just to record the events on reel: Sen was returning to the crowd.
Glimpses of these recordings lent a quasi-real air to his trilogy, and saved the first two films—Interview and Calcutta 71—from becoming “naïve” incitements. Interview, for instance, begins with a seemingly unrelated sequence of Victorian statues being pulled up by cranes from parks and intersections across Calcutta. Then we follow a day in the life of Ranjit, a college graduate living with his mother and sister in a rundown house who has a job interview scheduled after lunch. He has been led to believe that the job is a done deal: all he has to do is turn up in a suit to impress the British interviewers.
But Ranjit owns exactly one tie and one suit, and it is at the dry cleaner’s. He discovers that the city’s laundry workers are on strike that day. The rest of the shops, too, have their shutters down. His mother lends him an old suit from his dead father’s closet, but the trousers don’t fit. He heads out to meet his girlfriend, then his friends from college: no one seems to have a spare suit. Eventually, he finds one that fits, but loses it on the bus back home. Ranjit turns up for the interview dressed in a dhoti and kurta. He doesn’t get the job.
Later that night, Ranjit is approached by a male voice talking from behind the camera. He looks straight at the camera and demands to know who is speaking. The voice introduces himself as “a viewer.” The viewer wants to know if Ranjit is upset about not landing the job. For the next ten minutes Ranjit holds forth on the injustice of his situation. He is talking to the viewer, of course—but he might as well be talking to himself. Angry after this second interview, Ranjit vandalizes a nearby shop window. A mannequin is stripped of its suit, much like the city was being stripped in the opening footage of its colonial accoutrements.
Up to Padatik (Urban Guerrilla), the last film of the trilogy, released in 1973, Sen appeared content to point fingers. In Padatik, however, he subtly acknowledges that the triumph of one ideology or party doesn’t necessarily transform a society: true change demands more compassion, not less. The story is about a fugitive, Sumit, who is hiding out in the apartment of one Mrs. Mehra, a wealthy advertising executive. The apartment is on the ninth floor of a building—Sumit first calls it the “ninth circle of Hell”—and Mrs. Mehra is a divorcée with a child in boarding school.Soon after the 1977 elections, Sen felt that Bengal was on the brink of an “imminent disaster.” The films he made in those years were certainly not optimistic.
Alone in the apartment all day, Sumit thinks of home—his mother, sick and confined to her bed for a while now; his father, once a jailed “terrorist” under British rule, but reluctant to see the sense now in Sumit’s ways. At night we hear Sumit reading Mao aloud in bed. But over the course of the film, Sumit grows to appreciate that not every dissident picks up arms against the state. Mrs. Mehra, a believer in Sumit’s cause despite her affluence; Sumit’s father, taking care of the family in his absence: they, too, are protesting in their own way.
Sen would later complain that many of his communist friends dismissed Padatik as a “policeman’s report.” The accusation is partly true. Of all the films set in that period, Padatik most vividly describes how the entire city was under surveillance during those years. The effect is all the more astonishing since the camera rarely sneaks out of the apartment. But Sen is not suggesting that one should stop pointing fingers at the police, black marketeers and capitalists. Sumit learns to look inward, and then use that self-knowledge to look around. Like Tagore, he begins to step out of the crowd.
In 1977, four years after the release of Padatik, a coalition of left-wing parties, led by the Communist Party of India (Marxist), or the CPM, won the majority vote in West Bengal. The CPM had been a part of the government in the state before, but never had the mandate been so unanimously pro-reform. This mandate would be faithfully renewed every four years till as late as 2011, and yet the few reforms the CPM effected in three decades were no more than pragmatic.
As early as 1979, they oversaw a police massacre of refugees in the Sundarban islands. Elections were conducted across village councils for the first time since 1947, ostensibly to wean away power from the state. Instead, an establishment emerged in the countryside, prone like establishments everywhere to apathy and corruption. CPM’s socialism was, at its worst, a cynical manipulation of the poverty and structural disparity it had inherited in West Bengal—at best, a paternalistic populism.
Sen could foresee the experiment turning out wrong. Soon after the 1977 elections, he felt that Bengal was on the brink of an “imminent disaster.” The films he made in those years were certainly not optimistic. Fingers were now pointed away from the crowd at something more personal: the family. In Ek Din Pratidin (And Quiet Rolls the Day), Chinu doesn’t return home from work one evening and her family assumes the worst. The elder brother rushes to the police station, from where he is sent to the morgue.
Chinu is, of course, just fine. She returns home at dawn, looking apologetic; but her parents don’t want to know where she has been. The situation is made worse by the pushy neighbors who seem to think that a working woman can’t possibly be up to any good. The landlord living upstairs takes the opportunity to kick the family out. The ending strikes a wrong note, in an otherwise measured film, because Sen again lets his characters blurt out everything they are thinking.
Ek Din Pratidin is preoccupied with things as they are, not as they should be. The kinship between two strangers in Bhuvan Shome, their playfulness, has hardened. Sen’s later films feel like distillations of experience. Anger is evoked through restraint, suffocation through the illusion of space: Sen is able to gently reconcile opposites. Chinu, in Ek Din Pratidin, may have lived all her life at home, but no one in her family seems to know her. She exists as a projection of their wishes and fears. The plot of the film resolves this beautifully by never exactly revealing why Chinu was late that night.
Similarly, in Kharij (The Case Is Closed), from 1982, a woman is getting her child ready for school when she tells her husband that she would like someone—“preferably twelve or thirteen, someone who doesn’t talk back”—to help with the chores in the house. Their own child is in the room with them; but already it is lost on the couple that the 12-year-old they want as hired help may also be someone else’s child. It is at home where we first learn to alienate, home where we first feel alienated—home that engenders Tagore’s “suspicion of man for man.”
Seventy years after independence, Indians still view each other in the shadow of that suspicion. It is a view that, at its worst, has manifested in riots and indiscriminate violence, the recurring violations of women’s rights, the lynchings of Muslims and other minorities that have become terrifyingly frequent since Narendra Modi first became the prime minister in 2014. The crowd has become a murderous mob. Education can only do so much to eradicate this apathy, as we see with Chinu’s family in Ek Din Pratidin and the couple in Kharij.In a country like India, where films are still valued essentially as fantasy, what does it mean to shoot in real locations with nonprofessional actors?
If anything, Modi’s uncomplicated popularity among the country’s urban middle class and wealthy expatriates abroad would suggest that the desire to have a good life is synonymous for many Indians with a wish to be indifferent. Artists and intellectuals are not exempt from this: too many of them have, for too long, kept themselves apart from the crowd. Sen’s willingness to put art at the service of politics—his skepticism toward every orthodoxy, the anger of his films—is missed in these complicit times.
Perhaps the film that Sen will be remembered for most is Akaler Sandhane (In Search of Famine). It was released in 1980, a year after Ek Din Pratidin. Sen again steps out of his home into the world—but now he is also questioning his own impulse to be in the crowd. The film is about the making of another film, also titled Akaler Sandhane. The crew has arrived in a village called Hatui, almost 40 years after the 1943 Bengal famine, to shoot a film with the famine as a backdrop. They are boarding in an old mansion nearby, once a royal stomping ground but now empty except for a woman and her comatose husband who occupy a room on the first floor.
In his efforts to faithfully recreate the period, the director is oblivious to the effect his film is having on the village. Hatui is still a place where The Guns of Navarone is screened every month in an open field, where those who usurped land from starving farmers in 1943 now claim to be survivors of the famine. Crowds flock around the set at all hours to watch the shooting.
The crew’s indulgent tastes drive up prices in the village. When an actress pitches a fit and returns to Calcutta, the director wants to audition some local women. Each of them is asked, in turn, to play the part of a prostitute: the implications are dire in a society that has more or less no reason to distinguish between reality and make-believe. The villagers refuse to cooperate, bringing the production to a standstill. The crew decide to leave the village and resume shooting in a studio.
Akaler Sandhane is skeptical about the breakthroughs of neorealism. In a country like India, where films are still valued essentially as fantasy, what does it mean to shoot in real locations with nonprofessional actors? But Sen’s larger disappointment is utilitarian: what effect did landmarks like Pather Panchali, even Baishey Sravan, ultimately have on Bengal’s political landscape?
At the end of a day’s shooting in Akaler Sandhane, we see the crew relax by playing a strange game. One person pulls out a photograph from the director’s research notes, while the others take turns to guess when it was clicked. In every image we see faces and bodies hollowed out by hunger and heat. None of them, however, are from the 1943 famine. One is from a crop failure across West Bengal in 1959; another from a food shortage in 1966; yet another from 1971, when refugees fleeing the war in Bangladesh turned up in Calcutta with nothing to eat. For Sen, the famine never ended.
From Abhrajyoti Chakraborty’s essay, originally titled “Man in the Crowd” in The Point (Issue 21, Winter 2020). Reproduced with permission. Copyright © 2020 by Abhrajyoti Chakraborty.