Mrinal Sen’s Films Rejected Political Apathy in India

Abhrajyoti Chakraborty on a Giant of the Bengali Renaissance

When Rabindranath Tagore died in 1941, crowds gathered outside his ancestral mansion in Calcutta hoping to catch a last glimpse. As soon as the body was brought out of the house, everyone charged toward it at once. Hairs were plucked from his beard, wreaths tossed from buildings on the funeral route. In Satyajit Ray’s documentary of the poet, the corpse is seen floating above a sea of human heads. The roads were so crammed that Tagore’s son Rathindranath could not reach the cremation ghat near the Ganges to light his father’s pyre. The ghat had been cordoned off for a week in preparation for the funeral, but once the fire was lit, people broke in, looking for bones and other remains. The body wasn’t yet burnt, and mourners were scavenging through the ashes, screaming and cursing. 

Mrinal Sen was in the crowd outside the funeral. He was new to the city, a student at the Scottish Church College, which had canceled classes after reports of Tagore’s demise. Sen had reached the ghat beforehand to get a good view, but the policemen near the entrance made him stand at a distance. He was waiting for the procession to arrive, he wrote later, when he spotted a young man dressed in white on the other side of the police cordon. “He was standing with a child in his arms, his own, so I thought, wrapped in a milk-white towel. Most probably, he came to cremate the child and was caught in a cruel situation. Why did he not go to another crematorium?” 

All of a sudden, there was a surge of crowd. From different directions. As if, to attack the crematorium. […] All the protective measures failed, the cordon was broken totally. Everything was out of control. […] A stampede? Any casualty? Anyone’s guess! And the child? The child was lost, drowned in the crowd. So was the man. 

Twenty years later, when Sen made a film set in the period of the devastating 1943 famine in Bengal, he called it Baishey Sravan—the date in the Bengali calendar that marks Tagore’s death. In the film it is the day when a middle-aged salesman gets married to a younger girl in a village. His forebears may have lorded over the village as wealthy landowners, but now the man makes a living selling dyes on trains. Early in the marriage he tells his wife that he is only reaping what his ancestors sowed: “Who knows how many perished struggling to pay their dues? Or who had to suffer in what way to indulge my family’s whims?”

By the time of the famine, the man is unable to walk, or work; he can no longer put his situation into perspective. He finishes off his meals without caring if there is enough for his wife to eat. Each day she suffers just to keep him going. His circumstances are not to blame, his wife tells a friend: “It is him—he has changed, he has become selfish.” 

The tragedy of the famine—implied in the film through a brief scene of villagers queuing up to buy rice—is overshadowed by the couple’s relationship, the speed with which husband and wife end up being pitted against each other in order to survive. It is akin to the way in which, for Sen, Tagore’s passing paled beside the death of a child in the crowd. 

*

When Sen died a year ago, the question of what would happen to his films was glossed over in the obituaries. His passing, like Tagore’s, was drowned by a ceremony of passion and indifference. The crowd chose what to remember and what to forget. Elaborate noises were made about the “end of an era,” and that in death Sen had been reunited with other Bengali giants like Ray and Tagore.

But Ray’s and Tagore’s legacies are far from certain in a country that could not salvage the original negatives of Ray’s renowned Apu trilogy before they vanished in a fire back in 1993, or recover Tagore’s Nobel Prize medallion after it was stolen in 2004. Sen, too, had to opt out of a 2009 retrospective in Cannes because the prints of his Calcutta trilogy were in terrible shape. His early films have already disappeared. In the months since his death, the fear has been that his work will be preserved only in memories. 

India became independent when Mrinal Sen was in his mid-twenties, but the country kept much of its colonial machinery intact.

Tagore had foreseen this indifference, this overwhelming “suspicion of man for man,” something he saw emerging from the same spirit of conflict and conquest that he detected in both Western imperialism and the nationalist movement in India. Yet his position was complicated by the prodigious wealth of the Tagore family over generations, wealth that no doubt helped him step out of the apparatus of colonial power and resistance and forge his own distinct way of looking at the world.

The Tagores had been at the center of the Bengal Renaissance—the astonishing tide of social and intellectual activity that accompanied the formation of a secular modern bourgeoisie in the early 19th century, and turned Calcutta into a booming literary city. But these ideas and texts had failed to trickle down beyond the educated middle class. The majority of Bengal—and India—had no way out of the imperial trap. Their advantage over the British was, after all, contingent on numbers: the strength of their crowds. 

Sen grew up trapped between these limited choices. Born in 1923 in Faridpur, a town now in Bangladesh, his father was a lawyer at the district court whose sympathies were with the freedom movement. Sen’s most vivid memories of his childhood were of attending rallies and protests, getting involved once or twice in the ensuing violence, and being detained in a police station while still in primary school. It was only in Calcutta where, as he said later, he learned to read everything he could—and through reading began to develop a sense of himself as slightly apart.

The break was never clean, however. In the city Sen was influenced by the Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA), which was set up in the wake of World War II and the Bengal famine. The artists’ guild had ties with the Communist Party of India, and many of its members went underground after independence. Sen, though a “private Marxist,” did a lot of organizational work—smuggling posters, writing plays, shielding fugitives from time to time. He was forever flitting between objectivity and commitment. 

India became independent when Sen was in his mid-twenties, but the country kept much of its colonial machinery intact. In Bengal, the horrors of the famine were compounded by the creation of East Pakistan—later Bangladesh—followed by carnage on both sides of the border. The loss of life and property threatened never to end. Trains would arrive in Calcutta teeming with refugees; while the dead would be unloaded, those alive would disembark on the platforms and remain there, whole families camping with their belongings beside the tracks. 

Despite these crises, the city’s cultural life flourished. Apart from the IPTA, there was the Calcutta Film Society, set up by Ray with a friend, which organized screenings of international films, invited visiting directors like Jean Renoir and John Huston to speak, and published bulletins of film interviews and criticism well before Cahiers du Cinema was founded in Paris. A cohort began to emerge, interested in the imaginative possibilities of filmmaking and disdainful of the exaggerations and sloppiness that prevailed in most Indian films. 

Ray’s superior sensibilities were evident in his circle, and he was the one most expected to succeed. Ray had learnt well from Tagore. He had immersed himself in honing his craft through the war years, cultivating a focused detachment. In his spare moments, he developed alternative storylines for films under production, designed book jackets, taught himself how to read and write Western musical scores. When his employers sent him to London for further training, he watched 99 films in the space of six months.

After watching Vittorio De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves, he knew that he wanted to shoot outdoors on a low budget with a nonprofessional cast. By the time Ray made his debut in 1955, he was, in many ways, assured of his antecedents. The maturity of the Apu trilogy—tracking a Bengali boy’s journey from the village to the city—was not an aberration: the spirit of the Bengal Renaissance had found a new form. 

*

Sen’s apprenticeship was never so ordained. After Partition, his parents sold their house in Faridpur and moved in with him in the city. 

For a while, Sen worked for a pharmaceutical company, traveling through central India as a marketing representative. He came to cinema through reading—Rudolf Arnheim’s Film, followed by Vladimir Nilsen’s Cinema as a Graphic Art, which in turn led him to Eisenstein and Pudovkin. He translated a novel by the Czech writer Karel Čapek, then wrote a book on Chaplin. In 

1948, Sen wrote a script based on a peasant uprising that had broken out in a town 50 miles away from Calcutta. He had just figured out the logistics of shooting on location when he heard that the police were planning to raid his apartment. He went home at once and burnt the script. 

Baishey Sravan, released in 1960 and shown outside India as The Wedding Day, was Sen’s attempt to reckon not just with the excesses of the past, but also with the possibilities Ray had opened up for Indian filmmakers with the achievement of Pather Panchali, the first installment of the Apu trilogy. Both films are set in rural Bengal; both were acclaimed in film festivals abroad before being feted at home—but that is where their similarities end. Ray allows his characters to daydream and discover things on their own: little Apu and his sister can always run away from home and disappear into the golden landscape.

Even at their happiest, the couple in Baishey Sravan cannot escape into each other’s arms. Because of their age difference—and inexperience—Sen suggests that sex between them is an encumbrance. They look up to see planes flying overhead without dropping any food supplies. Their surroundings can only remind them of the desperate lives they lead. No poem will reflect their true predicament, no conceivable change in their situation repair what they have lost in their relationship. History will record the number of people dead in the famine, not the end of the couple’s marriage. 

Bhuvan Shome has the air of having emerged from a provisional script. Much of the action is wordless, the conversations no more than plausible.

Akash Kusum (Up in the Clouds), made five years after Baishey Sravan, is about another doomed couple. Ajoy pretends to be a successful businessman in order to impress Monika and her parents. He borrows a well-to-do friend’s clothes, tells Monika that this friend’s apartment is his own. Hoping to get rich quickly, he ends up investing in a risky venture for better profits. The inevitable happens: Ajoy’s new business sinks without a splash, the girl’s father finds out his lies before he can come clean. The father blurts out everything he is thinking—“Fraud! Cheat! Impostor!”—in a sentimental final scene. 

From Akash Kusum onward, one notices a preponderance of freezes and stills in Sen’s work. He had picked up the idea from François Truffaut, as countless filmmakers had after watching The 400 Blows. The freeze fit perfectly with Sen’s wish to inhabit a moment and be self-consciously outside of it. Ajoy’s motivations, however familiar to us, seldom feel hackneyed in the film. His gestures seem in keeping with his confidence. Sen is able to convey the naiveté behind Ajoy’s ambitions with the frequent stills.

Without any memory of the frozen frames, a viewer might think of the last shot—Monika waves at Ajoy from her window, and he reluctantly waves back—as a director too neatly wrapping things up, but the prior pauses and interruptions undercut any certainty about that moment. Instead, one realizes what happened between the couple was not so much a romance as a reckoning. 

Ray found Sen’s films to be “naïve” and didactic. He famously dismissed Sen’s next major release, Bhuvan Shome, in seven words—“Big Bad Bureaucrat Reformed by Rustic Belle.” But this judgment is itself naïve. What sustains interest in the film is not the story, but the character of Mr. Shome, the big bad bureaucrat. Mr. Shome may be old, yet his inner life is that of an imp. His reputation of being stern at work is repeatedly undermined by his antics in the course of a hunting trip, and the girl he meets in a village recognizes a fellow spirit.

She first sees him hiding from a buffalo on top of a tree. He sees her coolly ride away on that buffalo, laughing at him for being so afraid. Their affinity for each other is hard to describe: words like “reform” or “romance” don’t quite capture it. One moment they are tramp and child in Chaplin’s The Kid, the next moment king and queen in the ruins of a palace. Back in his office, Mr. Shome is still a bureaucrat—not reformed but, somehow, revived. 

Bhuvan Shome has the air of having emerged from a provisional script. Much of the action is wordless, the conversations no more than plausible. Sen appears to cherish the film’s clumsier aspects. When Mr. Shome is introduced as a Bengali, portraits of Ray and Tagore appear on the screen followed by a shot of the protagonist doing squats to prepare for the hunting trip. Later, while he is being chased by a buffalo, for a split second we are shown Mr. Shome back in his office poring over a book. The implication is clear: Mr. Shome can study all he wants; sophistication won’t save him. 

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.

Abhrajyoti Chakraborty
Abhrajyoti Chakraborty
Abhrajyoti Chakraborty is a writer living in New Delhi. He has written for the New Yorker, the Guardian, the New Republic and the Times Literary Supplement. His essay on Mrinal Sen appeared in issue 21 of The Point.





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