I recently watched a Punjabi mini-series called Kohrra, an astonishingly well-made crime thriller set in a fictional small town. Its black humour and grittiness, its courage in presenting Indian policing in all its brutality while still mining humanity from it, all this strikes you, but what stands out is that it is one of those rare outings in India that deals with that ugly thing called reality while remaining compelling and entertaining.
Such offerings should not be so few and far between given the kind of talent and investment we have in the entertainment industry. And if it is so, it is because we have given ourselves over so completely to inane and puerile fantasy. Fantasy not as a genre but as the very foundation of the mainstream cinematic imagination. More recently, of course, we have seen another kind of escape from reality in the entirely imaginary histories of strutting bravado and strident nationalism that have come not just to the big and small screens but also to FM radio.
Don’t get me wrong; one doesn’t expect gritty reality from, say, Karan Johar, whose candyfloss movies set in la-la lands inhabited by very rich and very silly people are top box-office grossers. But even so, it is striking that when our brilliant young columnist Prathyush Parasuraman sets out to capture the cinematic tension created by the juxtaposing of reality and fantasy, the only “reality” he can find in Johar’s latest film, Rocky Aur Rani Kii Prem Kahaani, are the real designer garments the protagonists wear!
Prathyush would have had no such difficulty with the genius filmmaker whose birth centenary we celebrate in this issue. In fact, Mrinal Sen, often described as a master realist, went way beyond the real in order to capture it better. Realising the limitations of pure reality or pure illusion, he adopted the Brechtian technique of Verfremdungseffekt—breaking the illusion that cinema, and indeed theatre, increasingly sought to create of complete, immersive verisimilitude.
Sen’s films break the wall between film and audience, a voice-over or placard often speaks directly to the viewer, real documentary footage is wedged into the fictional story, actors are cast in roles that hark back self-reflexively to their earlier films. Together, these elements create powerful ruptures between the real and the unreal that are jarring, that make it impossible to lose oneself in the story or think of it only as a story.
Mrinal Sen’s cinema might not be an easy outing: you don’t exactly get a tale on a plate with all the ends neatly tied up. Oh no. You have to work at it. You have to be prepared to exert your mind, join the dots. Why is one section presented as a mock play? When is the film-in-a-film the real film and when is it not? Which is documentary footage? What are the staged scenes? If I present Sen’s cinema as a series of questions to you, it is because the director himself, in his 1968 Manifesto of New Cinema, interpreted it as cinema that “lays stress on the right questions and bothers less about the right answers”. A cinema that demanded anything less would have been interpreted by Mrinal Sen as “compromise”, a word he abhorred.
It might be that nobody watches Mrinal Sen’s films today. It might be that it is not fashionable to talk of Sen in the era of Rajamouli. But to forget the maestro’s cinematic idiom and courage would be to forget the very alphabets that were strung together to create India’s nouvelle vague moment, a moment that with its Ray-Sen-Ghatak troika put Indian cinema right up there with the best.
We revisit that moment in this issue.