In this article, I wish to draw attention to some of the recurring themes and motifs of Mrinal Sen’s diverse oeuvre. While Sen’s work is marked by a range of aural-visual experimentations, foregrounding pointed and polemical statements about the socio-political situations of the period and beyond, let us consider a film like Baishey Shravana (1960), which opens with the statement that it is set in the late 1930s. Time and again, Sen situated his stories in the 1930s, as in Neel Akasher Neechey (1959), and Calcutta ’71 (1972), underscoring a historical and political continuity—of imperialism, manipulation, economic deprivation, under-development and workers’ struggles—where a house, practically in ruins, becomes pivotal both as a physical place and a metaphorical space suggesting historical and ideological degeneration. I argue that the idea of ruins further develops into characters—those of ageing parents and those performed by actors of yesteryears.
Baishey Shravana, for instance, opens with a dense soundscape inside a train. Priyanath (Gyanesh Mukherjee), a vendor of alta (red dye that married women in east India and Bangladesh apply on their feet), is selling his wares, and his voice overlaps with the sound of the moving train, voices of other vendors, and a song on Kali sung by a boy. This is followed by scenes of silence and darkness in a Bengal village. On the surface, Baishey Shravana is not a film with a political itinerary. Rather it develops as a brutally truncated love story between the ageing Priyanath and his young bride Malati (Madhabi Mukherjee).
Decay and loss
In a particular scene, young and spirited Malati plays hide-and-seek when Priyanath returns home earlier than usual, running through the wreckage of what appears to have been a large colonial mansion (or rajbari) until she arrives at the courtyard—dilapidated and inhabited by pigeons. In the next scene, as Priyanath narrates the story of the house, of how its inhabitants once had both wealth and power, a bored Malati dozes off and the sound of a train’s whistle fades in.
“The story of the mother who betrays her children in Calcutta ’71 is located within the vortex of multi-layered narratives, generated by referencing other films and texts, thereby emphasising a continued history of degeneration.”
Later, Priyanath wakes up in the night and, struck by his wife’s charming face, gets out a bottle of alta to apply on her feet. His own voice selling alta on the train plays on the soundtrack, both as sonic design and to construct his emotional graph. Malati wakes up unexpectedly, cries out in panic, and the bottle falls and breaks. A sharp cut connects this scene to the next one where Priyanath is on the train again.
A few years pass, then one stormy evening Priyanath and Malati visit a village fair. On their way home, they realize that a mango tree has crashed on Priyanath’s mother’s (Hemangini Devi) room, crushing her to death. The storm in the fairground and the mother’s devastating death are central to the plot, since after that incident, Priyanath suffers further injuries, both physical and those from the economic-political devastation (Bengal famine of 1943).
In time, such figurations—as of the elderly mother (played poignantly by Geeta Sen in later films like Calcutta ’71, Chorus, Ek Din Pratidin, Akaler Sandhane, Chaalchitra, and Khandhar); of a mansion in ruins, emphasising decay and loss (for instance, in Baishey Shravana, Calcutta ’71, Akaler Sandhane, Chaalchitra, Kharij, Khandhar, and Mahaprithibi); and the casting of “forgotten” actors (like Radhamohan Bhattacharya, Binota Roy, especially the actor-director Rajen Tarafdar) to tell the tale, would become some of Sen’s key narrative strategies.
Akaler Sandhane opens with shots of a train passing through fields, and cars and buses entering the frame. A song (repeated later in the film), recalling the momentous Tebhaga movement (1946-1950), plays on the soundtrack. This song, “Hei Samalo”, written and composed, among others, by the maverick music composer Salil Chowdhury and the legendary poet Sukanta Bhattacharya, is a landmark composition of the Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA), celebrating the peasants’ rebellion in which the farmers demanded two-thirds of the grain they produced. The Tebhaga movement led to largescale agrarian reforms from 1977 onwards in West Bengal. However, it took the government almost 30 years to act: it is this failure of the state that is continually emphasised in Sen’s films. Such governmental insolvency towards a deeply agrarian society is stressed upon in Calcutta ’71, Chorus, and Mrigayaa. In Chorus, workers and farmers join hands in thousands, and make such a movement emblematically possible.
“Past, present, and future”
In Akaler Sandhane, a film crew, making a film of the same name (set during the catastrophic Bengal Famine of 1943), arrives at a run-down palatial mansion in Hatui village in Bengal’s Hooghly district. As the crew camps in the house and shooting begins, complications erupt, making the plot of the film-within-the-film intersect with the main plot. Common to both is the decrepit house and an elderly couple—both silent reminders of the past.
In a pivotal scene, when rains halt shooting, Smita (played by Smita Patil) suggests they play a game and, in the next scene, she presents a photograph of famished, skeleton-like people.
Smita, seated next to Dhritiman (Dhritiman Chaterji, who plays the director), asks, “Tell me, this [photo] is from which period?” Everyone in the room answers: “1943…Famine”, except for Dipankar (played by Dipankar De), who replies: “1959”. Dhritiman then explains that there was another famine in West Bengal in 1959. Smita shows other images from 1943 and from the 1971 Bangladesh War, and ends with a black, blank image, which, she says, suggests the “past, present, and future”.
Sen’s repeated emphasis on the continued deprivation of the working classes is woven even more intricately into the plot of Calcutta ’71. The film opens with a fictive and dramatic courtroom sequence in which Ranjit of Interview (1971), played by Ranjit Mullick, is being judged for vandalising and disrobing a mannequin. This is preceded by a title and a voice-over (which appear in the film several times) stating that the character is 20 years old but has been walking for thousands of years through “poverty, gloom and death… and witnessing history; a history of poverty, deprivation and exploitation”. This is followed by a montage of contemporary city life in which old and new technology, gadgets, political movements of the day, and abject poverty, past and present, are spotlighted. Ranjit’s seemingly trivial vandalism is thus located within the larger context of a history of inequality.
“As the camera tracks closer to Dhritiman’s face, Sen seems to call attention to Dhritiman’s own memory of the political urgency of the previous decade, as played out by the actor in the landmark film, Padatik (1973).”
The next story in the film, set in 1933, amplifies the point, making a clear distinction between the ramshackle huts in Calcutta slums and a rich man’s house where poor families and a dog take shelter during torrential rains. The vivid visualisation of the rain here, comparable to that of the storm in Baishey Shravana, makes Sen’s films evocative even as they bear the imprint of realism, underlined by his use of documentary footage of workers and peasants at protest rallies.
The second story of Calcutta ’71, set in 1943, opens with the face of Shovona (Madhabi Mukherjee) looking directly into the camera, and narrating her story of multiple hardships. This is followed by a shot from Baishey Shravana (of Priyanath looking up at the skies) and the sound of war planes. In this story, Nalinakhya, a government officer, visits his extended family to discover how his aunt (played by Binota Roy) has pushed her daughters—Shovona and the teenaged Minu—into prostitution, and her underaged son to work and thieving. While Nalinakhya is nervous about the large house (inhabited by many tenants) and the “good” life his distant relatives are leading despite the hunger and death on the streets, the reality is ripped open in a scene of verbal and physical confrontation between the mother and daughters in the courtyard.
Both actors, Madhabi Mukherjee and Binota Roy, carry with them the memory of social churning as depicted in their earlier films, namely Baishey Shravana, Subarnarekha (directed by Ritwik Ghatak, 1965), and Udayer Pathey (directed by Bimal Roy, 1944). I wish to draw attention particularly to the casting of Binota Roy as the “cruel” mother in Calcutta ’71, considering that Udayer Pathey, set in 1943, was a groundbreaking social melodrama about the workers’ movement, where Binota plays the rich friend Gopa who finally leaves her wealth behind. The story of the mother who betrays her children in Calcutta ’71 is located within the vortex of multi-layered narratives, generated by referencing other films and texts, thereby emphasising a continued history of degeneration.
Sen had cast Radhamohan Bhattacharya (the protagonist of Udayer Pathey) as the headmaster, “Master-moshai”, of a local school in Akaler Sandhane. In one scene, when the crew and the crowds gather for a night shoot, they are joined by Master-moshai. During a conversation with Dhritiman, he expresses his dislike for an early talkie that failed to capture the core of the plot and the meaning of “ideals”. I propose that the re-introduction of Bhattacharya within the scope of this film evokes a personal, political, and cinematic memory premised on “ideals”. As the camera tracks closer to Dhritiman’s face, Sen seems to call attention to Dhritiman’s own memory of the political urgency of the previous decade, as played out by the actor in the landmark film, Padatik (1973).
- In Mrinal Sen’s movies, a house in ruins is often a metaphorical space suggesting historical and ideological degeneration.
- The idea of ruins further develops into characters—those of ageing parents and those performed by actors of yesteryears.
- By using pronounced yet elusive inter-textual references, Mrinal Sen built up a thick tapestry of political-historical narratives.
Inter-textuality and self-reflexivity
In another shooting sequence which depicts how the affluent upper-castes exploited farmers and appropriated their land, Master-moshai asks about Smita’s gesture of looking up at the sky (also used in the film’s poster). Dhritiman replies that it signifies the war planes of the period. The theme of memory, remembering, and history is further elaborated in a later scene, which appears at the point where the plot gets complicated and the situation becomes capricious due to misunderstandings between some of the villagers and the crew, which Master-moshai tries to resolve. As the villagers gather at his house, they remind him of the famine when city-bred contractors—like the film crew—subjugated them. Master-moshai replies: “I haven’t forgotten… I haven’t forgotten how Sudhanya bought land from ‘Bagdi-para’ (Dalit neighbourhood) … and you! I remember what you did. And that’s what they are presenting through the film….”
Such recalling and retelling via actors like Radhamohan Bhattacharya and Binota Roy (or Madhabi Mukherjee), alongside the thick inter-textuality and self-reflexivity were some of the ways in which Sen built up his politically charged narratives.
In Akaler Sandhane, the casting of filmmaker-actor Rajen Tarafdar as Harendra Chandra Aon is significant. While Tarafdar’s exceptional films like Ganga (1960) and Palanka (1975) demand a more focussed reading, his character in Akaler Sandhane, that of an erstwhile jatra (folk theatre) performer, who becomes a dedicated associate of the film crew, must be mentioned. Although Haren’s endeavours to find an actress to replace Devika (Devika Mukherjee), when she leaves in a huff, backfire, in the scene where Dhritiman visits the weavers’ neighbourhood, we become aware of his social life and aspirations. Later, Haren talks of how he once wanted to start his own theatre group, but times have changed and plays are now staged on “Hitler, Lenin, Stalin”.
When Dhritiman asks why he does not try something similar, Haren replies: “Honestly, I did think about it.” Dhritiman asks, “Which script?” Haren retorts, “Karl Marx… I would have played the lead.” Clearly, the evocation of Marx is a purposeful comment by Sen, as much as the character’s love and dedication for theatre and the allied arts belongs to Tarafdar.
Range of memories
One of the most provocative casting decisions by Sen is perhaps that of Karuna Bandyopadhyay as Ranjit’s mother in Interview. One of the key sequences of the film has shots of popular film hoardings, followed by shots of tramlines and close-ups of Ranjit’s fellow commuters inside a tram. Through rapid cuts and a playful sound design, Sen fabricates an intense moment, which transpires into a conversation on the cinematic mode when Ranjit begins to directly address the audience and the people inside the tram, explaining how Sen is shooting an alternative film. Karuna Bandyopadhyay (who played Sarbojaya in Satyajit Ray’s Pather Panchali, 1955) plays his mother. Thereafter, the famous scene of Harihar’s return and Sarbojaya’s inaudible yet piercing cry over Durga’s tragic death are inserted, and, in the process, Ranjit also describes his own character and his current job. The sequence ends with shots of K.K. Mahajan (cinematographer) shooting with an Arriflex 35 IIC. This sequence effectively collates some of Sen’s principal narrative strategies—inter-textuality and self-reflexivity.
Some of the strategic aspects of Sen’s narratives are explorations of dilapidated houses, the figuration of the mother, and the involvement of actors who embody a larger history and a range of personal, collective, and cinematic memories. Interview, for instance, opens with the footage of colonial period icons being dismantled, followed by a mobile camera that presents Ranjit’s locality and a close shot of a hand picking up a clay oven (unoon in Bangla). As the camera tilts up, the mother’s face is revealed, and as she leaves the frame, the camera pans to show the area where Ranjit lives.
After this, there are shots of Ranjit’s sister hanging clothes on the clothesline and applying bindi, which cuts to mother making tea. The shots of the mother—of Karuna Bandyopadhyay—by the stove is reminiscent of the pensive Sarbojaya in Panther Panchali, although Sen’s style is playful, especially when he makes a point (later) about this “perfect” casting. One may develop the questions of history, memory, remembering and recounting further by highlighting the trunk that Ranjit’s mother brings out to find his shoes. Ranjit is flustered on seeing the old, worn-out trunk. He opens it to find bottles and tins and other junk. One wonders what the trunk full of trash signifies.
“Clearly, the evocation of Marx is a purposeful comment by Sen, as much as the character’s love and dedication for theatre and the allied arts belongs to Tarafdar.”
I am also thinking through the characters or rather a singular character-type, which Geeta Sen played in a number of Mrinal Sen’s films, especially Ek Din Pratidin and Khandhar. While in Khandhar, the blind, bed-ridden, talkative mother (Geeta Sen) mirrors the collapse of both the mansion and social system, and thus becomes a picture of political ruin, Ek Din Pratidin opens with an epilogue and a brief sequence that introduces the characters—especially the mother (Geeta Sen) and the house. As the camera pans over the crumbling building, a voice describes:
“1857. The year of the Sepoy Mutiny. In the same year, this house was built by Nabin Chandra Mullick. The days of East India Company, Queen Victoria, CMDA, Partition of Bengal (1905), Partition of India (1947) passed by; the house witnessed Kolkata’s history marked by meetings, rallies, bloodshed, war, famine, riots. And yet Kolkata stands, so does the house….”
By using many such pronounced yet elusive inter-textual references, Sen builds up a thick tapestry of political-historical narratives. He further thickens the plot with the fantasies of the middle-classes about, say, the apartments (“flat-bari”) of the period or the shifting political economy, as in Akash Kusum (1965), Padatik, and Interview. From such high-rises, “Calcutta a Problem City” (Padatik) appears alluring and enchanting.
Madhuja Mukherjee is Professor of Film Studies at Jadavpur University, Kolkata. She extends her archival research into art-practice, curatorial-work and filmmaking. She is editor of the award-winning anthology Voices of the Talking Stars (2017), she (co)edited Popular Cinema in Bengal(2020), Industrial Networks and Cinemas of India (2021), and Wondrous Screens and its Publics (forthcoming). Madhuja is the (co-) writer of the film Qissa’(2013); her directorial feature-film, Carnival(2012), had its world premiere at the 41st International Film Festival Rotterdam 2012, and Deep6’(2021), had its world premiere at the 26th Busan International Film Festival 2021.