Revisiting Mrinal Sen’s ‘Calcutta ’71’

Mrinal Sen’s provocative reaction to the spectre of hunger, Calcutta ’71, turns 50. This work of the master film-maker deserves to be seen, studied and remembered for long as one of his more noble and exciting attempts at separating the grains of unendurable truth from the chaff of traditional lies and deceptions.

Published : Aug 05, 2021 06:00 IST

Smita Patil in ‘Akaler Santhaney’ (In Search of Famine). The film won the Silver Bear at Berlin.

Smita Patil in ‘Akaler Santhaney’ (In Search of Famine). The film won the Silver Bear at Berlin.

FOR almost three decades from the 1950s, the masterly trio of Satyajit Ray, Ritwik Ghatak and Mrinal Sen struggled to convince “the new Bengali [read Indian] viewer” of the possibility of imagining, or sensing, other universes than those he or she had been exposed to until then. If Ray was the liberal humanist who sought to reach out to the world even as he firmly moored himself to the Bengal countryside/cityscape with equal profundity, Ghatak deeply stirred an entire aggrieved people with his lacerating melodramas through which the brutalities and betrayals of Partition ran like an inescapable leitmotif.

Meanwhile, it was left to Mrinal Sen to play the role of the political pamphleteer; the polemicist and propagandist; the oracle who, delving into a “thousand-year-old past”, tried to forge an angry, ironic, and occasionally overdone trajectory with the present. Clearly, the intention was to shake the educated middle classes out of their narcotised reverie of callousness towards the oppressed, combined with crass opportunism. The viewer comes across all this, and more, in Kolkata Ekattar ( Calcutta ’71 ), Mrinal Sen’s provocative reaction to the spectre of hunger and the reality of popular misery. Soon, the 50th anniversary of the making of the classic will be observed in select circles across the country.

Whilst revisiting Calcutta ’71 , there is a strong likelihood of the viewer being reminded of Aristotle’s irrefutable observation that “poverty is the parent of revolution and crime”. Closer to our times, Bernard Shaw, the Fabian socialist, put it equally briefly, but more matter-of-factly: “Poverty is a crime, a social crime.” Nearer home, Saadat Hasan Manto, one of Mrinal Sen’s favourite writers, identified hunger, born of poverty, as an unparalleled obscenity: “Hunger is the principal reason for the world’s tragedies and misfortunes. Hunger forces people to beg, compels them to a life of crime. Hunger causes people to take to extreme methods. Hunger compels women to sell their bodies and their honour. The pain of hunger is an extreme pain, the wounds inflicted by it are devastating. Hunger makes people go mad, but madness is not the creator of hunger.”

Also read: Mrinal Sen: World within, world without

Reflections, near and distant, of what Manto says, are there for all to see in Calcutta ’71 ; contained in stories by literary stalwarts such as Manik Bandopadhyay, Probodhkumar Sanyal and Samaresh Bosu, each as poignant or picaresque as the other. However, when Ajitesh Bandopadhyay, who was more of a legendary theatre man than a film person, and Mrinal Sen together try their hand at story writing, the otherwise profound depth of the film falters. No harm would have been done if the director had stayed clear of a department of film-making in which he was obviously not an expert.

Committed to his times

Mrinal Sen was once asked by Prabodh Maitra, a well-known film society organiser, why he kept repeating the theme of exploitation, poverty, famine, hunger and such other calamities in his films; was it because of his commitment? Mrinal Sen’s reply, clear and forthright, deserves to be recalled, even if it might seem banal or old-fashioned to present-day apolitical/amoral elements: “I strongly feel that I, as a social being, am committed to my own times. I simply cannot escape it. And since poverty, famine and social injustice are dominant facts of my own times, my business as a film-maker is to understand them. I try to understand my own period. I try to put it across.”

The director might as well have added that just in case some people were yet to notice it, poverty and hunger were ageless and universal, especially in lands and continents ravaged for centuries by colonial powers; and hence, artists of conscience would never cease to comment on them as they thought fit. Regarding Mrinal Sen’s reply to Maitra, it may still help us understand the “environment that has the power to stifle relationships” (as in Baishey Shravan—Wedding Day , an early, little-noticed distinguished work, about a failed marriage, with the man-made Bengal Famine of 1943 lurking in the background), or “the demythicising of rural India”. (As in Matira Manisa , Mrinal Sen’s Odia classic done in a part-feature, part-documentary style about two farming brothers separated by age and conflicting expectations from life in the village.)

The style, the narrative, the aesthetics or the sociopolitical thrust of Mrinal Sen’s “famine films”, be it Baishey Shravan, which preceded Calcutta ’71 , or Akaler Sandhaney ( In Search of Famine ), which came a decade later and won the Silver Bear at Berlin, are such as to bring to the fore his observation about his refusal or inability to conform to the demands of market-driven, conventional cinema. “I can’t deliberately make a popular film. Indian audiences seek escape from their daily lives when they go to the cinema—my subjects are too close to daily life for popular appeal. I have to find a way to put across the message more successfully.... (In fact,) I feel it is not enough to disturb the audience—it is necessary to act as an agent provocateur . A film must project contemporary attitudes” ( South China Morning Post , Hong Kong, April 16, 1980).

Put down by the Calcutta press

Given the Indian context, when a film-maker talks and works the way Mrinal Sen did, it is inevitable that he should run into a wall of resentment, even open hostility, raised painstakingly by the middle classes and the media pundits, both used to feeling comfortable bathing in still, trouble-free waters. Calcutta ’71 , like other agit-prop films by Mrinal Sen such as Interview , Padatik and Chorus , admittedly none of them in the same class as the first named, got a reception from the Calcutta press that was far from welcoming. True, there were a couple of exceptions in the English language or vernacular press, but by and large the papers seemed keen to put the film down.

Also read: ‘He had the courage to make political films’

For instance, The Statesman of October 20, 1972, could do no better than come up with, at best, a left-handed compliment: “Mrinal Sen has made an important film in spite of himself. The main body of Calcutta ’71 made up of three portraits of poverty leaves a deep impression; but at the beginning and in the end Mr Sen has done about everything possible to dilute its intensity. In parts he seems almost determined to wreck his own creation. That a powerful impression survives these attempts at self-destruction is a measure of the success he has achieved at the core of this somewhat disjointed film.”

On the other hand, Samik Bandopadhyay, writing in the reputed Left poet-writer Samar Sen’s Frontier of October 14, 1972, put up a spirited defence of what the bourgeois press sought to dismiss as having achieved little or nothing. Bandopadhyay argued: “The Mrinal Sen style, ironic and committed, takes a closer and angrier look at perhaps the most real element in the Indian reality—poverty—in his latest work Calcutta ‘71 , and his work touches a relevance rarely touched in the Indian cinema which prefers most of the time to be sentimental or psychological or spectacular or sensational. Ever since Akashkusum , Sen has been working within the urban middle class milieu in his Bengali films and working as an uncompromising critic. However, his mockery of the easy success dream in Akashkusum or his critique of sartorial neocolonialism in Interview merely pricked middle class complacence; but his latest work is a more radically disturbing defence of anger and its varied manifestations.”

Looking reality in the face

What added to the significance of Bandopadhyay’s review was the telling manner in which he compared Calcutta ’71 with T. Pattabhirama Reddy’s trail-blazing Kannada film Samskara ( Funeral Rites ), with which the New Wave in Karnataka began in 1970, two years before Mrinal Sen’s film. “ Calcutta ’71 shares with Samskara the guts to look reality in the face and throw the wish fulfilment mystiques of the Indian cinema to the winds. Like the makers of Samskara , Sen restores more of the theatrical to the cinema, and the theatrical serves to highlight the relevance in the theme statement by the young man perpetually twenty.... The theatrical in Sen’s hand, seems to have more of the ruggedness that the Indian cinema has never really dared at; and his gimmickry is so theatricalised that it becomes more of an elaborately worked out pattern.”

While a large section of Calcutta’s middle classes and its media spent much time and energy trying to pass off the film as yet another example of Mrinal Sen’s idiosyncrasies, students and youths in substantial numbers embraced it with enthusiasm, possibly because it provided a beacon of hope against the alarming culture of easy acceptance of the evil use of power that had come to be the order of the times. The film’s combined spirit of youthful interrogation and angry denunciation of the status quo did not fail to move Mrinal Sen’s chosen constituency—the teeming crowds at the receiving end of state and social tyrannies.

In a sense, the film’s supporters actively showed that safe subjects, easy storytelling or pat solutions were not for them. They would rather uphold Mrinal Sen’s thesis that “a film must project contemporary attitudes”, even if the director made no claim to being perfect in conceptual or aesthetic terms. More than the end result, it was the attitude, the tendency, the deliberate and conscious decision by Mrinal Sen to side with the disenfranchised, that mattered to them.

Perhaps, this needed to be said, considering that even as the film’s bhadralok admirers received it with cautious favour, they appeared to have their reservations about the bravado with which it began and ended. The rest of Calcutta ’71 , meaning the stories around young rice smugglers or the families uprooted from their shanty homes by incessant rain in the night or the once-genteel family reduced to material decline and moral compromise by changed circumstances, sent waves of disquiet among the young and the damned.

Also read: Mrinal Sen: Last of the legends

In this context, it will not do to forget the rage that swept across Calcutta and its suburbs at the time the film was made when understanding and compassion for the poor, the unemployed, the starving and the homeless were in terribly short supply. As if casting himself in the role of a documentarist of dissent and, simultaneously, as a spokesman for those willingly caught up in a storm of protest against the state, Mrinal Sen shows us, in one unforgettable passage, hated relics of the past like the equestrian statues of British governors general and viceroys being trucked away from public view to anonymous godowns, even as rebels were being done away with for raising their voice against social inequalities and political excesses. That short sequence, which came and went, amounted to a scathing condemnation of the reign by terror carried out by the foreign rulers, as also of the blemished record of the brown bourgeoisie that took over in 1947 and has lorded it over ever since.

New Indian Cinema

A few words on New Indian Cinema, which began with remarkable confidence in the late 1960s and continued with diminishing returns until about the mid-1990s, are perhaps necessary to contextualise a different kind of film like Calcutta ’71 ; to follow and appreciate its artistic, aesthetic and social aspirations. New Indian Cinema was an ideological/political body of work that questioned the popular commercial cinema where, for instance, poverty and hunger were subjects to be romanticised, sentimentalised or sensationalised with an eye to box-office success; never to be dissected, analysed, critiqued and exposed for the intricately planned and expertly executed crimes against humanity they were, are, and will be. If the watchword for the earlier cinema was “entertainment”, that for the new films was “enquiry”. From the means of production to the styles, forms, structures, aesthetics, politics and narrative modes employed to give life to the new avatar , everything was a sea change. The best specimens of New Indian Cinema sought to question the old with imagination and insight. Consequently, there was freshness, boldness and originality in the new films. True, they did not click all the time, but very often they did, sometimes with astounding results that drew appreciation at home and, more often, abroad.

Arguably, no one more than Mrinal Sen recognised the need to create a body of film work reflecting the intense social and political turmoil that had come to replace the initial euphoria of nationhood won at high cost. As an incorrigible enfant terrible or, as he himself repeatedly put it, an agent provocateur, he churned out with artistry and almost always in an activist spirit what he felt was wrong with the system. Class, feudalism, corruption, waywardness of the nouveau riche, unemployment, lumpenisation of the lower and middle classes and, finally, hunger came under his microscope with varying results. Calcutta ’71 deserves to be seen, studied and remembered for long as one of Mrinal Sen’s more noble and exciting attempts at separating the grains of unendurable truth from the chaff of traditional lies and deceptions. What would this chronic chronicler of crises, more often man-made than natural, have made of the apocalyptic hunger and ceaseless deaths being caused by COVID-19?

Vidyarthy Chatterjee is a veteran film critic based in Kolkata.

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