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The Air Inside: The Work of Mrinal Sen

An introduction to the political and poetic work of India's Mrinal Sen.
Shiv Kotecha
The series Voice of the Unheard: A Mrinal Sen Retrospective is playing on MUBI in many countries starting September 27, 2021.
The Guerilla Fighter (1973)
"In the beginning, there were the heaven and the earth and also the stinking malarial swamp."
Instead of pulling an all-nighter to finish his assignment, Dipu (played by Anjan Dutt)—the ebullient young journalist who, at the start of Mrinal Sen’s dizzying, self-reflexive film, Chaalchitra (The Kaleidoscope, 1981), begrudgingly agrees to write an “intimate family portrait” about growing up just above the poverty line—becomes frustrated, throws a temper tantrum, and falls into a deep, dream-filled sleep. Sen’s itinerant camera dives into the slithy depths of Dipu’s unconscious, where his editor (whose demand for “salable” copy to “feed the public” leads to Dipu’s spiral) sits alone in a pristine, unpeopled bungalow. Lounging below electric lights, he sucks at a pipe and whirring fans deodorize the air. 
But outside, it’s not quiet. A rally of thousands of women from Calcutta’s slums have gheraoed the editor’s property, carrying coal ovens billowing noxious fumes into the air; “We live among smoke, you louts!” they yell, with heaving laughter that muffles the police sirens behind them. Dipu imagines a world in which environmental maladaptation and social immobility become anxieties that addle the dominant class—the wealthy, the media men, and functionaries of the state—rather than the dispossessed urban proletariat of Calcutta, a city built as a convenient colonial outpost by the British in 1690; now called Kolkata, population 15 million. 
The moral toil of representing “ordinary life” in post-Partition India is a predominant subject of the late, pioneering Indian filmmaker and theorist Mrinal Sen, a near contemporary of Satyajit Ray and the lesser-known Ritwik Ghatak, and a prominent figure of the subcontinent’s parallel cinema movement. Angular, intertextual and politically charged, the thirty-plus features, documentaries, and TV series’ that comprise Sen’s sixty-year career reflect the lingering stench of empire the British leave in India’s collective sensorium. Cyclical bouts of hunger and famine, anthropogenic toxicity, and the opportunism of a disaffected, educated middle-class: these are the shards through which Mrinal Sen’s refracts contemporary Kolkatan life. 
The “bustling environment in my mind’s eye,” writes Sen in his essay “Impact of Environment,” is composed of a “hundred and one fragmentary impressions of different sorts.” His cinematic sensibility is centrifugal; the camera doesn’t dominate reality as much as it catches the frayed psychological matter of individuals living in the ruins of capital dominion. Whole soundscapes, as that of workers on strike, or of the enveloping drone of hard rainfall intensifies the crude, flickering agitprop of his early films, and act as a sharp counterpoint to the glassy, understated psychodramas Sen makes late in his career. In contrast to the literary humanism of Satyajit Ray’s poised masterworks, which the critic Torsa Ghosal correctly remarks, “highlight the inability of interruptions to affect in states of disorder,” Sen’s discontinuous and self-referential filmic syntax foils cinema’s capacity to act as a self-contained, immersive environment.1 Take, for example, the series of opacities that leads Chaalchitra’s Dipu to briefly feel the semblance of the good life; at the end of the film, he uses his little earnings to buy a gas stove for his mother’s small, soot-covered kitchen. In the film that follows Chaalchitra, Kharij (The Case Is Closed, 1982), a young boy hired as a servant by a middle-class couple dies of carbon monoxide poisoning, breathing the air inside their home. One moment in Chaalchitra still snags my mind: Dipu stands at his balcony and Sen’s camera sees what he sees. Below his home and ahead, where there could be a horizon, a blur like smoke rising up from a massive slum that shoots out like the ocean, to infinity. 
Bhuvan Shome / Mr. Shome (1969)
***
Mrinal Sen was born on May 14 1923, in the town of Faridpur (in present-day Bangladesh), as one of twelve children. His father, Dineshchandra, was a lawyer who made a name for himself by winning legal battles in favor of young revolutionaries who challenged the British Crown. Growing up, Sen read voraciously, and paid particular attention to poets and writers like W. H. Auden and Faridpur’s own Jasimuddin, who wrote about fascism, and fabulated classless societies. While a teen in Faridpur, he became close with some of the most strident activists and theoreticians of the Bengal Wing of the Communist Party at the time, like Mohit Sen (alias Subodh Sen) and Bagala Guha, and in 1940, left Faridpur to study at the Scottish Church College, Calcutta.2 Soon after his arrival in the city, Sen became an active member of several cultural and artistic circles, including the Indian People’s Theater Association (IPTA), a collective closely associated with a banned political outfit called the Communist Party of India, where Sen would meet the actor Gita Shome, his future wife and most frequent collaborator, and the film director and dramatist Ritwik Ghatak.
When the Japanese Army drove the British Empire and Chinese forces out of Burma in 1942, the state of Bengal, which had remained relatively peripheral to the South-East Asian theater of World War II, became one of its many strained centers. An exodus of nearly a half-million Indian citizens from Burma to India set off a series of state-sanctioned responses that resulted in the 1943 man-made famine, which took the lives of nearly 1.5 million individuals. More people meant more military presence in the city; which meant more Allied forces; which meant more ways to employ unskilled laborers as military contractors to build airfields for British and American troops occupy; which meant an exacerbated food supply; which meant price speculation; and war profiteering; and hoarding; and corruption. Between 1942 and 1944, the region was also hit by a major cyclone and three storm surges that tore across the Bay of Bengal and ravaged rice fields across the riverine state. A fungal brown contagion diseased the crops that remained, and the soil a new harvest would feed on.3 The cascading effects of migration and statelessness during this period become the subject of Ritwik Ghatak’s films, whose highly allegorical, self-described “screamingly melodramatic style,” as seen in Meghe Dhaka Tara (The Cloud-Capped Star, 1960) and Subarnarekha (Golden Lining, 1962), could not be more dissimilar to Sen’s icy, cerebral portrayals of famine in films such as Baishey Shravana (1960) and Alakar Sandhane (1981).
In the years before Sen directs his breakout film, the whimsical Hindi-language road movie, 1969’s Bhuvan Shome (Mr. Shome)—which nabbed the Silver Trophy when it was screened at the Phonm Penh Film Festival in Cambodia in 1968—Sen spent nearly two decades producing documentaries for India’s Film Division. Notably, Sen produces Moving Perspectives (1967) a multipart documentary made for the government of India, surveying 5000 years of Indian history. He was also a prolific writer, producing several volumes of film theory—including incisive reads of Eisensteinian montage; the low-fi, low-budget tactics of the Nouvelle Vague and cinema vérité—and a monograph about Charlie Chaplin. 
Nowhere are the tenets of Sen’s aesthetic theory, and his media politics, more explicitly on display than in Bhuvan Shome, in which deadpan irony and faux didacticism are stunted by stuttering jump cuts, a non-diegetic voice-over (voiced by young Amitabh Bachan), and freeze-frames to deliver a plot the filmmaker Satyajit Ray decried as pedestrian: Mr. Shome, an uptight elderly Bengali bureaucrat (played by Utpal Dutt), decides to go on a hunting trip after the death of his wife. A ramshackle bullock cart takes him, hilariously, to the opposite side of India—to the sand-dunes of Saurashtra, in the west Indian state of Gujarat, where Shome’s encounter with Gauri (Suhasini Mulay), a young peasant woman, inspires him to return to Calcutta a kinder, more open-hearted man (though, Satyajit Ray’s one-liner description of the movie might still be more precise than mine: “big bad bureaucrat reformed by rustic belle”).
On April 29, 1969, Lenin’s hundredth birthday, the Marxist-Leninist faction of the Communist Party of India was born at a large public demonstration in Calcutta. The occasion marked the formal unification of several cadres of revolutionaries and party workers from both rural and urban populations in West Bengal and became known as the Naxalite Movement, a party activately revolting across the state between 1967 and 1975. The Naxalite movement and its eventual fracturing features prominently in Sen’s Calcutta trilogy—starting with Interview (1970), followed by Calcutta77 (1972), and Padatik (The Guerilla Fighter, 1973).  Newsreel-style footage of actual political demonstrations and speeches by political leaders and by cineastes alike, filmed on location by Sen, punctuate Padatik, Sen’s tense ante-chamber play about the internal dogfights that roiled the left-wing party. At the start of the film, Sumit (played by Dhritiman Chatterjee) is an activist on the run from the police who hides out in the penthouse apartment of Shilpa Mitra (Simi Garewal), a wealthy divorceé and Naxal sympathizer. Sumit’s fitful impatience drives Sen’s slow-burning drama forward; the “ferocious restlessness of Calcutta in 1971” is felt in the actor in Dhritiman Chatterjee’s compact frame surrounded by Shilpa’s creature comforts, he plays the role of a man at wit’s end. At one point, Sumit steps into the shower. The hot, high-pressure water system tempers his nerves, and for a moment he stands still, appearing somewhat calm. Crack—the sound of a gunshot breaks the reprieve. Wet, and still angry, he reaches for a fresh towel.
Alakar Sandhane / In Search of Famine (1981)
One of Sen’s masterpieces is Alakar Sandhane (In Search of Famine), which won the Silver Bear Jury Prize at the Berlin International Festival in 1981. The film opens on a title card:
7 September 1980. 
A group from Calcutta—a film crew—travels to a village to shoot a film. The village is called Hatui. The name of the film—In Search of Famine
I’ll recount one scene: torrential rains interrupt the crew’s production schedule, so they decide to play a game. One of the actors, the extraordinary Smita Patil (who plays herself), holds up a series of photographs of famine victims. She makes the others guess what year and what famine is pictured: 1943, Bengal; 1959, also Bengal. 1971, East Pakistan. When Patil notices that one of the photos is entirely black, she fudges the rules and supplies an answer: “Past, present, and future,” she says, moving to the next. It’s a disarming scene, in which Sen’s understanding of historical continuity appears crystalline: as a series of interregnums sutured together by measuring the severity and frequency of one instance of famine against another. 
As in Wilder’s Ace in the Hole (1951), in which Kirk Douglas plays Chuck Tatum, a hungry news reporter who makes a spectacle of a man he encounters suffocating and dying inside a mountain tunnel, Sen’s film also has at its center, the ambitions of an unnamed narrator, who feigns the desire for authenticity in his omnivorous documentation of all the things he sees. Inspired by the autobiographical elements in Federico Fellini’s 8 1/2, Alakar Sandhane also incorporates a personal timeline, that of Sen, who traveled to the town of Mankar to shoot Baishey Shravana in 1960—his first “famine” feature. There are no flashbacks in Alakar Sandhane, no nostalgic retrievals nor recounted epiphanies—and yet we feel like we’ve been dragged through what Georg Lucács calls an “unbridgeable ‘pernicious chasm’ of the present,” or as Sudhanya, an elder member of the village turned film set, says of what the crew has done: “They came to take pictures of a famine and sparked off another famine.” 
“Cut! Cut! Cut! Cut! Cut! Cut!” scream a group of children, as they chase the film crew’s vehicle as it drives back to the city; the camera stays for long enough for you to see them disappear into dust. Sen’s attachment to filmic disruption, what Torsa Ghosal calls Sen’s “poetics of interruption,” recede in the films Sen makes in the 1980s and 1990s. In films like the Hindi-language film Ek Din Achanak (Suddenly, One Day, 1989), members of the educated middle class face psychological impasses, such as those caused by loss and grief, that trap them in their homes. In this film, the Hindi-language theater actor Sreeram Lagoo plays Dr. Shashank Ray (perhaps a riff on S-atyajit R-ay’s name?), a retired historian who lives in a three-bedroom flat in Calcutta with his wife Sudha (Uttara Baokar). They have three educated children and sometimes a live-in servant. The film opens on a day of heavy rain. Dr. Ray goes for a walk and does not come back. By turns, the film tracks the characters’ mental responses to Dr. Ray's disappearance—why did he leave? Was he having an affair? Was he a mediocre scholar all along—a plagiarist? After a year of mourning, the family sit in a circle in the dark and share their discontent. “A few days before he left,” Sudha reveals to her children, “before bed, he turned around and said this: ‘The saddest thing in the world, Sudha, is that you only live once.’” 
Sen’s acerbic, angry metafictions about environmental risk, overdevelopment, and neoliberal complacency feel like eerie transmissions from our collective future—except, perhaps I’m wrong—perhaps they're about now. How does political will operate when there is too much to remember? How do you constitute a sense of what’s ordinary when colonial rule and revolt results in violence so attritional, it becomes atmosphere? Mrinal Sen continued to prod at these questions, even in Amar Bhuvan, his final film, in 2002, before he died of cardiac arrest on December 30, 2018—a few months prior to Narendra Modi securing re-election as Prime Minister of India. The film opens with a still image of a young girl, clearly suffering malnutrition, holding a child (likely her sibling) in her arms. The camera pauses and capital letters, reminiscent of Sen’s early films, are overlaid on the photograph. They read: 
“THE WORLD IS BREAKING UP, BURNING, DISINTEGRATING; STILL MEN LIVE HERE IN LOVE, COMPASSION AND EMPATHY.”

1. See Torsa Ghosal’s essay, “Strikethrough Calcutta: Poetics and Politics of Interruption in Satyajit Ray’s and Mrinal Sen’s Calcutta Trilogies,” for an in-depth comparison of the filmmakers’ aesthetic projects (South Asian Review 36, 2015).
2. Mukhopadhyay, Dipankar. Mrinal Sen: 60 Years in Search of Cinema HarperCollins Publishers India, 2009.
3. Mukherjee, Janam. Hungry Bengal: War, Famine and the End of Empire. Oxford University Press, 2015.

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