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‘Where Camera Is a Character’: Five Unmissable Films on 100 Years of Mrinal Sen

By making films in Hindi, Telugu, Oriya, Sen is among a few directors who made films in languages he does not know.

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If over 47 years of my life as a film critic, I were asked to name the most grounded man in Indian cinema, the one name that comes up immediately is that of Mrinal Sen. He was not only unassuming to a fault, but also accessible, warm and very articulate.

For an internationally renowned filmmaker who made 28 full-length feature films, a couple of documentaries, and two television serials, it is a very tough job to choose my favourite five as this list also keeps on changing.

He has also made films in Hindi, one in Telugu and one in Oriya. I have been asked to choose the five most favourite films of this wonderful human being and the list follows. Sen is one director who made films in languages he does not know.

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Sen’s Films Captured the Realities of Class Divide

1. KHARIJ ((The Case Is Closed) (1982): This film opens up the possibilities of a Marxist reading even within a middle-class household in Kolkata which is so casual and careless about the welfare of a boy servant they have just hired that their neglect leads to the death of the servant boy soon after he is placed in their employ. It throws up a classic example of the powerful exploiting the weak and the deprived completely negligent about the health issues that might have a shocking impact on the servant boy directly as a result of their criminal negligence.

Sen draws upon a Ramapada Choudhury story centered on a young, middle-class, upwardly mobile Bengali couple with a small son. Anjan Sen (Anjan Dutt) and Mamata Sen (Mamata Shankar), a Calcutta couple lives with their son, Pupai (Indranil Moitra). They hire a servant, Palan, who accidentally dies of carbon monoxide poisoning while sleeping in a windowless kitchen on an extremely cold night.

Strangely, everyone in the apartment is more concerned about the social and legal consequences of the death and is not shocked as much by the death itself. The couple is trapped in a silent game of trying to place the blame on each other so much that sometimes, one begins to feel that the relationship might break under psychological and emotional tension. But these upwardly mobile middle-class families are a class of their own who are as exploitative as the richer social strata that look down on them.

The main ‘actor’ is KK Mahajan’s camera which becomes an acute observer not only of the people in the blocks of flats but also closes in on the couple and on the other members of the building almost becoming a critical and questioning “character” in the story even despite its 'invisibility'.
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2. EK DIN PRATIDIN (And Quiet Flows the Day) (1979): This is based on a story by Amalendu Chakravarty entitled Abirata Chenamukh (Known faces, endlessly). It describes a day and night in a low-middle-class complex of flats where everyone knows everyone else and there is hardly any privacy. In one of these flats, Chinu, a daughter who also happens to be the sole earning member of the family, fails to return home.

Ek Din Pratidin is one of Sen’s most poignant films he produced himself. It has an unhurried pace that unfolds, layer by slow and detailed layer, the position of women in Indian society in general, and of working women in middle-class families in particular. The unfolding of the story takes place in Calcutta with the dilapidated housing complex in which Chinu and her family live, taking up a major slice of the space. The events begin and end within the span of a night, from the time Chinu fails to return from work, till the next morning when she finally comes home.

When Chinu comes back, no questions are asked. The family greets her with explosive silence. Her mother, who was the most vocal during her absence, rushes out to see her. As inquisitive neighbours throng the windows of their flats and the lights come up one by one, she tells her daughter, "Come in now, and don't make a laughing stock of yourself, '" and goes into the room with her youngest daughter, leaving Chinu alone in the compound. Her younger brother tells his sister to step inside. Inside the room, the mother sits quietly. Chinu's father stands beside her but does not speak.

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3. KHANDAHAR (Ruins) (1984): The Khandahar—the mansion in ruins the film is named after, is a major character. It is both a reality and a metaphor for the situation that exists, the situation that evolves with the entry of the three men with their light-hearted, almost frothy approach to life, and the situation they leave behind when they go away. The mansion exists in a dilapidated state of decay.

KK Mahajan captures it in, the plaster on its walls peeling off to reveal the cracked bricks, the weeds growing around and from within them, the arched entries to wide corridors and passageways, dwarfing the few individuals who live in it. The ruins symbolise a world of humane values in ruins but alive, because like electricity and means of transport, the changing values of a materialistic city have not crossed its walls, yet.

Khandahar offers several readings of the film text. One throws up the possibility of a patriarchal reading where marriage is the only point of exit for a young woman like Jamini (Shabana Azmi) who, given her situation, is doomed to a life of singular celibacy. Another reading shows the voyeuristic eye of the still camera within the film’s moving camera. Mrinal Sen uses the camera’s gaze twice over, once through the cinematic lens of the movie camera and then again, through the lens of Subhash's (Naseeruddin Shah) still camera. KK Mahajan’s camera approaches Jamini as the subject of the cinematographic space. Subhash’s camera treats Jamini as the object of his visual gaze.

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His Cinematic Technique Complimented Sensitive Storytelling

4. BHUVAN SHOME (1969): Bhuvan Shome (Utpal Dutt) is a bureaucrat who holds a high position in the Indian railways. He is a strict disciplinarian not popular among his subordinates for his insistence on honesty, integrity, and industry to sustain which, he did not spare his own son. But this honesty, combined with a refusal to compromise also alienates him from everyone. That does not deter him from his ideology. He is a widower and his staff is very alert because the news of his strict ways of handling corrupt people has reached them before he reaches his new post. There is another facet to his character he did not know of himself. He is made aware of it from his brief association with Gauri (Suhasini Mulay), a rustic, simple woman who happens to be the wife of the corrupt clerk (Sadhu Meher).

Bhuvan Shome was a path-breaking film for Indian cinema in general and Mrinal Sen in particular. This was his ninth feature film and his first in Hindi. It was based on a novelette by Balai Chand Mukhopadhyay better known as Bonophool.

It is a very simple and straightforward story which Mrinal Sen narrates with interesting twists and turns in the technique of cinema such as animation, fast-forwards, close-ups, humour, and satire telescoping brilliantly into each other without the audience becoming conscious of it.
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5. AKALER SANDHANE (In Search of Famine) (1982): It is about a film crew from Calcutta journeying to a remote village in West Bengal to shoot a film based on the Bengal Famine of 1943. A self-reflexive film is when a film deals, in some way or other, with a film-within-a-film through characters, nostalgia, use of technology such as the movie camera, the make-up, and so on. This was not Sen’s film rooted in the Bengal Famine.

The film offers a glimpse into how hunger can be actually manipulated by better-placed people for the sake of shooting a film on hunger by a film director and his crew ruthlessly so that their film can be as authentic and as realistic a representation of hunger many years after the Bengal Famine.

The director’s commitment to authenticity is seen when he ticks off an actress who has plucked her eyebrows before portraying a village wife. But how fake this pretension comes across when the same film crew pushes up the price of essential food items including pricey vegetables and chicken in an already hunger-infested village when they go marketing for their own sumptuous lunches and dinners. In so doing, Sen ruthlessly points an accusing finger at himself and his entire crew.

Salil Choudhury’s music adds a completely Leftist texture to the film.

(Shoma A Chatterji is an Indian film scholar, author and freelance journalist. This is an opinion article and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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Topics:  Indian Cinema   Mrinal Sen 

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