Archive for the ‘social commentary’ Category

 

In the era subsequent to Sen-Ray-Ghatak, Gautam Ghose has emerged as a true inheritor of their rich legacy. His films draw from the influences of these masters but nonetheless speak in a distinct, independent voice. His contemporaries like Aparna Sen, Buddhadeb Dasgupta, Rituparno Ghosh and Sandip Ray and others have distinguished themselves in certain genres and GG, in several ways, have treaded a different path. While the films of Aparna often deal with relationship and loneliness, the films of Rituparno dealt with Tagorean flashbacks and urban relationships, Sandip Ray has stuck to making Feluda films and other stories of his father, while Buddhadeb Dasgupta after a string of political films started his journey of a ‘very personal kind of cinema’ replete with magic realism, surrealism & other devices.

Gautam Ghose has made a long documentary on Satyajit Ray, and the influence of Ray can be seen in the way the strong emphasis on narrative he lays in his works. Making films on performing artistes (Mithun act as a ventriloquist in Gudia, the biopic Moner Manush) had been a recurring feature in the works of Ray (Joy Baba Felunath, Goopy Gane Bagha Byne, Hirak Rajar Deshe, Phatikchand). He also made a sequel on Ray’s ARANYER DIN RATRI as ABAR ARANYE. The deep social commitment of Mrinal Sen runs through in his oeuvre while Partition, a recurring feature in the films of Ghatak, is also seen in the works of GG (Dekha, Shankachil).

The distinct stamp of the filmmaker often surpassing his influences can be seen in the way he combines brilliant photography, good music and socially relevant subjects into a neat, integrated whole. He weaves the unifying vision of Tagore, Lalan Fakir, Kabir, Dara Shikoh and others strongly in the narrative of his recent works (Moner Manush, Shunno Theke Suru). Displacement of indigenous people and loss of tribal knowledge and heritage resonate in Shunno Theke Suru, while lack of basic health care and issues of partition form the backdrop of his most recent work ‘Shankhachil.’

Several award winning documentariesand fourteen feature films later, GG has emerged as a worthy successor to don the mantle of the triumvirate of art cinema.

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Chalchitra / Kaleidoscope (1981, Dir. Mrinal Sen, India)

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This semi-comical snapshot of the middle class Bengali experience in Kolkata is apparently a minor work in Sen’s oeuvre. The story is slight; a young Bengali man Dipu (Anjan Dutta) aspires to be a journalist and as a sort of test of creativity, the editor of a newspaper (Utpal Dutta) asks Dipu to write a story based on his own middle class experiences. The story of Dipu trying to write is merely a pretext for Sen to remain connected with the urban landscape of Kolkata, a return to the richness of the city spaces, last probed with such pleasure since his Kolkata Trilogy. The socio-political urgency of Sen’s cinema after the aesthetic and thematic experiments of The Kolkata Trilogy never really went away from his work – he remained just as connected with the social milieu of the city. For instance, the uninhibited camera roaming freely through the fish market recalls Interview (70) when Ranjit meets his uncle, the first of many self-referential instances. Later, when Dipu tries to flag down a taxi in the bustling streets of Kolkata, Sen adopts an erratic editing style, articulating a blinding disorientation reminiscent of the street cinema of The Kolkata Trilogy, in which characters are liberated and imprisoned by the city in a scarring psychological duality.

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There is probably a consensus that Sen made two trilogies. The Kolkata Trilogy (1970 – 1973; InterviewCalcutta 71 and Padatik – although you could probably argue for Chorus too, which was released in 1974), and The Absence Trilogy (Ek Din Pratidin/And Quite Rolls The Dawn – 1979, Kharij/The Case Is Closed – 1982 and Ek Din Achanak/Suddenly, One Day – 1989).  I would argue Chalchitra is part of another trilogy, although much looser, but nonetheless important, which also includes Akaler Shandhaney/In Search of Famine (1980) and Khandahar/The Ruins (1983). The abiding theme in this trilogy is concerned with the media apparatus (film crew, photographer, journalist) and the role of the middle class in terms of mediating the politics of representation, exploitation and the gaze. In Chalchitra, Dipu’s urge to sensationalise the mundanity of the middle class experience constantly backfires on him because numerous opportunities for journalistic fodder are met with resistance from the people he encounters notably his mother (Geeta Dutt). It is only when a little boy poses the banal question: ‘How many ovens are there in Kolkata?’ does Dipu finally finds something to write about – pollution, smoke and coal. But this degree of obscurity points to something elemental about the middle class mentality and which results in Utpal Dutta enquiring if Dipu is a communist, a question first posed in Ray’s Pratidwandi (1970), and which seemingly never went away from the psyche of the older generation of Kolkata. Chalchitra features an elaborately staged but very comical dream sequence, clearly a manifestation of Dipu’s jumbled, anxious mind, and which features microcosmic imagery of smoke, women, the police and the press. There is a danger of dismissing Chalchitra as a minor, insubstantial work. However, once situated as part of a loose trilogy, the film takes on an added resonance and deserves a further look.

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Ek Din Pratidin” (And Quiet Rolls the Day) remains an artistic triumph in the career of Mrinal Sen.

The gist: The narrative underlined what happens when a working girl doesn’t return home after work on a particular day. MS is one of the first to assess the changing position of women with industrialization and urbanization. Mamata Shankar, Gita Sen, Sreela Mazumdar & Satya Bandophyay comprised the cast.

Ek Din Pratidin was based on a story by famed Bengali writer Amalendu Chakravorty. A family of seven members with father (Satya Bandopadhyay), moher (Gita Sen), three sisters and two brothers are mostly dependent on the earning of a single member of the family, i.e. the eldest working daughter (Mamata Shankar).

The film opens with a long shot sequence of a hand-pulled  rickshaw entering a claustrophobic neighborhood. Thereafter, it cuts to a young child getting hurt  while playing, and taken to the clinic for treatment. One of the early sequence also shows a man urinating on the walls of the house where the family lived and the house-owner castigating the person concerned for the act – scenes of everyday life in Calcutta. MS always gave us such images from Calcuttan life in film after film.

The story unfolds slowly when the working girl doesn’t return home that night. At first, the family members kept silent hoping that she might have been working overtime, and will arrive late. The middle sister (Sreela Mazumdar in a superb performance) goes out to make a phone call to see if her sister might still be at the office. She returns home without being able to contact her.

Now the family members gets panicky, and the father goes out and watches the buses go by, without his daughter alighting from any of them. When the last bus also passes by, he returns home. Soon the inmates of the multiple storied building where both the landowner and his several tenants resided got wind of the fact that the working girl has not returned home that night.

The reactions from the various neighbors are depicted beautifully. Some makes acerbic comments, while others are more sympathetic. There are good Samaritan too who came to help the family in their hour of crisis. Two such characters, Shyamalda who stays in the same premise, and the scooter-owner friend of the brother goes out in search of the missing person. They head to the Police Station to lodge a complaint. Biplab Chaterji as a policeman, in a small role, excels. Biplab raids the family’s residence for basic inquiry, and extracts some facts about Mamata’s personal life (the type of garments she was wearing on that day). Sreela provided Biplab and his assisting officers with the necessary details.

Meanwhile, the brother and his friend check out the morgue to ascertain whether his sister’s dead body was brought there. The family also receives a news that a lady matching the description of  the missing woman lay badly injured in an accident in Nilratan Medical Hospital. The father, along with the good neighbour Shyamalda, set off for the Hospital to find out…

It was found that the girl was not his daughter. They return home relieved.

However, it was a harrowing time for the family during the night. In the wee hours of the morning, the small girl of the family sights her eldest sister (Mamata Shankar) coming back. Surprisingly, everyone in the family eyed her with suspicion. No one asks her as to where she had been the previous night…

The landlord alights the staircase and asks the father to vacate the house as soon as possible. He harped upon the fact that the locality is meant only for decent people.

The last sequence shows Gita Sen in the morning hours(who was keeping bad health the previous night) begin her preparation for her everyday household chores…

The film was released in 1979, and won awards at several International Film Festivals. The camerawork by K K Mahajan is brilliant capturing effectively the moods and emotions of the actors & the tense atmosphere of the surroundings.

Analysis: The critics may find faults. They may argue that in a big city where neighbors live like virtual strangers, neighbors discussing the non-returning of the girl to the house at such length is not a realistic portrayal of modern times, where people are mostly unconcerned about the lives of others. Maybe such debatable  issues apart, the novelty of the theme has never been explored in Indian cinema. Sen’s penchant to keep the audiences guessing as to where the girl disappeared is very much in evidence because he doesn’t offer any solution. Film Critic John W Hood finds an excellent example of the liberated woman in “Ek Din Pratidin”. “The heroine is her own boss. There is no answer to the question why she did not return home at night. Sen says it is her business where she had been.”

In an Interview, when Mrinal Sen was asked about his personal relationship with Satyajit Ray, Sen said that they never discussed each other’s films in great detail. Ray made some acerbic comment regarding this film, saying that the filmmaker doesn’t know where the women character had disappeared the previous night. Mrinal countered this and said that definitely he could have offered a solution in the film (the telephone call in the neighborhood medical dispensary late at night that went unanswered was an indicator of the missing woman trying to contact his family members) as to where the girl had disappeared, but that was not where the focus of the film lay. What he was trying to expose was the hollowness of our responses whenever misfortune befalls  someone.

When the core theme remains the same, it is interesting to unravel how two great filmmakers approach it. The theme in question – exploitation of women and the filmmakers – Ritwik Ghatak (Meghe Dhaka Tara) & Mrinal Sen (Ek Din Pratidin). The film EK DIN PRATIDIN came roughly two decades after MEGHE DHAKA TARA. In the Ghatak work, we find novelty in sound design & lighting patterns, the use of classical music in the unfolding of the storyline. In terms of narrative style, it was quite straight-forward. The Mrinal Sen film is an experimentation to convey the message under the guise of a suspenseful incident. MS also incorporates several strands of calcuttan life deftly in his cinema. They become a living document of the lives of the citizens of his favorite city.

The interview: In the book ‘Out of God’s Oven: Travels in a fractured land’ by Dom Moreas and Sarayu Srivatsa (Penguin Viking, Pg 118) there is an interview of Mrinalda with the authors and a Japanese gentleman Watanabe. When asked to speak about his films, Mrinalda smiled ‘Of course, of course. About my films, let me see. Yes, recently I made a film about a middle class family. A woman, twenty five years old, she does not come home one night. She comes home the next morning. That is what the film is about.’

Watanabe looked amused. Mrinalda laughed. ‘When she doesn’t return her family members become worried. The neighbors ask question. They react. The film is about their reaction. Their reaction tells you about the middle-class-ness of Indian families. At the end of the film, the landlord asks the family to leave the flat; go elsewhere.’                                                                                                                                                         Why?                                                                                                                                                          ‘Because everyone in the building say terrible things about the girl. If an Indian girl stays out of the house for a night, it is a very bad thing.’

Watanabe nodded slowly. ‘ Ah soo. Ah su desu ne. Rike Sita in Lamayana. I see now. Sita come home to God Lam , but she spend so many night out so Lam not accepting her. Hai, so desu ne, Lam was worried that Lavana would have touched Sita. So-so, the doubt was there in Lam’s mind. I see, I see. So, yo- a story based rittre bit on, Lamayana? Hai.’

Mrinalda digressed and said, “The film is about women, the inequalities that exist even now and how people treat women.’

Rating: 4.5 out of 5

SASHI BABUR SANSAR was based on a story by Ashapurna Devi. The film showcases the inability of the older generation through the character of a recently retired patriarch (Chabi Biswas) to come to terms with the changes represented by the needs and aspiration of GenNext.

The film boasts of an impressive cast that also includes Pahari Sanyal, Chandraboti, Sabitri Chatterjee, Arundhuti Mukherjee, Basant Choudhury, Anup Kumar, Jiben Bose and others. Chabi Biswas utters one of the most significant dialogues in the film when he says to his daughter-in-law Arundhuti Mukherjee “Tomra aageye jao, amader mariye jayo na …”

One interesting sub-text in the film has a similar ring to Satyajit Ray’s MAHANAGAR in that in both the films the daughter-in-law goes out to work to earn a few extra bucks for the family against the wishes of the orthodox father-in-law. I don’t know whether this was incorporated in the two novels on which these two films have been based on the writings of Ashapurna Devi and Narendranath Mitra.

The strong cast acts brilliantly and makes it a watchable fare. The film was directed by Sudhir Mukherjee, who also directed the remarkable film BASHER KELLA featuring Anup Kumar.

Rating: 3.8 out of 5

 

 

In some respect, the protagonist of Ray’s SEEMABADDHA & Mrinal Sen’s AKASH KUSUM are quite alike. Both have a burning ambition to go up the social ladder. In the Ray film, the protagonist succeed in his endeavor through unscrupulous means. The Sen protagonist fails but unlike the Ray protagonist doesn’t come across as being too cruel a person.

Ray comes across as a greater pragmatist in this case, as in modern life one need to pull a few strings (maybe bump off a few people too) to climb up the corporate/success ladder. If this be true, it’s a sad commentary on human values. Mrinal Sen seem to second the Ray conviction in his later film EK DIN ACHANAK where a less ambitious academically inclined Professor leaves his family unable to cater to their ever increasing need/greed.

Greed can even compel a mother to send her daughter for prostitution as seen in both Sen’s CALCUTTA SEVENTY ONE & Ray’s JANA ARANYA. While greed helps the protagonist rise in stature in SEEMABADDHA, it leads to a downfall in AKASH KUSUM. Even in Sen’s INTERVIEW the protagonist in need of a better job doesn’t succeed in the end. Can we say that while MS seem to suggest that greed ought to be kept on a leash, SR unleashes the contemporary reality by projecting characters in higher echelons riding on the miseries and tribulation of the commoners?

 

The older generation would recall the criticism of the late actress Nargis against our most celebrated filmmaker internationally, Satyajit Ray, saying something along these lines “Ray exports India’s poverty to the West.” The eminent filmmaker Mrinal Sen says “Poverty is a fact of life in India. My business as a filmmaker is to understand Poverty.”
Roughly around 70% of our country lives in poverty. How truthfully have our filmmakers captured poverty in the right perspective and depicted the resulting consequences of a life lived in penury?
I was watching the Satyajit Ray films APARAJITO & APUR SANSAR recently. The films are like an elegiac verse on celluloid. While unfolding the tragedy that befell Apu at several stages in his life, from a rather young age losing his sister Durga to the loss of his parents and thereafter his wife, the tenor of the films and the visual imagery in particular has a poetic quality about it. How does poverty and poetry merge into a cohesive whole in a realistic depiction can be open to debate. But we must not forget that feature films are not documentaries, and storytelling ought to incorporate several other devices – be it fantasy, lyricism or surrealism to communicate with viewers in newer and newer ways.

Ray as a pioneering depicter of poverty went the lyrical route in THE APU TRILOGY, while in his ASONI SANKET (Distant Thunder, 1973) he was more stark, probably influenced by the films of Mrinal Sen and Ritwik Ghatak.
With the exception of his last film (Amar Bhuvan) poverty as shown in the films of Mrinal Sen have a despairing tone (Baisey Shravan, Calcutta 71, Oka Orie Katha ..) even when he attempted narrating them in a light hearted manner (Chorus, Parashuram). Ritwik Ghatak was likewise bleak (Meghe Dhaka Tara, Subarnarekha) as was Gautam Ghose (Paar, Antarjali Jatra), Buddhadeb Dasgupta (Neem Annapurna) and Nabyendu Chaterjee (Aaj Kal Parshur Galpo) and a few others. Mira Nair captured the plight of street urchins of Mumbai to much critical acclaim in her SALAAM BOMBAY. Some of the films of K.A.Abbas, Raj Kapoor and Bimol Roy (Do Bigha Zameen) also revolved around the theme of poverty, though at times these filmmakers made use of commercial devices like heightened melodrama and songs to rope in a larger audience. The joys and hardship of the street children were effectively portrayed in Madhur Bhandarkar’s TRAFFIC SIGNAL.
In several films poverty has been shown to lead to debasement of the individual (Bicycle Thieves, Oka Orie Katha, Akaler Sandhane, Asoni Sanket) but did we really see a film where the characters rose above their misfortune to a higher strata in society? (Okay, the Dhirubhai Ambani inspired Mani Ratnam’s film GURU is a rags-to-riches story as are numerous commercial flicks like DEWAAR & their clones)
In the final analysis, poverty is a blur on our society. Filmmakers who use cinema as a weapon for social change can do a kind of association mining of how poverty correlates with debasement, and use the medium to contribute towards creating an awareness and possibly help the cause of alleviation of the social malaise. After all, cinema can truly act as an ‘agent provocateur’, and can bring about a positive social change.