Dipu (Anjan Dutta) finds himself obsessed with coal-fuelled earthen ovens, once used ubiquitously for cooking in Calcutta, while searching for a feature story he has been commissioned to write by a newspaper. “How many ovens are there in Calcutta?” asks his younger brother Apu as the two of them, standing on the roof of their rented tenement, stare at smoke emanating from thousands in the neighbourhood. Smoke seems to throw a blanket all over the city, making it a little blurry, in Mrinal Sen’s 1981 film Chalchitra. Even the British had passed a law to prevent this nuisance, Dipu is informed by the newspaper’s editor (Utpal Dutt).
Sen, who died on December 30 last year, however, compelled many of us to rub our eyes and take a clearer view of the city. Like his contemporaries and rival-comrades, Ritwik Ghatak and Satyajit Ray, Sen too made a trilogy of Calcutta films: Interview (1971), Calcutta 71 (1972), and Padatik (1973). These were “not just a social and moralistic portrayal of the tumultuous city in the 70s, but it was essentially a political one,” writes Bedatri D Choudhury in her obituary for Sen. When he was making these films, Calcutta was in the pincer grip of the urban guerrilla warfare of the Naxalites, and according to official figures 200 political killings were taking place each month. Choudhury writes: “there was never any doubt about which side he was on.”
For those of us who came of age in Calcutta (now Kolkata) in this century, Naxalbari was like an inheritance. Poet Nandini Dhar writes: “[It] made its way into… [our] consciousness…. As a legend… In everyday Bengali middle-class intellectual consciousness, …Naxalbari …[has] come to be associated with notions of unsullied rebellious spirits …To put it simply, radicalism. More specifically, myths of radicalism.” The Calcutta trilogies of Ray and Sen did their parts to feed our imagination, preserving a realistic — at times even documentary — portrayal of a time in our city’s history to which we would never have any access otherwise. Watching these films was an exercise in recognition as well as alienation.
Take for instance, this clip from Sen’s Interview:
In his biography of Sen, Deepankar Mukhopadhyay claims this is the first instance of “Brechtian alienation in Indian cinema”, though Sen always claimed that German playwright Bertolt Brecht was never really an influence on him. But, at the same time it is also a scene of recognition: We are not only watching Ranjit Mullick (the actor and the character have the same name), we are almost on the tram — once the iconic mode of transport in Calcutta — with him. A similar moment of recognition might be this scene from Ray’s Jana Aranya (1975):
We may not have slipped on a carelessly thrown banana peel, but we have all walked around the muddy streets of Calcutta, some of us looking for jobs, others having found one already. Even 40 years after these films were made, good jobs are something of a rarity still in Kolkata, forcing many of us move out to other cities or countries. Like migrants carrying memories, we carried these films with us. While searching for an epigraph for my novel Ritual, set in the late 1980s, I turned to Sen’s Padatik: “Everytime I return to Calcutta I feel it must be surely impossible that it can continue much longer like this…” Homecoming is never an unalloyed joy for most of us, because we are compelled to confront the rapid deterioration of the city, where the collapse of infrastructure and economy is painfully evident. Survivor guilt keeps one awake on rainy nights.
For me, three other films by Sen constitute yet another Calcutta trilogy. These are Ek Din Pratidin (1979), Chalchitra (1983), and Kharij (1982). All three were made after the end of the Emergency and the 34-year-long Left rule in West Bengal. Sen was a committed Marxist who had learnt much of his craft during his association with the Indian People’s Theatre Association. Yet, he never flinched from critiquing the Communists for failing to adequately fight class inequality — especially in his later films. The other target of his criticism was the Bengali middle-class and its hypocrisy, its compromises with its stated code of morals.
In Ek Din Pratidin, Chinu’s (Mamata Shankar) family goes into a deep crisis when she fails to return home one night. But they are troubled not only because she is missing, and the stigma attached to it, but also because she is the only breadwinner. Dipu, the protagonist of Chalchitra, can dream of an army of women armed with broomsticks and earthen ovens — somewhat akin to Nabarun Bhattacharya’s imagination of fyataru — but he is happy to take a job with the big newspaper, and immediately get a gas connection for his mother. A compromise is always on the cards. The not-too-badly-off couple (played by Dutta and Shankar) in Kharij hire a boy to do domestic chores, because they do not have to pay him too much. Even as a cold wave grips Calcutta, they let him sleep under the stairs. Trying to escape the cold, the boy takes shelter in the kitchen, to be near an earthen oven, and asphyxiates. The couple leave no stone unturned to escape the law.
All these three films are set in tenement apartments, where people live cheek-by-jowl. They are aware of intimate details of each other’s lives. Neighbours rush to help each other in a crisis, like when the water of a pregnant woman breaks, or a child must be taken care of. The characters could be living right next door to us. Or, they might as well be us. Like we are in the tram with Ranjit Mullick, we are also in these drawing rooms, these bedrooms, these kitchens. This is also a moment of recognition — but not a happy one. To quote Oscar Wilde, it is like Caliban seeing his image in a mirror.