The Air Inside: The Work of Mrinal Sen

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An introduction to the political and poetic work of India's Mrinal Sen.

By Shiv Kotecha

The series Voice of the Unheard: A Mrinal Sen Retrospective is playing on MUBI in many countries starting September 27, 2021.

"In the beginning, there were the heaven and the earth and also the stinking malarial swamp."
—Mrinal Sen, Always Being Born (2004)

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 acts 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. 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 ChaalchitraKharij (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. 

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. 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. 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).

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