Four o’clock on a winter afternoon in Kolkata is as good as twilight. The sky is a dusty pink and a crowd has gathered at the south Kolkata neighbourhood of Deshapriya Park. A hearse carrying the mortal remains of Mrinal Sen is making past his favourite part of the city.
It’s surrounded by his closest friends, colleagues and admirers. There is his son Kunal Sen, actor-director-songwriter and long-time collaborator Anjan Dutta, filmmaker Sandip Ray, actor Ranjit Mullick and hundreds of shawl-draped, mufflered men and women, who walk by the hearse. The scene is almost cinematic in its completeness.
It could be straight out of his 1982 classic, Kharij, the one where a crowd gathers in front of a middle-class Bengali house on a winter afternoon. The body of the child domestic help is being brought out and there is a detached sense of dismay on the faces of most representatives of the Bengali middle-class society. Like in most Sen films, a mere glance is enough to reveal important things about this crowd, the language they speak, their social position and how long they have lived in the city. Today, Kolkata, which he saw with such unflinching clarity, has come to bid Sen goodbye.
In his breakthrough film, Neel Aakasher Neechey (1959), the city and its bylanes were integral to the story of a Chinese silk seller, who forges a bond with a Bengali revolutionary woman. The city is alternatively cruel and nurturing towards the protagonist Wang Lu, as he wanders neighbourhoods, selling his wares, and followed by racist taunts. But a swadeshi Bengali housewife befriends him and chooses to address him as an intellectual equal in a world where he is nothing more than a prototype.
Like most of his later films, Akash Kusum (1965) begins with vistas of crowded neighbourhoods — the Howrah Bridge looming like a spectre over a multitude of rooftops. This is a story of class conflict in the guise of a love story, and Sen never makes us forget that visually. As the protagonist, a lower-middle class youth from a north Kolkata lane, negotiates the lush tree-lined avenues of south Kolkata, where the object of his desire lives, the contrast between the two Kolkatas is almost violently put across. In this film and the way it approaches the many faces of the city, we see the birth of the Mrinal Sen of the future.
In his next major film, Calcutta 71 (1972), we see a much more pointed, cruel depiction of the city. Here, at refugee colonies, the roads are perpetually slushy and families exist cheek by jowl in shanties. The thin line between dignity and poverty blurs. Sen paints a bleak portrayal of a city ravaged by the Naxalite movement, without ever stooping to fetishism.
His next Calcutta trilogy film, Interview (1973), offers a more holistic view of the city. The protagonist, Ranjit (played by Mullick), engages with the city almost like an adversary. He is a young man excited at the prospect of a job at an international film. He has dreams, an ambitious girlfriend, a doting mother, a dependent sister who probably envies the opportunities life has bestowed upon him, but the city is perpetually conspiring against him. He needs a suit to wear for the all-important interview, but the city has other plans. As he plays hide and seek with Kolkata in tram lines, museum corners and sooty central Kolkata lanes, you realise how futile his struggle is. It reveals how ill-equipped a generation of Kolkatans was to deal with the tide of challenges that the Partition, the Naxalite movement and the Bangladesh Liberation war of 1971 brought.
In the 1979 film, Ek Din Pratidin, Sen chooses to throw a challenge at the city and its denizens. A young working woman, who is the sole breadwinner of family, disappears for a night. How does it deal with this scenario? As various possible destinies of the young woman are considered, different faces of the city come to the fore. At times it’s forgiving, at times it’s stupefyingly regressive, but, mostly, it’s weary and ready to move on.
The Bengali term koltola (under the tap) refers to a physical space, but it comes with its own share of baggage. Literally, it refers to a community tap of a lower middle-class neighbourhood, where women gather every morning to collect water and gossip. Women would gingerly step on the moss-covered, slippery courtyard as they went about washing dishes or getting into wrangles. This has been used as a comic trope in many Bengali and Hindi films. Tapan Sinha used it successfully in Golpo Holeo Shotti (1966), which was later successfully replicated in Hindi in Bawarchi (1972) by Hrishikesh Mukherjee. But none of them could use it with such sharp efficiency as Mrinal Sen in the much-neglected 1981 film Chaalchitra.
A middle-aged woman living in a lower-middle class home slips and hurts herself one morning at the courtyard. People gather and exchange blame. A working woman, who is the first one to come and help her, is quickly pinned as the Offender No 1. The floor is slippery because the lady needs to starch her saris every day. “Yes, I need to starch them because I need to go out every day. Can’t sit around doing nothing like you all,” she retorts. Another round of insults is passed around and the working woman rushes back to her quarter.
A little later, the sound of scrubbing reverberates through the entire bari. People rush out to see her on her fours, scrubbing the floor. Seeing this, the housewife who had slipped and fallen rushes to join her. Others follow suit. The men of the house gape in wonder. Just like that, a spark is lit in a city of revolutions.