A young woman doesn’t return home for a night. A retired professor casually leaves his home one evening but never returns. The young servant boy of a middle-class Kolkata household is found dead one morning.
Delay, disappearance, death – three films made over almost a decade, but connected through their central idea, form Mrinal Sen’s absence trilogy. At a time when he was slowly shifting from unsparing political commentaries to introspections of the self, Sen made Ek Din Pratidin (And Quiet Rolls the Dawn, 1979), Kharij (The Case is Closed, 1982) and Ek Din Achanak (Suddenly One Day, 1989). These three films, apparently unrelated to each other, are similar in theme – the accidental absence of a particular person from a family or a unit, the removal of a part from the whole, and the reaction of the rest of the members of the unit to the occurrence. Each of these stories deal with middle-class families where life goes on at its regular, mundane pace, and the members are jolted out of the comfort they have carved out for themselves due to a sudden, unexpected event. With this event, they are forced to think, question and ponder, causing a change in their lives such that the way they perceive themselves and their surroundings is never the same again. Writing an article about one of the films in the trilogy, Mrinal Sen quotes Zavattini and says, ‘We are perfectly aware of reality but are deadly scared of looking into reality.’ This is perhaps an accurate description of us as individuals, and as a vast chunk of the population belonging to a similar social class as that of the characters continue watching the films, they perceive the events as something that could easily occur to them, and are thus forced to face the questions themselves.
Chinmayi Sengupta (Mamata Shankar), the eldest daughter of a family doesn’t return from work one evening. Ek Din Pratidin takes us through the night of her absence, giving us a glimpse of what it meant for a young woman to not return home one night in the Calcutta of the 70s. It is interesting to note that the audience never gets to know the reason for her delay – just like she, too, isn’t asked for an explanation when she finally returns, while everyone else is busy building up their own hypotheses or accusing her of indecency in a ‘respectable neighbourhood’. Furthermore, the reason for her absence is immaterial – what the filmmaker tries to show us is the reaction of her family, her neighbours and society to the situation. Every person associated with the family must react, and we are exposed to prejudices and selfishness that remain identifiable till this day. The neighbours, with curiosity that is almost vulgar, are quick to jump to conclusions – with minds that are accustomed to be crude, their thoughts rotate in a handful of tracks – a lover, an accident, a shady job. As the night progresses, we are taken through the families of every tenant in their building, and the conversations in each of these rooms revolve around the same theme. Yet, for a long time, the Senguptas are reluctant to reach out to anyone for help, for fear of disrepute and shame – the bhadralok culture is more overpowering than their crisis at hand. It is this same culture that does not have a problem with her being the sole earning member of the family, but expects her to adhere to strict timings that she can spend outside.
Chinmayi’s absence opens up conversations that would’ve otherwise never happened. ‘Today, we are thinking of her a little too much,’ says the younger daughter Minu (Sreela Majumdar), and in a particularly emphatic scene, continues to coldly point out truth after truth that slowly unveil the apparently pleasant exterior of the family to reveal the strenuous pillars on which it lies. Minu indicates that the worries of the family for Chinmayi can perhaps be partly attributed to the fact that they depend on her income, and her absence makes them care about her much more than they ever would.
In Kharij, the absence is in the form of death. Palan, a boy from the village comes to the city to work as a servant for the Sens. On a particularly cold winter night, he sleeps in the kitchen, and due to a coal oven left burning, he dies of carbon monoxide poisoning. Once again, an unforeseen event forces a middle-class family to think and ponder over their actions. It also brings to light an important social issue, of young children in the villages voluntarily sent off to the cities to work for money, and because it guarantees two square meals every day. On its release, the film had caused quite a bit of disturbance in the city, for several families at that time had servant boys like Palan, and the film seemed to be a sort of direct attack on each of them. Many came up to the filmmaker and asked him why, at the end of the film, Palan’s father couldn’t raise his voice at least once, or slap Anjan Sen (Anjan Dutta), the master of the house, before returning to his village after his son’s funeral – as if something dramatic would close the case, that the Sens would get their due ‘punishment’ and things would move on as usual. But that didn’t happen, for it is not easy to break the status quo. The Sens must live with Palan’s death, and so must the audience (it is interesting to note the surname of the family in the film – perhaps the filmmaker’s way of making the statement that he, too, must be included in the suffering of the city-dwellers). A conversation between Anjan and a lawyer goes this way:
‘He was like one of us.’
‘No, he wasn’t.’
With this brief denial, the lawyer exposes the harsh truth, shattering a myth that keeps us comfortable – in reality, a village boy cannot live like ‘one of us’ in the city, with shared comforts and care. He can, at best, be well-fed and looked after with a certain amount of affection.
Despite these not being among Sen’s political films, they strongly reflect the times in which they were made. In Kharij, the family is in constant fear of unrest and ‘trouble’ from Palan’s friends and family. At the burning place, we see wall posters through the raging flames, some of which say ‘bodla nebo’ (we shall take revenge). In Ek Din Pratidin, Chinmayi’s family is informed of the body of a pregnant woman that has been found. As they return from the hospital ensuring it isn’t their daughter, several newspaper headlines flash on the screen against the backdrop of the city at night, a glimpse of the condition of women in Kolkata.
With Ek Din Achanak, Sen moves even more towards self-introspection. A retired professor tells his wife, ‘I’m coming back in a moment’, takes his wallet and his notebook, goes out and never returns. Here, too, we never know the reason for his disappearance, and we must come to terms with it along with the rest of his family. Ek Din Achanak is a complex film, a subtle understanding of human character and experiences. Each member of the family begins thinking of the professor in a different manner, understanding him a little more. It wasn’t that the family did not share a bond, but his disappearance makes them realise that something must’ve been amiss. In a scene from the film, Neeta (Shabana Azmi), the daughter closest to the professor says, ‘Perhaps our father wasn’t as great as we made him think he was. Perhaps he was just like the rest of us, an ordinary man.’
The daughters are forced to see their father in a new light, the wife rethinks their moments together, his words, his actions, and is slowly forced to reevaluate his relationship with his favourite student, Aparna (Aparna Sen). The film ends a year after the professor’s disappearance, and we see the family sitting quietly – the night is eerily similar to the one on which he had gone away, rainy and thunderous. Each of them thinks of the year they had gone through, and of all the things they have thought about the professor at different points in time. The film ends on a note of acceptance as they prepare to move on, letting go of the hope of his return. Unlike Kharij, the fact that the absence here is disappearance and not death, makes acceptance all the more difficult. Shabana Azmi recounts Mrinal Sen telling her during the shooting one afternoon, ‘Perhaps the character disappears in the film because he has come to terms with his own mediocrity. Maybe it’s time I face my own.’
The fact that the filmmaker, despite being very far from mediocre, questions himself during the making of the film, takes him closer to its success. This is precisely the reason for making these films – to compel the viewers to ask questions, to think and begin a conversation around everyday happenings. At a certain level, Chinmayi, Palan and the professor perhaps share the same ground – a member of the unit who is integral to the whole, but less understood by the rest. Strangely, it is their absence that binds them closer to the unit. On the morning after Chinmayi’s return, we see her mother resuming the household chores, but as she looks out of the kitchen window in the final scene, there’s a new depth of understanding in her eyes. Palan’s father leaves for the village, and the Sens shall perhaps never keep a servant boy again, but their understanding of their surroundings and their behaviour towards every other individual they come across might be significantly altered. The professor’s family shall perhaps never get the closure they continue to look for, but they shall spend large portions of the rest of their lives looking back at the years spent with the professor and grow closer to him and to each other. Absence leaves a void, and at the same time it fills another – a void of values, morals and thoughts.
Ami O Amar Cinema: Mrinal Sen
Montage: Mrinal Sen
Images: Film snapshots / photographs from www.mrinalsen.org