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Related Reading: The Essential Mystery: The Major Filmmakers of Indian Art Cinema by John W. Hood and Chasing the Truth: The Films of Mrinal Sen by John W. Hood.

Ek Din Pratidin, 1979
[One Day, Everyday/And Quiet Rolls the Dawn]

Sen The opening shot of Ek Din Pratidin is of a rickshaw passing through the narrow alley of a deserted residential street, framed between the discolored, weather-beaten walls of a pair of dilapidated boarding houses. This curious image of decaying structure and narrowed field of view proves to be an incisive preface to the claustrophobia, entrenched social class, and inescapable scrutiny that befalls a middle-class family when the family's sole wage earner, the eldest daughter Chinu (Mamata Shankar), fails to come home from work at the usual hour. An early establishing sequence of the family indulging the petty whims of the youngest son Poltu after he returns from the doctor's office following a minor playground mishap illustrates the underlying cultural disparity as the often punctual (and all too reliable) Chinu's tardiness goes unnoticed by the family until the coddled boy demands her personal attention. However, when late afternoon turns to evening and Chinu has still not returned home, the parents' reactions to Chinu's unexplained absence begin to betray the underlying social rigidity and cultural myopia that has trapped them in their present (and gradually declining) circumstances, as the mother's (Gita Sen) concern turns to hostile indignation over Chinu's presumed insensitivity towards the family, and the father's (Satya Banerjee) apprehension is reduced to aimless uncertainty and self-defeated inertia for fear that a full-fledged search for his missing daughter may uncover a delicate situation and cause the family embarrassment.

A voiceover narration of the evocative history of the residential complex juxtaposed against the image of the now crumbling tenement walls indiscriminately - and indiscreetly - lined with rows of hanging laundry similarly reinforces this moribund existence as mistreated tenants are resigned to inaction (and the landlord's judgmental intrusiveness) by the delusive security of rent control, essentially trading their modicum of dignity for convenient economy. Despite the family's attempt to keep Chinu's absence a private matter, her disappearance soon becomes the main topic of conversation (and conjectural gossip) among the prying neighbors, polarizing their opinions within the spectrum of those who see the situation as the intrinsic folly and lamentable consequence of women's independence and others who recognize the hypocrisy innate in the family's financial dependency on the young, unmarried woman and their ingrained, patriarchal expectations of her continued subservience. Visually, Mrinal Sen illustrates the innate contradiction in these archaic (and self-immobilizing) values through the recurring images of literal and metaphoric eroded façades: the derelict tenement, the landlord's self-righteous reaction to a witnessed indiscretion of a passerby who relieves himself on a public street, the family's ensuing existential crisis after Chinu's disappearance (and the implicit thought of losing their primary source of income). It is within this context of critical introspection of their accepted, socially imposed roles that the final shot of the mother wistfully gazing out into the courtyard, framed against the window of their ground floor apartment becomes, not one of resilient, ennobled dignity, but of acknowledged self-imprisonment and insignificance.

© Acquarello 2005. All rights reserved.

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Genesis, 1986

Shah/PuriGenesis prefaces to a strange and anachronistic fable of creation, as the narrator recounts a catastrophic drought that ravaged an unnamed civilization, leading to widespread disease and famine. The god dispatches an emissary with distinctively shiny shoes to take thumbprints of the inhabitants within a predefined geographic area that bounds the realm of his divine grace. The people relinquish their worldly possessions, and in exchange for their allegiance, the god provides for all their needs. In accepting the god's care and protection, the people become eternally enslaved to him. Two adventurous friends, a farmer (Naseeruddin Shah) and a weaver (Om Puri), defy the god's census and head out into the deserted landscape of no man's land in order to carve out their own destinies in freedom and autonomy. But the desolate frontier proves to be far from paradise, as the farmer ineffectively tills the rocky and arid land, ironically uprooting skeletons instead of vegetation. In order to obtain basic necessities, the weaver has entered into a reluctant bartering agreement with an opportunistic trader (M.K. Raina) of dubious character to sell his textiles at a bazaar in exchange for food and supplies. It is a mutually beneficial arrangement that allows the two idealists to retain their sense of independence, away from the intervention of the god and encroachment of civilization, until one day when a lone, enigmatic young woman (Shabana Azmi) seeks refuge among the ruins. Her quiet vulnerability and unassuming sensuality captivate the two men who decide to welcome her into their isolated community, despite the trader's cautious observation that her presence will ultimately lead to division and strife. The remark proves to be a portentous warning, as the woman becomes a source of friction for the two friends as they alternately vie for her attention, friendship, and affection.

Mrinal Sen creates a visually sublime, incisive, and provocative examination of civilization, interdependence, and human desire in Genesis. Through recurrent imagery and repeated patterns of behavior, Sen illustrates the pervasive malady of servitude, the irreconcilable dilemma between societal altruism and individual attraction, and the innate darkness of the human soul: the assumption of the role of master (the omniscient god, omnipresent trader, and competing suitors); the consuming possessiveness, territoriality, and jealousy among the characters; the transience of corporeal existence and personal sanctuary. By distilling the narrative, cast of characters, and mise-en-scene into a microcosmic exploration on human nature, Sen presents a spare, indelibly haunting, and poignantly tragic tale of paradise found ...and lost.

© Acquarello 2002. All rights reserved.

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