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August 27, 2005

Chasing the Truth: The Films of Mrinal Sen

chasing_sen.gifIn the book Chasing the Truth: The Films of Mrinal Sen, author John W. Hood provides an insightful examination of the sociopolitical and cultural conditions that have shaped filmmaker Mrinal Sen's personal and creative ideology. Born into a middle-class Bengali family in Faridpur in 1923, Hood provides a contextual frame of reference to the independence movement in this rural area as a "hotbed of the stream of the Independence Movement that was non-Gandhian in that it was characteristically violent." Sen's father, a nationalist and politically active lawyer, had the reputation throughout his career of defending fellow nationalists whose allegiance to insurgent organizations made it impossible for them to receive a fair trial under the very colonial government that they had sought to overthrow. It is, therefore, not surprising that Sen's politicization not only came at an early age, but would also deeply define his character (and that of his cinema) as well: a lifelong commitment to social causes that would be further galvanized with his involvement in the activism of the political left during his university days at the Scottish Church College in Calcutta. As Hood would later comment:

Mrinal Sen will always be regarded as a champion of lame ducks and underdogs. The Bengali poor - that vast majority of anonymity - perform a major role in many of his films, but never as heroes, only as victims. It will be remembered, of course, that Sen regards the notion of 'the noble poor' to be a perverse rationalization in favor of the status quo, and so in none of his films does he seek to idealize the masses in any way, portraying them rather in their material poverty, their ignorance, and most significantly, their powerlessness.

Hood also suggests that Sen's films are integrally rooted in the culture of Calcutta, citing that the city - often associated with nefarious Western connotations of decay, chaos, and misery (in particular, through the conjured images of the Black Hole of Calcutta in which British soldiers were imprisoned in a dungeon in 1756, Winston Churchill's missive during his stay in the region in which he comments "I shall always be glad to have seen it - namely that it will be unnecessary for me ever to see it again", and in the works of Mother Theresa in which the city has become inextricably associated with images of abject poverty) - instead provides a constant source of intellectual, philosophical, political, and social stimulation for the filmmaker through its natural state of constant flux and re-invention.

Sen's screen essay [Calcutta: My El Dorado] is sufficient to regard Calcutta itself as harbouring contradiction: wealth and poverty, splendour and squalor, pre-industrial and post-industrial economy, artistry and scholarship and disorder and ignorance, vibrant optimism and morbid pessimism. The really significant paradox is Calcutta's constant decay and its constant regeneration. The flood comes, the city survives, the floodwaters recede, the city, rejuvenated, springs back to life. No sooner to the police scatter the huts of the pavement dwellers than they are built again...For Chaitanya to cherish the man who dies every day, he must also be born every day.

It is this awareness of perpetual transformation that not only provides the creative stimulus for Sen's filmmaking, but also becomes an integral part of his narrative philosophy:

'Death' might seem surprising as a metaphor for the constant flow of the stream of history, being so obviously a mark of finality. In Indian thinking, however, death is one side of a coin in which birth is the other...While Mrinal Sen is a rationalist and by no means a religious Hindu, he does belong to a culture which readily accepts the notion of time as cyclic. An end of something is always the beginning of something else; hence, 'death', can be a useful metaphor for change and movement in the ebb and flow of history.

In essence, this cycle of renewal has also contributed to a characteristic, thematic open-endedness in Sen's films, from the literal and metaphoric dawning of a new day after the family experiences an economic and interpersonal crisis following the disappearance of their sole wage-earner, their unmarried (and callously exploited) daughter Chinu in Ek Din Pratidin, to the unreconciled departure of the photographer from the decaying mansion in Khandahar after a brief connection with the beautiful Jamini whose devotion to her ailing mother has bound her to a life of isolation and enabling illusion, and also the existential crossroads between civilization and autonomous existence of Genesis as a figurative Garden of Eden is destroyed by jealousy, rivalry, and greed.

Posted by acquarello on Aug 27, 2005 | | Filed under 2005, Film Related Reading


I'm so frustrated... none of Sen's films are available off NetFlix.

Posted by: mike on Aug 28, 2005 1:31 AM | Permalink

Heheh, indeed! Sen's films are pretty hard to come by, even in revival houses. I've definitely spent more time reading about his films than watching them.

Posted by: acquarello on Aug 28, 2005 1:34 PM | Permalink

http://www.rentabanglamovie.com has Interview and Mahaprithibi. I have not rented those two personally because I had seen them on big screen in Calcutta and neither of them is on my list of favorite Mrinal Sen films which are Bhuban Shome, Kharij, Akaler Sandhane (my favorite), Genesis, Ekdin Protidin and Khandhar. However, I did rent a couple of Ritwik DVDs from that site and they were watchable. That website is run from San Francisco bay area where I live as well. Not sure if he would be willing to ship them to other states, but it's worth a try.

Posted by: dipanjan on Aug 29, 2005 1:52 AM | Permalink

Just to clarify, by "watchable" I referred to the quality of the DVDs. Describing any of Ritwik's films as watchable would be the biggest understatement of my life. I am a big fan and have had the good fortune of watching all his films on big screens.

Posted by: dipanjan on Aug 29, 2005 2:00 AM | Permalink

Out of curiosity, are the films they're renting English subtitled, or a combination of subbed and non-subbed? They don't seem to indicate on the site, and I'd definitely need them. :)

Posted by: acquarello on Aug 29, 2005 11:34 AM | Permalink

Nice write-up, A...
Now to check Indiaclub to see if they carry the Hood book.
btw, I've used Bloglines to subscribe to the feed from your notes section. When I tried to do the same for your journal section, it appears that the last time this section generated a feed was back in March(?). Is there a particular feed I can subscribe to which will alert me whenever you update, regardless of section (notes, journal etc)? Thanks.

Posted by: girish on Aug 29, 2005 12:57 PM | Permalink

Heheh, I picked up the book from India Club since they were the only ones who had it on hand (B&N and Amazon didn't).

Incidentally, this feeds thing is pricklier than I thought. Some sites suggest opening up another blog and using it as an aggregator. I'm trying to figure out a multiblog plugin too, but the documentation returns a 404 error and I can't seem to configure it to get it to work. Anyway, I'll keep working on it.

Posted by: acquarello on Aug 29, 2005 6:22 PM | Permalink

indiaclub, here i come...
i check your site regularly anyway, so the feed's not a problem.
just making additional work for you, that's all. :-)

Posted by: girish on Aug 29, 2005 9:30 PM | Permalink

Both feeds seem up to date at the moment. Seems like this is the feed for the journal:

(or http://www.filmref.com/journal/atom.xml )

That was a quick fix, Acquarello. :-)

Posted by: davis on Aug 29, 2005 9:42 PM | Permalink

Cool! Thanks for checking, Rob. I think I had to reinstall Movable Type back in March when they came out with MT 3.15. It shouldn't have affected the feed URL, but maybe it did. Anyway, I just upgraded over the weekend to MT 3.2 so it's probably hoaked up something else now...or maybe in Girish's case, it was operator error. ;)

Oh, and sorry for the automated moderation, I'm still tweaking spam look-up (too many new-fangled gizmos to play with in this thing). :)

Posted by: acquarello on Aug 30, 2005 4:26 AM | Permalink

"operator error": you have no idea how prevalent this is in my case! :-)

Posted by: girish on Aug 30, 2005 5:04 AM | Permalink

Thanks for the review of Ekdin Protidin acquarello! Incidentally I just learnt there was an indian film restrospective this semester at the asian art museum in Paris. After reading your warm recommendations (as well as Girish's on FilmJourney), I will finally get to see one of their film : Mrinal Sen (Ekdin Protidin) and Ritwik Ghatak (Subarnarekha; Komal Gandhar). And others I don't know : Aparna Sen, Rituparno Ghosh, and also some documentaries. Any recommendations maybe?

Posted by: Harry Tuttle on Sep 04, 2005 12:28 AM | Permalink

Wow, nice selection. I really like the choices for Ray's films, not your usual fare but all quite good (even Nayak which is a bit atypical of Ray in that it is more about the loneliness of fame and the transience of connection). I haven't seen Aparna Sen's Mr. and Mrs. Iyer, but I really liked her earlier films, 36 Chowringhee Lane and Sati so I'm curious about that one. The two Ghatak selections are some of his strongest works too. I haven't seen any Ghosh, but maybe someone else can chime in.

I'm very interested in the Vietnam films as well, particularly the documentaries. Excluding Tran Anh Hung's highly exoticized images of the country (with the exception of Cyclo) that were actually made on a French soundstage, I haven't truly seen any other film made in the country. My mother has very fond memories of spending her childhood summers there when it was still French Indochina, so her images of the country are probably tainted with a bit of lost nostaligia as well. Anyway, I guess I would like to see something more authentic in terms of indigenous experience.

Posted by: acquarello on Sep 04, 2005 11:15 AM | Permalink

Yes, Harry, very nice selections there. I've only seen one by Ghosh, Chokher Bali, from the Tagore novel. It is tasteful and quiet and faithful but a bit too much so for my taste. I usually prefer Ghatak's brand of trouble-making iconcoclasm to mannered reverence. :-)

btw, Harry, based solely upon your exhortation, Darren, Rob and I have tickets for Battle In Heaven. Maybe we'll also be able to convince Doug to join us... :-)

Acquarello, have you seen Japon? Just curious--what did you think?

Posted by: girish on Sep 04, 2005 7:14 PM | Permalink

3 new Ray films out of 5 for me, so I'm glad to discover them. Days and Night in the Forest is one of my favorite so I might rewatch it as well. I'll give a try to Aparna Sen and Gosh then.

I liked a lot Tran Anh Hung's exotized images myself. I didn't know they were made in a french studio, the lighting was superb though. Do you mean prefer the S. Ray's realism type over a personal fictionized imagery? The Taiwan auteurs aren't any more representative of their own land's reality...
I liked The Season of Guavas / Mua Oi (Nhat Minh Dang) and Three Seasons (Tony Bui) too.

Thanks for your vote of confidence Girish, I feel honored. Now I'll be praying you won't kill me on the way out... ;) it requires as much patience as Los Muertos.

Posted by: Harry Tuttle on Sep 04, 2005 8:50 PM | Permalink

It's funny that you mentioned Los Muertos since that and Camel(s) are probably the two films that I'd associate most closely with JapĆ³n. I liked the film enough that Battle in Heaven would be one I'd try to see if it was playing at NYFF. I wouldn't call it a masterpiece, but it has some really extraordinary moments.

It's not so much a preference of naturalism versus formalism in the case of Tran (I like his films as well, but they definitely feel more "generalized exotic" than culture-specific), but what I would like to see in films about Vietnam is something more indigenous, since I get the impression that Tran, as an expatriate, is recreating images from fonder memories of his homeland (again, except for Cyclo). It's more of a sentimental reality rather than a psychological reality (as in Tsai or Hou's films of Taiwan) in that sense, I think.

Posted by: acquarello on Sep 04, 2005 9:38 PM | Permalink

I have a weird problem with watching cruelty to animals--it really disturbs me. Maybe it's a hard-wired Hindu thing, I don't know...

Which is why both Los Muertos and Japon, though I was really fascinated and impressed by them, were horrible movie experiences for me. But the new Reygadas doesn't seem to have that (right, Harry?), so I'm really looking forward to it. And I also really liked him in the Japon Q&A, he seemed like an interesting fella.

Posted by: girish on Sep 05, 2005 7:19 AM | Permalink

I see what you mean by sentimental/psychological acquarello. Although vietnamese cinema is still young and shall develop a wider range. Maybe it has to do with the time to digest a cultural, political history...
No, Girish. Battle in Heaven is animal-cruelty-free.

Posted by: Harry Tuttle on Sep 05, 2005 10:07 AM | Permalink

Hey guys.... just thought if I could hop in and see if you can give me more details on where to find Genesis.....seems like some of you guys have seen the movie ....Please help me locate one

Posted by: Amita on Sep 05, 2005 11:03 AM | Permalink

It looks as though Facets has a copy of Genesis for sale. They also have it in their rental catalog, but it's out right now.

Posted by: acquarello on Sep 05, 2005 11:53 AM | Permalink


Posted by: Amita on Sep 05, 2005 6:47 PM | Permalink

I have collected several of Sen's work in Calcutta last December. Bhubon Shome, Akaler Sondhane, Interview are among them. But quality is not good.

Posted by: Gautam De on Nov 18, 2005 3:09 PM | Permalink

hey guys can u help me...where i can find ritwik ghatak's DVD's....i hve seen his ajantrik...but rest of his movies i hvent seen yet..

Posted by: girish on Nov 06, 2007 3:30 AM | Permalink

Have you tried Calcuttaweb?

Posted by: acquarello on Nov 06, 2007 10:59 AM | Permalink

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