The Calcutta Trilogy: A Comparative Study of the Political Films of Satyajit Ray and Mrinal Sen
By Pratyusha Pramanik
The 1970s can be identified as the most disputed and disappointing decade in India’s socio-political history; it saw the ebb and flow of Indira Gandhi like a tide washing over India. The nineteen-month Emergency declared by her was just a pinnacle of the Emergency that had been building up from the beginning of the decade. India suffered the trauma of another war with Pakistan and emerged victorious but bloody. Inflation, crime, and taxes kept increasing with the general paranoia of the people. In Uttar Pradesh, the Provincial Armed Constabulary staged a bloody armed mutiny, while Gujarat witnessed the traumatic birth of a student-based movement that rapidly acquired violent overtones. The movement soon spread to Bihar. Price protests erupted all over the state, and Sarvodaya leader, Jayaprakash Narayan joined the movement as the undisputed leader. The Allahabad High Court set aside Indira Gandhi’s election to the Lok Sabha. A fortnight later, the opposition leaders announced a nation-wide satyagraha to force Indira Gandhi to step down from power. Mrs Gandhi’s reply to that was swift and savage. A state of Emergency to ‘meet the internal threat to security’ was declared on June 26, 1975. Behind the facade of the mother’s rule, a younger son was swiftly rising. Sanjay Gandhi had no time for democracy – “future generations will not remember us by how many elections we had,” he once said, “but by the progress we made.” Following his instructions, bulldozers moved into Old Delhi, provoking a riot while teams of government officials fanned into the North Indian countryside, pulling villagers into vans and driving them to the hospital.
During this socio-economic turmoil, when ‘Indira was India, and India was Indira’, Calcutta was under the rule of Congress, and Naxalism was still brewing in the dark corners of the city. It was around this time that Satyajit Ray – Pratidwandi (The Adversary), Seemabaddha (Company Limited), and Jana Aranya (The Middleman) and Mrinal Sen – Interview, Calcutta 71, and Padatik (The Guerrilla Fighter) – presented their Calcutta Trilogies, a set of six movies set in the backdrop of the various incidents which were surely a reflection of the socio-political conditions of not just Bengal but all of India. Most of these movies, barring one, had been produced before the Emergency and resulted from the general sense of disillusionment that prevailed at the time. All of these movies have received national and international acclaim. Ray was never affiliated to any political party; his movies of this phase were mostly based on the conditions in society – besides the Calcutta Trilogy, his movies like Hirak Rajar Deshe (The Kingdom of Diamonds) and Ganashatru (An Enemy of the People) were also political and expressed Ray’s concerns regarding the prevailing socio-political crisis. On the other hand, Mrinal Sen was a proclaimed Marxist; however, he noted that the “difference between party Marxists and a private Marxist like me is that others think they pocketed the truth, whereas I am always in search of truth…” This article aims to study the difference in the approach adopted by Ray and Sen to address the socio-political crisis of the 1970s arising in the city of Calcutta. Although they use the common backdrop of Kolkata and use similar themes, their treatment is starkly different from each other.
The City, the Cinema, and the Crisis
Sen starts Padatik with a quote both critiquing and eulogising his city:
Every time I return to Calcutta, I feel it must be surely impossible that it can continue much longer than this. Yet it always does. An interval of a year makes the visual impact more painful, the squalor more squalid, the poverty more militant, the despair more desperate. Every time I return to Calcutta, I find it an intimidating and even infernal city, unredeemed and probably doomed. (Cameron)
Sen’s filmography is a record of his political contemplation. His movies are an unequivocal search for what he considered to be the truth. Thus, his works not only contained real life footage of violence, but also montages of newspaper cuttings and other everyday experiences that his directorial lens captured across the city. At the onset, Sen lists the crisis that engulfed the city in particular and the nation in general: “Kerosene disappears from the market, Thousands of ghost ration cards seized by police, Death by starvation, Exams disrupted, Rival Unions Clash in labour belts. The government pledged to restore law and order” (Sen). A baby food advertisement that Shilpi designs addresses issues like starvation and adulteration of food materials. It is highly ironic how a capitalist company owner uses prevalent social issues to sell their product, and a leftist-party sympathiser designs it. Someone who cannot afford a square meal will not be able to buy baby foods, but the images of malnourished babies and their concerned mothers are used to play on the sympathy of the middle-class buyers. Fuel and energy were scarce, resulting in a price rise, but words, promises, tea and cigarettes became cheaper. Walls were filled with graffiti, with ideologies overlapping each other. Political gatherings promised food, which attracted people from far and near, but that led to nothing but noise pollution. Tea stalls became popular for political deliberations where thoughts and cigarettes were smoked up in the air, as factories and industries were shut down in every corner of the city. We see similar images in the other two movies too. Calcutta 71 is a collage of four stories. The Naxalite activities, starvation of ordinary people, and social and political corruption forms the backdrop of each of them. The first one shows an extremely poverty-stricken family caught in their flooded cottage, unable to seek shelter from the privileged people of the village. We see the man of the house is not ready to do ask for help – he is a Brahmin and hence not comfortable asking for help from a man of the lower class. We see him resorting to violence to dominate the women in his family even as they battle poverty. The second story is about how a mother forces her two daughters into prostitution to support their family. In the third story we see, the eldest son of the family smuggling rice to the city. At a very adolescent age he has learnt the tricks of his trade and has understood that the society he lives in runs on the principles of survival of the fittest. He does not feel any qualms in throwing a man out of the train when his masculinity and social class are questioned. In the last story we see, a hypocritical society that is untouched and unaffected by the world’s hardships beyond their clubs and music concerts; this story beautifully brings out the ever-widening gap between the two sections of the society – the rich growing richer, and the poor becoming poorer. Interview is a commentary on the jobless youth’s deplorable situation; both the directors have used the tropes of interviews and labour strikes.
Unlike Sen, Ray does not directly address the various societal agonies; he uses his brilliant storytelling skill to portray how different sections of the society had been affected by poverty, joblessness, and the redundant education system. He places certain situations before his audiences and lets them surmise accordingly. Even in Hirak Rajar Deshe, Ray uses the medium of a children’s film to deliver a social satire. It is only in Ganashatru that he is more direct, but he adapts Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People. In Pratidwandi, Siddhartha is an uncorrupted young man in search of a job; in one job interview, he is asked to name the most significant world event in the last ten years. His reply is: “the plain human courage shown by the people of Vietnam”, instead of the expected: “man landing on the moon.” The interviewer asks if he is a communist. Needless to say, he does not get the job. Siddhartha soon enough realises that to secure a job, one does not have to give the correct answers but the desired answers. He also realises that he is a misfit among his peers as he runs away when he is taken to visit a prostitute. At home, his younger brother is a revolutionary filled with courage to change the world and his sister, the woman who runs their family, is an efficient and hardworking woman. Siddhartha cannot accommodate himself in the city, where there is no place for his innocence; he goes away from the city to a remote village for a job. In Seemabaddha, Shyamalendu is an ambitious sales manager in a British fan-manufacturing firm in Calcutta, where he is expecting a promotion shortly. He aspires to become the company Director. He comes from a small town in Patna and has single-handedly made progress in the company. He confesses in front of Tutul, his sister-in-law whom he admires lovingly, that there are many things that he has to do because it is an inseparable component of the upward rising society of which he wishes to be a part. To win the rat race, he falsely designs a strike in the factory that helps him get the desired promotion and earns him the respect of his colleagues and his wife.
Somnath in Jana Aranya is an otherwise meritorious student but gets lost in the vast ocean of lakhs of job applications because of the overall joblessness and flawed education system. He becomes the middleman in supplying goods; he starts well, and after a few initial mistakes, learns the tricks of the trade. His biggest challenge comes when he has to provide his client with a prostitute to get hold of an offer, giving him a massive leap in his business. Thus, Sen indulges more in the politics of his times, while Ray is more like a distant observer, critic, and archivist. Sen’s journey is personal. We cannot distinguish Sumit, the protagonist of Padatik, from Sen, who himself critiqued the Naxalite movement and started questioning the Communist Party and its ideology. Thus, the movie Calcutta 71 was well received by the West Bengal Left parties; however, Padatik was rejected by the Leftist groups within and outside India. Ray faced no such outrage when it came to his political movies.
The Gendered Lens: Understanding Women
In this context, it is important to note that Ray has always been known as a director who could fathom a woman’s heart. His female characters are ahead of their times – such vivid portraiture of women and their lives is still unmatched in Indian cinema. However, in Ray’s trilogy women do not play as major a role as in his other movies. This is a commentary about how women of the 1970s took a backseat even when the country was led by its first and only woman Prime Minister. In the attitude survey conducted by Shilpi Mitra in Sen’s Padatik, she tries to find out, with the change in the social and political sphere, if there has been any change in the relationship between men and women. Her target population was middle-class, educated and working women, directly or indirectly related to various political movements. All of them agreed, like in the social and political arena, there had been no revolutionary change in women’s position. Women could step into the public spheres and participate in public activities either under male supervision or only in the absence of any male protagonist. There was a certain degree of liberty in education and career; even there, it was essentially under male supervision – be it the father, husband or even the son. More women participated in public activities; they could be seen everywhere – in public transport, political gatherings, theatres, and hospitals. There was a consciousness among women from different walks about the inconsistency in the gender positions and roles, thereby cultivating a desire for self-respect. However, women, as well as men, continued in their socially prescribed roles even during this unruly time. So, we see men still being burdened with the responsibility of the family; women sometimes replace them, but they never receive the due credit or acceptance. The job possibilities among women are also limited to prostitution or other illegal activities, especially among the lower classes, since most of them still did not have access to education. The women from the upper classes were either married off against their will or sometimes led shallow lives as daughters or wives of successful men, as we see in the movies. Strong women characters like Tutul in Seemabaddha and Shilpi in Padatik are rare and are primarily from the upper class. In Shilpi’s interview, it is apparent that even in the anti-state movements, like the Naxalite movement, gender equality was not very prevalent because most of these women who participated in the revolution replaced a male member of their family, who were either arrested or were killed in the struggle. Thus, the very absence of strong female characters in Ray’s trilogy is an exegesis of the position of women in the 1970s, even when a woman headed the country.
Sen and Ray were contemporaries and had significantly influenced each other’s work. However, their ideology and style were markedly different. This difference is best observed when we look at their approach towards political narratives: while Sen is most comfortable in this arena, Ray’s craftsmanship is equally praiseworthy. Together these trilogies offer a compact understanding of the politics of the time.
Guha, R. (1999, November 30). India Toda Aechives. Retrieved 12 10, 2018, from India Today: https://www.indiatoday.in/magazine/india-today-archives/story/20070702-indira-ghandhis-era-1970s-748420-1999-11-30
Mrinal, S. (1999). Montage:Life, Politics, Cinema. Calcutta: Seagull Books.
Murty, M. (2009). Representing Hindutva:Religion and Masculinity in Indian Popular Cinema, 1990 to 2003. Popular Communication , 269.
Pratyusha Pramanik is currently a Senior Research Fellow in the Department of Humanistic Studies, IIT (BHU) Varanasi, India. She writes on various online portals like Feminism in India and Borderless Journal. Her areas of interests include Gender Studies, Film & Literature, and Indian Writing in English. She is also a Teaching Assistant in her institute and engages students through several elective courses offered from her Department.
For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.