In the middle of 1971, when the city of Calcutta according to official figures were witnessing about 200 political killings a month, Mrinal Sen released Interview in some of the prominent movie theatres in Calcutta for commercial viewing, the most prominent of all: Globe, where it ran for three weeks. There was a private screening exclusively for the press before this, where the response was rather subdued, although some critics were quite intrigued by the novelty of the subject matter and the constant interplay between fact and fiction with a surrealistic treatment of the narrative. Public response, however, was overwhelmingly good. Sen claims in his biography that the admiring audience enthusiastically chased the cinematographer K K Mahajan, who was mobbed and subsequently rescued after begging for help in horror[i].
The film ran successfully for two weeks at Globe, one of the most prominent movie theatres in town. After the third week, with the waning enthusiasm, it was withdrawn. The public opinion too was polarized. Some praised the treatment and cinematography, but it received criticism from some quarters as well for being an “anti-social” film.
The story, written by Ashish Burman, centred around a young unemployed man called Ranju and his futile attempts to seek a proper suit for an important job interview in a prestigious British company. Ranju, who comes from a lower middle class family with a widowed mother and a sister already has strong recommendation from a friend of his late father. His prospects of getting the job look very bright in the beginning but it goes downhill from there. When Ranju goes to the laundry shop to collect his prized suit (the only one he has) he finds the shop is shut due to a laundry workers’ indefinite strike. He manages to get another suit but even that one gets stolen on the bus. Finally, desperate Ranju goes appears in front of the stunned interview board ( The scene was shot in the IBM office in Calcutta, the American corporate giant had a vibrant marketing presence in the city even then. The interview board members played themselves, asking questions) wearing dhoti and kurta. In a quirky reference Ray’s classic Pratidwandi (The Adversary) here too a board member asks the protagonist “What is the biggest event of the decade?”. While Siddhartha’s serious and ideologically charged reply in Pratidwandi was “The Vietnam War”, here Ranju answers with a sheepish yet sincere smile “My interview, Sir!”.
Ranju did not get the job. But this essay is not an exploration of individual anxieties and their transition into reckless abandon. Rather, I will try to concentrate on the spaces that Sen explores with K. K. Mahajan’s handheld camera roaming in the street of Calcutta inside public vehicles or through narrow lanes with garbage heaped on the side.
Our first proper introduction with the protagonist too happens on the street:on a tramcar, to be precise. Tram was Calcutta’s most iconic and identifiable public transport during this era. The introduction was something revolutionary in Indian cinema, both formalistically and narrative wise: combining elements of Brechtian alienation, Cinema Verite style and effortless breaking of the fourth wall by the hero. This is what happens:
We see that while the protagonist stands in the tram, the camera zooms on a magazine a female passenger is reading, and it displays a photo of Mullick himself. The young passenger recognizes Ranjit, annoying a fellow male passenger. Mullick comes forward, looks directly at the camera and says with a shy smile:
“It is all my fault. You must be curious, so let me confess. It is indeed my photo. But I am not a star. By any means. My name is Ranjit Mullick, I live in Bhawanipur, and work for a weekly magazine. I go to the press, correct the proof and do other tasks. I have a very uneventful life, you know? Yet that is precisely what attracted Mrinal Sen..yes, yes, the filmmaker, you know? He said, ‘My camera will just chase right through the day’. (The camera shows Mahajan shooting the scene on the tram).
I am not supposed to do anything special. I just have to be myself. I told Mrinal Sen that today is going to be something special. Today I have a chance to get a much better job. He said ‘fine!That would be really dramatic!” Just see how he is chasing me! To make profit exploiting my experience, of course!”
After Ranju gets down from the tram the male passenger who was irritated moments ago, exclaims with genuine bemusement “You call it cinema? But it is my story—your story!”, but suddenly this celebration of everydayness is disrupted by sequences of street protests and demonstrations, many of them newsreel footages underscoring Sen’s ideological leaning towards documentary realism in his work.
Deepankar Mukhopadhyay in his admirably well researched biography of Sen writes, “ Ranjit’s statement before the camera is the first example of Brechtian alienation in Indian cinema. But Sen has always insisted that he has never been influenced by Brecht, the only modern European dramatist who cast a deep impression on him happened to be Peter Weiss. What stands out in Interview is Sen’s attempt to contrast reality and surrealism”[ii]
Now, apart from the obvious metavisual significance what I find most intriguing is not what or how of the action but rather, where it happens. Sen has a lifelong enchantment for a comment by Elio Vitorini, one of the foremost creative Marxists in Europe: The point is not to pocket the truth, but to chase the truth.
This seemingly enigmatic statement, I feel, sums up one of the central paradoxes of the contingency of image: that is to say, what counts as an authentic interpretation of experience is often that depiction which is considered to be least vulnerable to the tests of subjectivity. Space and spatial dimension has the revelatory potential of stripping that safe interpretation off and opening it up to the possibilities of divergences, more so in the visual medium. Here you can’t simply, in Sen’s own words, “Pocket the truth” but rather embrace its dispossessive elements. The cinematic image cannot really capture or reclaim physical reality but it can entirely personalize that reality by making an impressionistic representation of the same reality. Street space is a public place and it is essentially both transitory and dispossesive. This is precisely why this moment of recognition and misrecognition could have taken place on the street, in transit. Only the street space can fuse the magnificent and the mundane together. It also shows (a) that there is no mythical paradigm in the structural transformation of the polis, apart from the fact that the myth of the orderliness itself is the principal agent of that constant flux and (b) Only this can make Ranju’s story everyone’s story and turn banal everydayness of X Y Z’s story into a sociological opera or an avant garde fantasy, call what you like. The street space, as we see everywhere in interview is a fractured, anomic, fragmented and a destructured space, containing the invisible city of stories within its chambers. The space is defined by indeterminacy and constantly resists interpretation. It facilitates transgression and subversion at the most microcosmic level. I think that the action of the protagonist was provoked by the affective power of the street. The street and the bus in motion has an equal balance of concealing and revelatory power.
As Ranju too is affected by the film posters, billboards and signboards throughout the city he sees through the tram, he finds that the revelation can offer an emotional release or a sense of purgation which only the street space can offer, as echoed by the Boy who performs street acrobatics in Parashuram (1978), Sen’s visual meditation on the lives of the pavement dwellers in the city. He is atop the pole surveying the city, in response to his father’s question if their city is sinking in the flood. He says:
“There are processions once again. Once again there’s dancing and singing, laughing and shouting, once again there’s dancing and singing, laughing and shouting. Calcutta is on the move again. Calcutta can’t ever die!”
It is clear that here spatial realm is not merely situated within the bounds of geographical and social locatedness but stands within the embodiedness of the lived experience. The reality on the street is, as a consequence, inviting and alienating at the same time.
In another scene, there is a shot of a street theatre troupe performing and the great statue of Lenin looming over them like a large shadow. The Actor exclaims that he is getting murdered every day. As the statue of Lenin gazes, the actors sing the words of Chaitanya Mahaprabhu , “ I cherish the man who dies every day”. Sen being Sen, the sequence that follows immediately after is of a large groupe of (mostly European and North American) Hare Krishna devotees in a state of frenzy under the shadow of Lenin. All happening here on the street, the great equalizer.
In Film Historian John Hood ‘s words, “Perhaps the key to understanding of what [Calcutta] means to Mrinal Sen lies, in fact, in this apparent contradiction. Sen’s screen essay is sufficient to regard Calcutta itself as harbouring contradictions: wealth and poverty, splendor and squalor, pre-industrial and post-industrial economy, artistry and scholarship, disorder and ignorance, vibrant optimism and morbid pessimism. The really significant paradox is Calcutta’s constant decay and its just as constant regeneration. For Chaitanya to cherish the man who dies every day, he must also be reborn every day…and this notion is a characteristic of Sen’s films”. [iii]
Therefore it is not difficult to consider streets as protean and malleable spaces of multiplicity in Sen’s cinema. Street spaces defy interpretation because they do not operate on a symbolic or metaphorical plane. They are not metaphors because there are radical discontinuities between the figurations. The visual tenors and vehicles of interpretation are themselves rapidly changing. Mrinal Sen is the definitive chronicler of streets and backstreets of our city because he makes street spaces markers of non-essentialness and indistinction, as they are almost always ensnared with their living subjects.
Cultural Geographers often describe urban space within the contextual boundaries of the structure and the street. But it is also equally true to recognize, especially with regard to a city like Calcutta: the street as the structure. Just like any other cosmopolis here too street transports/contains people, capital and objects but also transfuses and circulates symbols, signs and ideologies. In Ray’s visual imagination street space plays a more conventional role of presupposing the city as a central representational element. In his films the streets represent the immensity of the polis, the assembly of humanity, structure, order, the opposition between an individual’s private ideologies placed against the public system of the society, sometimes in a state of nostalgic deference. Above all, it symbolizes the relentless flow of reality of history as there is a definite temporal stream. There are, of course, depictions of street as spaces of violence, scarring the physical and mental fabric of the city and the individual’s confrontational encounter with that space. ( Jana Aranya, for example). Political violence, social despair and its effect on the urban fabric of the city are inevitably recurring tropes in both Ray’s and Sen’s Calcutta trilogy. But where they differ significantly is in Ray’s films streets almost always has a reconciliatory if not emancipatory potential. Consider, for example, the last sequence of Mahanagar ( The Big City) where protagonists are walking through the busy streets of the city with unwavering hope about the future:
Here the individual and specific elements may be self-fashioning the structure by fine tuning it at a more compact level but the broader structure remains definite and unchanged. In Sen’s films however there is a radical departure.
In Ray the streets create interrelations. In Sen’s film they disassociate. Here the contestation of space is almost a perpetual element. There is a constant facilitation of transgression because on the street the contiguous assembly of bodily elements not merely refashions the structure of the city at a microcosmic level, but exercise an act of radical reversion. So naturally there can’t be any ideologically fixing in of locatedness. The street is a paroxysmal and unobtrusive spaces of fluidity that defies any attribution of a “a sense of the place”. Visually speaking, Sen captures the indistinctive interpretation of the street through moments of irruption and rupture. This is precisely why here the individual is right from the start fighting a losing battle with the space he inhabits because it perpetually facilitates subversion. Here Calcutta streets are not situated within any given system of self-enclosed totality, forming what Hood has aptly described as a “complementary notion of an identity enigma by its unrevealing neutrality”.
This visual syntax of space is consistent with Sen’s progress as an auteur of spatial narratives, diverging from conventional modes of storytelling. This particular phase ranged between Akash Kusum ( 1965) and Ekdin Pratidin (1981) where Sen was influenced more by the European School of forming a visual tapestry of spatial narratives.
In Interview ambivalence and indeterminacy of street space play an extremely important role in the interplay of identities and their multiplicity. The film begins with an almost visually ceremonial parading of colonial relics and statues on the streets of Calcutta in 1967, as they are being removed as symbols of the city’s colonial past . The same scene was later repeated in Sen’s documentary feature on his city Calcutta: My El Dorado.
As you can see, the portentous significance of the ceremonial action here has an almost operatic component. But that falls apart within moments. Because Sen initially unearths this presentness of the past by establishing the fact that their presence is built upon the past, consequently ripping it apart . This idea of colonial relics as trace itself is a double bind of ambivalence and symbolization. That is to say such visual traces are operating as a remnant ( of the eroding present) and the same traces are a sign of a space (street) that itself presupposes a disembodied presence. This ambivalence of what the street represents is not merely coincidental or a convenient trope but a definite political statement.
But the street view of the movie bill boards is a recurring theme in the movie. As the movie gradually progresses we realize that George Perec would have happily described Ranju as a “species of spaces”. He roams around the city in search of a proper dress for his job application, the street being his vehicle of emotional release, be it joy, frustration or despair. Streets are always carriers of ritualistic and ideological excess in Interview. And the street is utterly indifferent to the plight of the individual. Sen’s depiction of urban spaces as sites of spontaneous (and often violent) outbursts establishes that the city will swallow up the individual with its demonic potential. The individual’s obsolescence and irrelevance is a precursor to the visual chaos depicted in the narrative. We see a precursor of that disintegration through Ranju’s eyes as he roams around the city in this relatively serene yet melancholy sequence:
At the same time, Ranju is not a product of this politics. Rather, at times he is in an oppositional position to it. For example, his exasperation and frustration is also clear when he finds the laundry shop closed and in front him laundry workers participate in a ceremonial procession justifying their strike. The point being that the individual ideologies are often at odds with collective ideologies, or at least collective will. The individual on the street is part of the collective but not of the community. And street space facilitates agency from both angles. Best embodied in Sen’s depiction of procession and demonstrations scenes on the street in both Calcutta 71 and Interview, a clear case of cinematic image and realistic documentary images blended together. Also consider the portrayal of newsreel footages underscoring the stark documentary realism in his films. But more importantly they are co-opted together in the narrative. Perhaps to underscore the urgency and immediacy of Sen’s vision also to emphasize that newspapers circulatory network are carried through the streets, as a marker for public consciousness.
In 1968 when French director Louis Malle came to Calcutta to shoot a documentary on the city Sen was his close collaborator. Malle’s kaleidoscopic representation of the city spaces had a tremendous influence on Sen’s work. More specifically it had to do with the way Malle portrayed political demonstrations and unrest on the street. Street demonstrations are unique because they can effectively blend within one enclosed space-time continuum divergent expressions together, yet resisting an unified interpretation on every level. These expression are: anarchy, playfulness, order, violence and finally, a certain ritualistic and ideological excess.
Here is a fascinating clip from Malle’s documentary showing the interruption a violent political demonstration by a religious procession at the same time and space!
Sen used the sequence frame by frame for his feature Calcutta 71, another example of his inclination to documentary truth-telling:
Three points are worth noting with regard to the tripartite structure of street with regard to its representation on Sen’s cinema.
The initial structure is intention, which is clearly established by the streets defining role as site of fissures and conflicts in both the physical and mental fabric of the city. Here the street empowers a transfer of expression. That is to say from individual consciousness to public conscience which eventually culminates into popular/public action.
(Mrinal Sen dropping political leaflets from a high rise on Calcutta streets for a scene in Chorus (1974). Cinematographer K.K. Mahajan is capturing the moment.)
The second structure is enactment. Here’s Sen’s emphasis on collage and montage like visual narratives comes into consideration. I would like to argue that the reason behind Sen’s penchant for collage and montage like narrative flow is its ability to effortlessly interface between cinematic image and documented truth. It also reflects on the city space as an encounter of the senses, underscoring on a restlessness of form. There is less scope for figurative abstractions or invented memories. This restlessness in the medium in turn inspires a constant instability of action an in the entities. Naturally, the contiguous assembly of bodily elements on the street makes space for a physical palpability that is highly exteriorized. Physical perception (of the senses) gives way to an intellectual perception. In a highly influential essay on the contextual environment of the cinematic narrative, titled “Cinemay Poribesh Toiri”, Sen writes about the encounter between the individual and the anonymous, indifferent and stifling immensity of the busy city street generating a terror of an inhuman humanity, the familiar desolation of loneliness without solitude. This is an event of perception, elevated by collage or montage like structures.
The final structure is resistance, which has two interrelated sub-elements. The first is what I call the emboldening of a civic promiscuity in the street expression. This is why street protests can make you get away with saying and doing a lot of things which would be unacceptable on a nomological level. It pushes the limit of expression and expresses ideology yet denying motive to that very same ideology. This is why the space facilitates transgression incomparable to private and enclosed spaces.
The final sub element is of course the resistance of interpretation. There is no fixed expression of truth involved. This is why the reflection of the city is at a more truncated level as there is no symbolic center involved. This is why unlike Ray’s grand metropolis of symbols Sen’s Calcutta is an abridged city. The much talked about opening scene of Calcutta 71 shows the most iconic standing symbol of the city: The gargantuan mass of infrastructure with its enormous mass of steel that is Howrah Bridge. Yet, the following sequences are street images of poor derelict neighbourhoods, subsequently followed by a montage of disparate fragments of the city.
The collage like structure of Calcutta 71, bringing together three different stories by Manik Bandopadhyay, Prabodh Sanyal and Samaresh Basu, carried the sense of isolation, alienation and resulting anger as not merely individual expressions but as continuing social entities. Street is a vehicle for that expression. The relentless torrent of both surrealistic and documentary segments guide the spectator as participant to transcend the immediacy of the visual storytelling and to recognize the degradation and deprivation happening everyday on the streets to the dispossessed as a precursor to a visual spectacle of death. In one of the more famous scenes in the film, a young man, presumably a revolutionary is being chased as the camera frantically follows him. He goes from narrow by lanes to wider lanes desperately running away from the gun. His desperate run culminates in Maidan, where he is fatally shot by the (police?) bullet. A voice of a newsreader in the radio is heard: “ A young man, aged twenty and unidentified, found dead in the Maidan with three bullet injuries..”
The street in Calcutta 71 is multitudinous statement, perhaps the most complex visual statement of Sen. At times it is impressionistic. At times, with pantomime actions being carried out on the screen in a dream like phantasmagorical scenario it becomes a performative setup. And in the end with the final scene of bullet ridden body of the youth lying on the grass of Maidan it becomes a definite political statement as a pamphlet. This is the death of a dream. Evoking the oft repeated horror in reality in 70s North Calcutta streets of looking at the dismembered bodies of young revolutionaries lying on the streets in the open. The discovery of this physical scar on the streets is also a traumatic blow to the mental self image of the city wrecked by political violence.
This is an excerpt from the final scene of Calcutta 71:
While there is no conjunction of experience being attempted here ( quite deliberately, one would assume) yet the presence of the street as an embodied experience is simply unavoidable.
Similarly, the city has elements of both concealment and disclosure. And the individual who is experiencing bustling city crossing as a new portal of experience is encountering the terror and upliftment at the same time. The question of experience is of course of knowledge and evasion, established by the trope of escape through the depiction of men on the run. They are running in anticipation of justice, yet escaping law and state apparatuses: embodying the conflict between justice and law. Street is the site of that conflict. Naturally, the element of chase and a man constantly on the run is a recurring trope in both Calcutta 71 and the final venture of Sen’s Calcutta trilogy: Padatik ( The Urban Guerilla). Padatik is technically the most mature film of the Calcutta Trilogy. Structurally too it has a cohesive and linear narrative. The movie is set against the backdrop of Naxalite movement in the city when Sumit ( Dhritiman Chatterjee), a revolutionary on the run into a flat of a Punjabi lady. A lot of internal probing and reflections follow. The image of street as facilitator of a chase between the state and the individual is further established in the thrilling opening sequence where Sumit manages to escape from a police van and runs frantically through the streets and narrow lanes to find his eventual hideout. Such sequences of chase emerge as a trope in the movie. In another sequence of the movie we see Sumit’s father experiencing the same city streets not with anxiety but in a state of defeatism and submissiveness.
In Padatik the city is both mundane and replete with violent consequences at the same time. What is necessary for the activist: narrow lanes, serpentine streets to conceal himself from the state, to be ahead of the curve of the state and law. Yet this escape is fraught with dangers of the unknown. His knowledge of the street is keeping him ahead, yet it is the same street that is proving to be unpredictable because the danger can come from anywhere.
The principal position that the street holds in Sen’s depictions of the dialectics of rage and revolution is most clearly understood in another Sen’s collaboration with one of the pioneers of new German Cinema Reinhard Hauff.
Sen with Reinhard Hauff
(Photo by courtesy of Reinhard Hauff and Seagull Books)
In 1984 Hauff came to Calcutta to shoot a documentary on Sen and the city. It was released as Ten days in Calcutta: a Portrait of Mrinal Sen. It was also as much a portrait of the city spaces that come together in his films as it was a portrait of Sen. The movie is replete with intermingled images of Calcutta’s streets and film clips of Sen’s and Hauff’s films.
In the opening sequence we are plunged into the crowd and bustle of Howrah Bridge with buses and cars jostling with one another for some space followed by the jagged extremities of political graffiti, spectacle of visible death and abandonment in the garbage heaps of ghettoized neighbourhoods, and streets urchins playing a game of pebbles on the Pavement called “naktimot”. Hauff’s voice-overs introduce Sen to the bustle of street activities on screen, with the backdrop of a long shot of traffic on two levels, one on the flyover and the other on the street below. Hauff says that Sen’s films are full of contradictions both in content and form. They were vital and their rhythm was that of the streets of this extreme city. [iv]
In the course of the they walk through the busy streets of Calcutta, including College Street and we see images of rickshaw pullers going about their daily jobs. Hauff even interviews several people on the street on their familiarity with Sen’s work, many of whom never heard of him.
In Sen and Hauff’s conversations with the backdrop of numerous city imageries his political sensibility as a private Marxist illuminates itself spectacularly. It may be convenient to assume that Sen is hinting through his entangled narratives how the spirit of humanity is obliterated by urban sprawl. But in contradiction, Sen is telling us that the better or for worse, the spirit of humanity is in those urban sprawls. The spirit is more akin to a drive. Not an emancipatory or uplifting agent but as a force of vitality. The space allows a complete negation of revolutionary optimism because it is open to disentanglement the same way it is open to political structures using it to their advantage. Streets can also be dismantled structures. Not active. Precisely why they can be both clandestine and exposed spaces. The city is both mundane and replete with violent consequences at the same time because it is value neutral. It is also replete with danger and unknowability. This is why the terror of banality is what keeps the city alive. In the end nothing changes, swarms of indifferent crowd move on, while the change agents subject themselves to abjection.
Let me conclude with two images of abjection and surrender. Jean-Luc Godard is a definitive influence on Sen’s aesthetics and the first image is of Michel’s final doomed attempt to outran the law at the Southern T Junction of Rue Campaign Premiere in Paris. Streets as clandestine spaces had been a co-perpetrator in concealment with Michel, a space that he thought he knows better than those who were chasing him. Ultimately, the same space with its wicked promiscuity turn against Michel the so far clandestine spaces turn revelatory. Here is the final scene of Breathless ( A Bout de Souffle) and for those unfortunate souls who have not seen Godard’s masterpiece yet: spoiler alert.
The climactic scene of Interview is comparable in treatment to the final scene of Breathless because this too is a visionary image of abjection,doom and surrender. Except that here, the death is of not an individual but of the resistance of the individual. Ranju surrenders himself to abjection and degradation on the street but not without a futile statement of rage. In this concluding sequence as Mullick’s devastated faces the camera, in yet another display of documentary narration the director encounters his own protagonist, but here he calls himself the spectator. After a probing interlocution where Ranju vacillates between confusion, denial and rage, he finally reaches his state of sheer abandon in his quest for “total revolution”
Ranju resorts to violence in hopelessness and despair. The setting is still a Calcutta street because the victim of his rage is the mannequin in the shop window prominently displayed earlier in the narrative. Yet significantly, the backdrop here is dark precisely because it delimits its interpretation by liberating it from the drudgery of any given historical or social context. The street is now both ubiquitous and omnipresent. It can be a street anywhere: Calcutta, Paris or Berlin. After Ranju strips the mannequin off its dignity the constantly restlessly and transitory narrative now stands still in one image of surrender and stillness. It is the visionary stillness of a naked city: accursed and eternally unredeemed.
(Photos courtesy: http://mrinalsen.org/1970.htm and Seagull Books.)
 Mrinal Sen, Always Being Born, New Delhi: Steller Publications, 2006. P-108
 Deepankar Mukhopadhyay, The Maverick Maestro: Mrinal Sen, New Delhi: Indus, 1995. P-85
 John W. Hood, Chasing the Truth: The Films of Mrinal Sen, Calcutta: Seagull Books, 1993. P-95
 Samik Bandopadhyay and Anjum Katyal (ed.), Ten days in Calcutta: A Portrait of Mrinal Sen, based on Reinherd Hauff’s film of the same name, Calcutta : Seagull Books, 1987. P-4
Bandopadhyay, Samik and Katyal, Anjum (ed.). Ten days in Calcutta: A Portrait of Mrinal Sen. based on Reinhard Hauff’s film of the same name. Calcutta : Seagull Books, 1987.
Chitrobikkhon. Mrinal Sen Special Issue. April-May 1993.
Hood, John. Chasing the Truth: The Films of Mrinal Sen. Calcutta: Seagull Books, 1993.
Mukhopadhyay, Deepankar. The Maverick Maestro: Mrinal Sen. New Delhi: Indus, 1995.
Sen, Mrinal. Always Being Born. New Delhi: Steller Publications, 2006.
Sen, Mrinal. Cinema, Adhunikota. ed. Shiladitya Sen. Calcutta: Pratikshan Publications, 1992.
Sen, Mrinal. Montage: Life, Politics, Cinema. Calcutta: Seagull Books, 2002.
Sur, Praloy (ed). Mrinal Sen. Calcutta: Nandan, 1998.
Somak Mukheree is a doctoral scholar, Department of English, Jadavpur University, Kolkata. He gratefully acknowledges the help of Parichay Patra, also completing his doctoral studies in Monash University, for providing him with some important resources related to Sen’s work.