Sen & Ray’s ‘Calcutta Trilogy’

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Sen and Ray havinf a conversation

In this article, the author explores the differences between Satyajit Ray’s Calcutta Trilogy and Mrinal Sen’s Calcutta Trilogy.  The author discusses how Ray uses his storytelling to illustrate the societal effects of poverty, unemployment, and education, while Sen’s films are contextualized within his leftist politics and feature themes of youth agitation, urban violence, and the Naxal movement.

The 1970s can singularly be handpicked as the most debated and disconcerting decade in India’s socio-economic and political history. The nineteen-month Emergency declared by the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, the bloody war with Pakistan leading to the liberation of Bangladesh, rampant unemployment, social upheaval, rising inflation, corruption, and taxation increased the general derangement of the people. During these turbulent times, when Kolkata was engulfed by the violent Naxalite movement, two protagonists of the celebrated troika of Indian parallel cinema, Satyajit Ray and Mrinal Sen showcased their own versions of the “Calcutta Trilogy” with Pratidwandi (The Adversary), Seemabaddha (Company Limited), Jana Aranya (The Middleman) and Interview, Calcutta 71, and Padatik (The Guerrilla Fighter) respectively. Though set in an identical background, the treatment and approach of the direction by these two luminaries were significantly different.

While Ray’s Calcutta trilogy is often deliberated for the way in which he uses the cinematic medium to portray urbanization and its grievances, Sen’s trilogy is contextualized within his leftist politics. Never separated from reality Sen magnificently used his craft to sketch the Bengal of the era, characterized by unemployment, youth agitation, urban violence, extrajudicial killings, the Naxal movement, and the rise of the left.

A scene from Mrinal Sen's 'Interview'
A scene from Mrinal Sen’s ‘Interview’

The Interview was a film on India’s colonial hangover. The story revolves around a young unemployed man and his inefficacious attempts to seek a proper suit for an important job interview in a reputed British firm. This film was also unique because of its newness of style. Sen used newsreels, images of the Vietnam War, and the Afro-American movement. Here the protagonist talks to the audience directly and Sen employed lengthy angsty monologues.

A scene from Mrinal Sen's 'Calcutta 71'
A scene from Mrinal Sen’s ‘Calcutta 71’

Calcutta 71, comprises of different stories by Manik Bandopadhyay, Prabodh Sanyal, and Samaresh Basu, and reflects a sense of isolation, estrangement, and ensuing anger as not merely individual expressions but as continuing social entities. The film starts with a voice-over chorus that recrudesces through the film, set in 1933, 1943, 1953, and then 1971. The chorus connects the anthology of three sketches through the primary theme of poverty and youth that it cripples.

A scene from Mrinal Sen's 'Padatik'
A scene from Mrinal Sen’s ‘Padatik’

Padatik is arguably the most mature and reflective piece of work forming a part of the trilogy. It is an antechamber narrative that circles around two central characters in an upscale apartment in Kolkata, a young somewhat disillusioned Left fugitive who hides with an affluent pro-Naxal woman. Sen through his narrative tried to highlight the internal conflicts that the Left-Wing party was deeply embroiled in and was in dire need of some self-introspection. Sumit the protagonist, though had unflinching faith in his party ideal, still questions the leadership on the issues, he does not concur with.

Unlike Sen, Ray did not directly address the various societal anguish. He used his masterly storytelling skill to illustrate how different sections of society had been affected by poverty, unemployment, and the dispensable education system. He presented situations before his audiences and allowed them to infer accordingly.

A scene from Satyajit Ray's 'Pratidwandi'
A scene from Satyajit Ray’s ‘Pratidwandi’

In Pratidwandi, the sensitive but frustrated idealist protagonist Siddhartha unsuccessfully searches for a job. In a certain interview, he cited “the plain human courage shown by the people of Vietnam”, instead of the expected: “man landing on the moon’, when asked about the most standout event of the preceding decade.

A scene from Satyajit Ray's 'Seemabaddha'
A scene from Satyajit Ray’s ‘Seemabaddha’

In Seemabaddha, Ray accentuated the unrestrained greed that maligns the lives of successful corporate executives. It tells the story of a young and once principled and now ferociously ambitious Syamalendu, who resorted to unscrupulous means to earn his much sought-after promotion. But Ray through his impeccable storytelling compelled us to love and hate him in the same breath.

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A scene from Satyajit Ray's 'Jana Aranya'
A scene from Satyajit Ray’s ‘Jana Aranya’

In Jana Aranya, Ray is completely unabashed about the decaying human morality and the degenerating social fabric, where the angst of joblessness is used as a perfect leitmotif. Ray unravels a cruel and ruthless world before Somnath, the protagonist, who in the end is no saint or hero and takes the immoral albeit easy path to stay afloat.

While Ray’s Calcutta trilogy is frequently studied for the way in which he uses the cinematic media to depict urbanization and its discontents, Mrinal Sen’s trilogy is contextualized within the filmmaker’s leftist politics. Though treated drastically differently by the polemical Sen and a relatively apolitical Ray, both these works are significant moments in India’s cinematic history.


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