The Air Inside: The Work of Mrinal Sen

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An introduction to the political and poetic work of India's Mrinal Sen.

By Shiv Kotecha.

"In the beginning, there were the heaven and the earth and also the stinking malarial swamp."

—Mrinal Sen, Always Being Born (2004)

Instead of pulling an all-nighter to finish his assignment, Dipu (played by Anjan Dutt)—the ebullient young journalist who, at the start of Mrinal Sen’s dizzying, self-reflexive film, Chaalchitra (The Kaleidoscope, 1981), begrudgingly agrees to write an “intimate family portrait” about growing up just above the poverty line—becomes frustrated, throws a temper tantrum, and falls into a deep, dream-filled sleep. Sen’s itinerant camera dives into the slithy depths of Dipu’s unconscious, where his editor (whose demand for “salable” copy to “feed the public” leads to Dipu’s spiral) sits alone in a pristine, unpeopled bungalow. Lounging below electric lights, he sucks at a pipe and whirring fans deodorize the air. 

But outside, it’s not quiet. A rally of thousands of women from Calcutta’s slums have gheraoed the editor’s property, carrying coal ovens billowing noxious fumes into the air; “We live among smoke, you louts!” they yell, with heaving laughter that muffles the police sirens behind them. Dipu imagines a world in which environmental maladaptation and social immobility become anxieties that addle the dominant class—the wealthy, the media men, and functionaries of the state—rather than the dispossessed urban proletariat of Calcutta, a city built as a convenient colonial outpost by the British in 1690; now called Kolkata, population 15 million. 

The moral toil of representing “ordinary life” in post-Partition India is a predominant subject of the late, pioneering Indian filmmaker and theorist Mrinal Sen, a near contemporary of Satyajit Ray and the lesser-known Ritwik Ghatak, and a prominent figure of the subcontinent’s parallel cinema movement. Angular, intertextual and politically charged, the thirty-plus features, documentaries, and TV series’ that comprise Sen’s sixty-year career reflect the lingering stench of empire the British leave in India’s collective sensorium. Cyclical bouts of hunger and famine, anthropogenic toxicity, and the opportunism of a disaffected, educated middle-class: these are the shards through which Mrinal Sen’s refracts contemporary Kolkatan life. 

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