Director: Mrinal Sen; Writer: Mrinal Sen, Ashish Burman; Producer: Mrinal Sen; Cinematographer: K.K. Mahajan; Editor: Gangadhar Naskar; Cast: Ranjit Mullick, Karuna Bannerjee, Shekhar Chatterjee, Mamata Chattopadhyay, Bulbul Mukherjee, Umanath Bhattacharya, Amal Chakravarty, Tapan Dasgupta, Bimal Bannerjee, Satyen Ghosh, Utpal Dutt
Duration: 01:13:43; Aspect Ratio: 1.333:1; Lightness: 0.374; Volume: 0.335; Cuts per Minute: 35.997; Words per Minute: 66.175
Release date: 13 November, 1970 (Globe, Radha, Purna)
The first of Sen’s Calcutta trilogy (Calcutta ’71, 1972; Padatik, 1973) marking the director’s turn to a more explicitly political address. While the overt symbols of colonial rule are being dismantled, the internalised residues of colonialism still blight the country, as Ranjit (Mullick) finds out when he cannot get a middle-class job because he cannot get hold of his only suit. The narrative structure is humorous and episodic as the mishaps and frustrations accummulate within one dawn-to- dusk period until the protagonist rebels and destroys a genteel, Western-looking mannequin in a shop window, the symbol of aspirations out of touch with actuality. Inspired by Brecht’s approach to the theatre, Sen includes newsreels and an argument between the protagonist and a voice representing the audience, inviting the viewer to adopt the stance of a critical interlocutor. Not to be confused with Sasikumar’s Malayalam titillation melodrama Interview (1973).
'Interview', based on a short story by Ashish Burman, is the first film of the famed Calcutta Trilogy which is synonymous with much of Mrinal Sen's career as a political film-maker. The technical innovations and ideological compulsions that one had begun to identify in both 'Akash Kusum' and 'Bhuvan Shome', come together in the Trilogy, framed by Sen's often harsh and unrelenting exploration of urban life, middle- class moral economy and hypocrisy, and the specter of neo-colonialism in the politically restless climate of the late 1960s and early 1970s. Consequently, the city of Calcutta, a city that is entirely colonial and is trying to survive after the fall of colonialism, is major motif in the Trilogy, both as a context and almost as a character. The famous opening sequence of 'Interview' is an independent sequence, a kind of a starter. It presented the decolonizing drive in the city by uprooting the imperial icons from the streets and parks. The film contrasts this with the rampant neo-colonialism that has seeped into every aspect of life and psyche of the Bengali middle-class. In fact, much of the focus of the Trilogy is the Bengali middle-class. Much of Sen's criticism and satire and a lot of his ideological and political hope is trained on the middle-class, so much so, that a large portion of the criticism that the Trilogy originally faced was regarding Sen's attempts to posit the middle-class as the site and source of the class-struggle and revolution that he keeps referring to in the Trilogy.
Karuna Bandyopadhyay, iconic in Bengali cinema as Satyajit Ray's Sarbajaya in the Apu Trilogy. All the characters in the film go by their real names, and most with their real identities, in a curious verité style of filming that Sen adopts heavily in the Trilogy. Sen, an iconoclast in many ways in the realm of Bengali cinema of his time, has constantly referred to his disdain for Western auteur theory and has instead talked about influences and citations. These are apparent throughout the film. The first site of this iconoclasm is the narrative, which is rendered threadbare in the film. The entire narrative is one of aspiration: a young man aspires to get a lucrative job in a multinational company and seeks to move up the social ladder to prosperity. The dialogue between the mother and son has curious resonances with a similar dialogue between the protagonist and his mother in 'Akash Kusum' where they dream of a better future away from their present. This notion of citation, both from external sources as well as from his own cinematic past, is a defining feature of Mrinal Sen's cinema. For his dream to be fulfilled the young man needs a suit, which forms the site of the narrative conflict. As Sen himself admits in his memoirs: "The screenplay, as I called it, was stuffed with bits of empty spaces – such as, fish market, hair-cutting shop, trams and buses, police station and a multinational company’s conference room. Such spaces as these would have to be filled in by the real people – commoners, policemen and big bosses. They would be doing more of behaving and much less of acting and speaking their lines, mostly their own. The protagonist would walk into the scenes all the time." [Excerpts from ‘Always Being Born: Mrinal Sen, A Memoir’, Stellar Publishers Pvt Ltd., 2004]
Sekhar Chattopadhyay, a renowned theatre actor of Bengal, who had previously acted in 'Bhuvan Shome'. His character foregrounds the interplay of middle-class sensibilities and neo-colonialism that Sen seeks to critique in the film. He is a officer in a multi-national company where Ranjit seeks a job. Throughout the film, in the few scenes he appears in, he stands for this aspiration of social mobility. At the same time, his advice, regarding Ranjit's hair and clothes, the need to 'look' the best for the foreign/anglicized officials of the company regardless of merit, underlines the harsh criticism of the neo-colonialism that had come to shape the everyday hopes, desires and fears of the Bengali middle-class. The constant references to becoming 'smart' and becoming a 'sahib' foreground the limits of such a world-view.
Another aspect of the iconoclasm and new cinematic language that Sen is attempting in 'Interview' has a lot to do with rethinking the existing narrative codes and ways of editing and mise-en-scene. References to the history of cinema (for example, the reference to Phalke in the magazine Ranjit is reading at the barbershop) are recurrent in Sen's oeuvre (such references go as far back as Sen's second film 'Neel Akasher Nichey' to more explicit references to cine-workers' strikes in 'Bhuvan Shome'), especially when what Sen is attempting here is another form of cinema, seeped in the socio-political realities of the time and a pioneer effort in its own right. The scene at the barbershop demonstrates this clearly: the rapid cuts, the staccato music, the seemingly erratic editing underline the protagonist's impatience as he waits for a haircut.
Editing was an integral part of this new cinematic language, something we have seen already in Sen's innovations in 'Bhuvan Shome'. In fact, the appearance of frenzy and the erratic nature of the some scenes in this phase of films owe much to carefully planned and perfectly rhythmic editing. Much like 'Akash Kusum', a lot of the criticism leveled at Sen's cinematic language has to do with his excessive use of technology - freezes, mask shots, erratic editing, superimposition - in a synthesis of techniques of the Nouvelle Vague and the ideology of Brechtian epic theatre that sought to break narrative logic, coherence and assert the inherently illusory nature of what is being seen. Sen has remarked about 'Interview': "And within the format provided by the subject, I made full use of the fact that cinema was a continuously growing phenomenon – a hybrid art, thriving on cross-fertilization. I went wild. I released everything that was maddening, restless, nervous, vibrant, buoyant, and even flippant, within me in a desperate bid to break the frontiers created and closely guarded by the conservatives. And I shall not deny that I did get carried away in the process, and even displayed a certain amount of infantile enthusiasm. In retrospect though, I wish I had avoided it." [Excerpts from, ‘An Uncertain Journey’, edited version of a paper read at NIAS, Bangalore, 1994 (From, ‘Montage – Mrinal Sen: Life, Politics, Cinema’, Seagull Books, Calcutta, 2002)]
Some of the most popular films of the year, Suchitra Sen starrer 'Megh Kalo', the mythological 'Dakshya Yajna' and Tapan Sinha's 'Sagina Mahato'. The latter is especially important, a story of a tea estate labour leader in the north eastern region of India during the British Raj, based on a story by Gour Kishor Ghosh.
One of the most iconic sequences in 'Interview' is perhaps the tram sequence, which, with sarcastic humour, lays out many of the novel technological aspects that defined New Cinema. The protagonist, Ranjit Mullick, breaks the fourth wall and directly addresses the viewer, informing them that this film is in fact a documentary where a young director (Mrinal Sen) is out to film his life for the day. Blurring the lines between narrative continuity, the documentary impulse, and Brechtian tropes of alienation, the scene ruptures the notion of pleasure and continuity that defines the industrial mode of representation exemplified by narrative cinema - unprecedented in Bengali cinema of the time. This coupled with a host of other associated allusions - shots of the cinematographer K. K. Mahajan shooting with the famous Arri IIC camera, a shot from 'Pather Panchali' when referring to Karuna Bandyopadhyay who plays the protagonist's mother in this quasi-fictional narrative, the confounded passenger who cannot understand whether this can at all be called a film at all, and the strike of the cine-employees association which was going on at the time.
A conscious technological break, Sen recollects about this narrative rupture in 'Interview': "Blending fact and fiction was not a big problem at all. To start with, as a first step, we used a simple ploy to lend credibility to the story. We named all the characters by their real names. As simple as that. Next step, and, indeed, a surer step, was to create a favourable condition when, in a running tram, Ranjit Mullick, the protagonist, introduced himself and, in the process, also presented the story in a nutshell. When he referred to his ‘mother’, he did not hesitate to disclose her real identity. To evidence the fact, we had a sharp cut to a short extract from Pather Panchali only to return to him in the running tram. From the beginning to the end of the film, all these and many more, even those seemingly extraneous, all coming and going in quick succession, were juxtaposed with utmost precision. Extreme care was taken to ensure that the rhythm in cutting was never disturbed." [‘Always Being Born: Mrinal Sen, A Memoir’, Stellar Publishers Pvt Ltd., 2004]
interview bus clip
Ranjit Mullick has established himself as a proof-reader at a local press in the previous sequence. Interestingly, he is editing an article about the split in the Communist Party of India in 1964, an event that not only has immense relevance for the political sensibilities of Mrinal Sen but also the political turmoil that would soon grip the city in the wake of the Naxalbari uprising; this would be explicitly evident in the next film of the trilogy, 'Calcutta 71'. The father's words are also portentous: the CPIM would soon come to power after the bloody Naxalbari years and rule in Bengal for 35 years. The call for rebellion and revolution is foregrounded by images of riots, violent protests and peasant and workers' strikes.
The critique of neo-colonialsim and its inextricable links to the moral economy of the Bengali middle class is explored by Sen through dark humour and sarcasm, much in the vein of his earlier films 'Akash Kusum' and 'Bhuvan Shome'. Ranjit's uncle has warned him of the necessaity of keeping up appearances, hence his quest for his suit. The strike called by the laundry workers' association posits a cataclysmic challenge - he does not have the most crucial component necessary for being selected for the lucrative job. The entire film, henceforth, is his quest for a suit to clinch the job and the series of unfortunate incidents that follow. With the suit as the primary source of dramatic conflict in the narrative, it humorously and ironically underlines the futile and superficial nature of middle class aspirations and their need for maintaining appearances, within the ambit of neo-colonial hegemony. This play on appearance and reality is a recurrent leitmotif in Sen's oeuvre.
Ranjit's relationship with Bulbul, a girl from an affluent family in his locality, mirrors the relationship between Ajay and Monika in 'Akash Kusum'. In fact, this is evident in both the writing and the way Bulbul's scenes are shot in the film. The pair have a conversation about hopes and aspirations regarding their future that Ranjit has earlier had with his mother (and, which in itself mirrored a similar sequence in 'Akash Kusum'). At the same time, much like Monika (Aparna Sen) in 'Akash Kusum', Bulbul here serves to embody the protagonist's dreams of happiness and success, the picture of quaint affluent domesticity they evoke in their conversation bearing testimony to that fact. While it might seem a hasty conclusion, Bulbul's character in the film, in all the scenes she appears in, serves only to foreground the aspirations that guide the protagonist of 'Interview', herself simply remaining an exemplar.
The shots of the mannequin are central to the narrative, building up to the explosive conclusion - the perfectly dressed mannequin as a symbol of aspirations out of touch with reality in a neo-colonial social formation built purely on appearances. This is coupled with the protagonist's search for this elusive and venerable object, almost akin to an odyssey, within the space of a single day. The city scenes of the film, constructed of the protagonist walking in and out of various spaces of the city of Calcutta, foreground this relentless quest.
Ranjit is perhaps emblematic of a state of being that Sen has set out to explore, a city beset with unemployment, vast discrepancies in the class and property relations, political unrest and violence, and a slowly disintegrating moral economy characterized by hypocrisy and cowardice. Another aspect of this urban malaise is Ranjit's friend, symbolic of the youth of the city without any prospects in this neo-colonial set-up, whose worth is measured in his educational qualification and his type-speed, and who will eventually rise in defiance against the order.
The capture of the pick-pocket in the bus, and the crowd's righteous fury is offset by the inept nature of the bureaucracy and the police in the immediately next scene. The capture of the thief, and the indignant and outraged reactions of the passengers is reminiscent of a similar scene from 'Akash Kusum'. The similarity extends to how this is a crucial moment for the protagonists in both these films. In 'Akash Kusum', Ajay's rescue of the thief from the mob also creates a scenario whereby he will eventually be recognized and all his lies will be revealed. In 'Interview', Ranjit's actions further add to the conflict that is the driving force of the narrative - in the ensuing confusion, he leaves the borrowed suit behind in the bus. It is to be noted that in the passage between 'Akash Kusum' and 'Interview', while the middle-class protagonist's reaction has undergone an immense change, the intrusion of the illegal remains a source of dramatic conflict.
The present copy of the film is missing the entire interview sequence which was shot in IBM, Calcutta. Instead, the discussion between Ranjit and his family cuts away to the scene immediately after the interview, shot in the Indian Museum where Ranjit had planned to meet with Bulbul in a previous scene. Ranjit is dressed in a traditional attire of dhoti and kurta which is what he had worn for the interview. The mood is one of general bonhomie (evident in how the city is shot in this particular sequence, replete with a classical upbeat background score), clearly suggesting Ranjit is convinced he has gotten the job, despite not having followed his uncle's brief about wearing a suit.
The dichotomy between the suit and the traditional attire, its effects, and the ensuing 'shame' - especially important is the figure of the benevolent uncle who had put him up for the job and who articulates the 'shame' Ranjit has brought upon everybody - foregrounds the way neo-colonialism functions in the urban space and the mindset that Mrinal Sen has set out to critique. This is also where the sarcasm and black humour that frames the narrative of 'Interview' is the sharpest, the critique of middle-class hypocrisies and notions of appearance at its most unsubtle and effective. The scene also marks a shift in the tone of the narrative from humour to that of dissent - the chaotic mix of images of urban life, poverty, suffering and protests, and the rapid and erratic editing, foregrounding a sense of defiance which sets up the final sequence of the film.
Much like the tram sequence from before, the narrative is yet again interrupted by the the forceful recognition of an other - in this case, the viewer. The sequence is largely a fantasy, though, given the non-linear and digressive nature of the film, that is not entirely ascertainable. Importantly, the influences of Bertold Brecht and his 'epic' or 'dialectical' theatre are most explicit here, though Brecht's influence on Sen has been variously recognized throughout the Calcutta trilogy. The argument between the protagonist and a voice representing the audience, inviting the viewer to adopt the stance of a critical interlocutor, foregrounds the tense relationship between form and aesthetics that defines Sen's work from this period. The argument, where the 'viewer' taunts and incites Ranjit, is both a Brechtian unveiling of the made nature of the film text while simultaneously adopting a critical and political stance regarding the aspirations and hopes of the middle-class. The dialogue, between Ranjit and the omniscient viewer, is both within and without the frame of the film, bringing into crisis traditional notions of framing and diegesis hitherto persistent in Bengali cinema. The humour and irony that has been the medium of critique thus far, gradually gives way to anger.
Final sequence of the mannequin
The shift in the tone of the narrative culminates in the first instance of the 'anger' that lies at the heart of the Calcutta trilogy. Ranjit, disillusioned and angry, chances upon the mannequin which has served as the symbol of neocolonialism and middle-class aspirations and in a fit of rage vandalizes it. This violence, an expression of dissent, paves the way for the need of a social revolution which would become central to Mrinal Sen's cinema in the 1970s. The sequence, explicitly citational in the way the images of strikes, revolts and violent uprisings across the world are juxtaposed and edited, is marked by the frenzy that defines the call for rebellion in Solanas's film 'The Hour of the Furnaces' - the latter film had an immense impact both on Sen's cinematic sensibilities in general and on the next film in the trilogy, 'Calcutta 71', in particular. Sen has variously termed this violence 'Quixotic' - idealistic, fantastic and impractical - to underline the incredible nature of the sequence. That fact and fantasy are not clearly demarcated in Sen's vision can be seen from how 'Calcutta 71' begins with the same character, Ranjit, being tried in court on charges of vandalism.