Director: Mrinal Sen; Writer: Mrinal Sen, Mohit Chattopadhyay, Golam Kuddus; Producer: Mrinal Sen; Cinematographer: K.K. Mahajan; Editor: Gangadhar Naskar; Cast: Utpal Dutt, Subhendu Chatterjee, Asit Bannerjee, Haradhan Bannerjee, Shekhar Chatterjee, Satya Bannerjee, Snighda Majumdar, Robi Ghosh, Rasaraj Chakraborty, Geeta Sen, Dilip Roy, Moon Moon Sen, Nirmal Ghosh
Duration: 01:53:41; Aspect Ratio: 1.333:1; Lightness: 0.387; Volume: 0.182; Cuts per Minute: 35.410
Summary: Starting out as a fantasy mythological with the gods, entrenched in their fortress, deciding to create 100 jobs, the film becomes an exemplary fairy tale when 30,000 applicants start queuing up for work. The fairy tale then becomes a didactic tragedy with realist sequences (media men interviewing individuals in the crowd of applicants) when the people realise the job scheme is grossly inadequate and popular discontent grows into a desire to storm the citadel. Freely mixing different styles and modes of storytelling including direct address to the camera, with the chorus both as narrator and as political agitator (R. Ghosh, who also plays god and the sutradhara), Sen continues exploring the possibilities of a cinematic narrative that would be both enlightening and emotionally involving without descending into authoritarian sloganising. Having gone as far in this direction as he could, Sen deploys the lessons of his experiments with complex and stylistically diverse cinematic idioms in his next feature, Mrigaya (1976).
Release date: 13 December, 1974 (Globe, Sree, Indira)
Among the list of people and institutions acknowledged in 'Chorus' the ones particularly striking are the three newspapers 'The Statesman', 'Satyayug', and 'Amrita Bazar Patrika': The three had been exceptionally vocal in their criticism of Sen's agit-prop aesthetics in the Calcutta trilogy. In many ways it ironically foregrounds the curious nature of the film 'Chorus' as a continuation of the concerns of the trilogy, an invisible fourth, while at the same time moving away from the stark realism of the former films in favour of a satirical allegory. 'Chorus' serves to tie the various threads unraveled in the trilogy through a wistful narrative of a proletariat revolution, a curious retelling of the classic socialist dream of a revolution. The film, though commercially unsuccessful, won three National Awards that year including Best Film, the most recognition among all four of the Calcutta films.
The element of fantasy is heightened by the choric episodes featuring actor Rabi Ghosh in a cameo. The musical interludes, exclusively under the aegis of Manna Dey, appear thrice and reinforce the history of poverty, oppression and violence that has been central to the trilogy. At the same time, the choric episodes comment on the events coming to pass, introducing the fantastical aspects of the city that has been constructed to symbolize the seat of the ruling class. The song being sung is satirical, comparing the ruling class to the living gods who dictate everything on earth through their power of wealth - the eulogy foregrounding the critique of oppression and inequality.
Elaborate sets by Khaled Chowdhury create the illusion of a timeless, feudal oligarchy, dispensing with gifts and punishment at leisure. But the fantasy is repeatedly ruptured by the three separate episodes within the main framework, and the still photos of the Bengal Famine, street violence, the oppressed and the destitute, and even from Mrinal Sen's own films, constantly bringing the focus back to the real/political.
The film is a mix of the fantastic (the constructed set of the fictional metropolis) and the real (episodes shot on location that form the rest of the narrative). About the conception film, Mrinal Sen recollects: 'That was in early 1974, when, one day, on my way to Reserve Bank of India during the peak hour, I was struck with an unusual spectacle. An unending, serpentine line of men and women, young and not so young, were waiting patiently, unmoved. It was a huge queue, the like of which I did not see before. I forgot about my appointment at the bank and walked along the huge line of countless people, watching them, talking to them. I gathered they came from various districts to buy forms to apply for jobs. Jobs were just a few. I set aside my personal work and rushed to a friend of mine, Mohit Chattopadhyay – a college teacher and an eminent playwright, specializing in the theatre of the absurd. I told him about the spectacle and asked him, if he could collaborate with me on my next scrip. It could be a huge crowd of thirty thousand or the double of the number or more waiting for days for application forms to be collected from a particular counter of a well-protected fortress. Buying forms from a single counter or two, and depositing the same, Law and Order remaining dreadfully active all the time. And the situation could eventually come to such a pass that the applicants would turn violent and attack the impregnable fortress. The “Chairman” of the fortress would declare Emergency. Mohit Chattopadhyay gladly accepted my offer and we two began to work on a satirical fantasy and called it Chorus.' - (Always Being Born: Mrinal Sen, A Memoir’, Stellar Publishers Pvt Ltd., 2004)
Subhendu Chatterjee, who plays the journalist covering the story of the 30,000 applicants, had previously acted in Mrinal Sen's 'Akash Kusum' (1965). The media interviewing applicants in queues would be a common sight; the inclusion of the same in the fictional metropolis asserts the interchangeable nature of the real and the fantastic. Besides, the journalist often aims his camera directly at the screen and the viewer, seemingly bringing the viewer too within the purview of its gaze. Mrinal Sen's relationship with the media had been decidedly fraught during the late 60s and early 70s, with a section of the media against his starkly propagandist fare. The image of the journalist as the passive agent only taking photographs when a riot breaks out is of course laden with ethical conundrums.
The incompetence of the police, except in matters of violence, had previously been ironically depicted in 'Interview' when Ranjit Mullick is detained at the police station after having caught a thief in the bus. Here, the crowd heckles and jeers at the police who are guarding the gates.
The young journalist is clearly the one wishing to document this growing unrest; his interview with the young woman setting up one of the three mini-narratives that constitute the body of 'Chorus'. The old mother, through whom the film breaks away from the undefinable surveillance-city of the first scenes to the recognizable streets of Calcutta, is played by Mrinal Sen's wife Gita Sen. By shifting back and forth between fantasy and reality, the narrative continuously seeks to destabilize a fixed adherence to genre codes - though all the while maintaining the central critique of poverty, oppression and the establishment.
Satya Bandyopadhyay, previously seen in the 1933 episode of 'Calcutta 71', was a renowned theatre actor of the time and a close associate of Sen. He would again be seen in 'Ek Din Pratidin' (1979), one of the most important films of the post-Naxal phase of Mrinal Sen's career. He is a representative of the middle-class, who are agitated and are becoming prone to violence, but will shirk away when faced with a choice - he recoils when the reporter insists he speak more. The young man, whose journey by train is seen via the split-screen, is the protagonist of the first mini-episode that begins immediately after the sequence.
The first episode concerns the young man seen in the previous scene. He is clearly from a peasant background; the first in the family seeking some way of mobility outside the rural. The one definitive instance of the rural and their possible role in the revolution had been the rice-smuggling episode from 'Calcutta 71'. Otherwise, the rural does not really factor within the matrix of the social revolution Sen has called for in the Calcutta trilogy; the lens has been trained firmly upon the middle class. In cloaking the propagandist tone in the garb of a satirical fantasy, Sen also develops a wistful narrative where the oppressed rural society will join the proletariat revolution. Interestingly, rice, and consequently, hunger, are defining factors in this episode much like the one in 'Calcutta 71'. In the latter, it was a way of survival and assertion of rights, while here it is tool of oppression used by the village landlord who hoards it, depriving countless others.
Antud (antur) rituals related to the perceived impurity of a Hindu woman after childbirth. The new mother is confined to a secluded room or 'antud ghar' for a few days. During this time she is not allowed to do any household work. Apart from one or two family members, no one else is permitted to enter her room. The period of impurity differs according to the sex of the child and the caste of the mother. Consequently, the officials here avoid searching the 'antur' where Mondal's daughter is nursing her newborn daughter.
Hunger is inextricable from anger and violence in Mrinal Sen's cinematic world; we have seen striking examples of this in 'Baishey Shraban' (1960). The old man's reaction here to the absence of rice is reminiscent of the famine episodes of the latter film and the interactions between Gyanesh Mukherjee and Madhabi Mukherjee. In fact, the conditions, historically separate as they may be, are strikingly comparable - here too, hoarding of grains by a select few (Mondal in this case) has worsened the living conditions of countless others in the village. The petty exchanges and abuses that the family members hurl at each other highlight the famine conditions and the gradual degradation they are facing, where everyday interactions are being jeopardised.
Chhana Mondal is the quintessential village landlord, the face of local oppression and exploitation, congenial, polite to a fault, but vicious otherwise. The accusations of corruption leveled at him are interestingly voiced by an unseen narrator - simulating the voice of a peasant. The device, seen famously in 'Interview', is meant to break the narrative coherence by seemingly moving across the fourth wall and setting itself up as a critical interlocutor seeking answers and explanations.
Chhana Mondal, as it has become quite clear, constantly evokes ideas of labour, wage, duty and rights in order to justify his exploitation of the villagers around him. He does it with the young applicant (the father seen in the previous scene has passed away) and with the labourers who work for him.
It is amply clear that not only is Mondal a hoarder, he is also a rice-smuggler. This is also reflected in his paranoia about being kept under watch by the villagers; his fears stem from his own anxiety about getting caught. At the same time, he also attempts to implicate other people in the nexus; he has just asked the boy to go 'underground' in the previous scene, a none too subtle way of dragging him into the business. The scene in the granary mimics this very suggestion; the boy crumbling under pressure and descending underground, both literally and figuratively. The descent is also marked by a change in his class position vis-a-vis the other man - he willingly accepts servitude in order to survive and starts calling Mondal 'babu' or 'master'. The new 'master', in turn, more firmly in control of the village economy now more than ever before, can move further up the class ladder and is shown entering the realm of representative politics.
The second episode, moving away from the village, is set more firmly in the domain of labour unions and the workers' struggle in the urban areas. Shekhar Chattopadhyay plays Radharam Mukherjee, the factory worker who has gone against his union and its policies and has entered into an agreement with the factory-owners - an act of betrayal for his co-workers, it also highlights the notion of sectarianism within ideologies that is central to Sen's films of this period. The effects of this act on the man are quite evident; his guilt and anger have driven him to alcohol and a constant tense atmosphere pervades his home. He struggles to hold on to the sense of power that he feels entitled to; this is jeopardised by the disconnect that is evident at home (his wife has gone into labour and has been summarily packed off to the hospital). The marching song he sings when drunk is rendered heavy with tragic irony.
The workers' strike and procession is grounded by the invocation of three distinct social entities - the peasant, the labourer and the middle-class - as the most important units that must come and work together if the revolution is to be successful. Interestingly, as we have mentioned before, for Sen the focus has hitherto been primarily on the middle-class. Thus, the inclusion of the labour and the trade union and the peasant movements (though, references to peasant movements as popular forms of dissent have a precedence in Mrinal Sen right back to his films in the 60s) in this matrix strengthens the dream of a social revolution that the narrative is circumscribed by.
The women of the village wishing the labourers well by blowing on conches, the mad man who wishes to join the band of rebel-workers in order to walk, sing and fight with them, the commune of labourers where they organise and mobilise, the local farmers who have been waiting by the road to feed the protesters - these images foreground the revolutionary nature of the march and its aims. At the same time, it must be remembered that the entire episode is an instance of a flashback - it is the two men from the previous scene who are remembering their shared history and ideas, before the betrayal by Mukherjee that has seemingly jeopardised their entire movement.
The squabbling and fighting among the three unions in the same factory is what had originally propelled Mukherjee to abandon their rebellion and agree to the owners' terms. It brings into perspective the anxieties over the debilitating nature of sectarianism that has been a concern for Sen, especially coming across in 'Padatik'. The two protagonists have dealt differently with their concerns regarding sectarianism - while the guerrilla fighter in 'Padatik' had retreated from the movement for a while to reflect, decide and then rejoin with renewed vigor, Mukherjee has given up his hopes and has instead sought refuge in alcohol to hide his frustrations.
After the peasant and the factory-worker, the third and final episode brings the focus back to the urban middle-class, facing similar problems of poverty and social inequality. The family in focus is comprised solely of three women which further adds the dimension of gender and sexual violence to the mix, complicating the nature of oppression. It must be noted here that all three episodes have protagonists (the peasant boy, the young woman) or those related to the protagonists (the factory worker's son in the second) that have previously been seen in the queue of applicants in front of the fictional metropolis, simultaneously obscuring the boundaries between fact and fiction. Two sets of voices are heard: the first, a couple fight in the neighborhood over money, and the second, a group of drunk ruffians outside singing the song 'Hum Tum' from Raj Kapoor's 'Bobby' (1973).
Interruptive texts on screen, newspaper reports or words like 'violence', 'poverty', 'unemployment', etc., had been used famously in Fernando Solanas's 'The Hour of the Furnaces' (1968) which, as discussed in the context of the trilogy, had been an aesthetically and politically definitive film for Mrinal Sen.
The middle-class and their attempts to maintain appearances have been remarkably shown in the 1943 section of 'Calcutta 71'. Here, the freak accident that destroys all their hopes and dreams about employment and social mobility, immediately gives rise to a crisis situation where appearances become difficult to maintain. The mother has worked as a cook thus far and this had been something she had attempted to hide from the girls. More than the shame, it is her inability to provide enough for her family that comes to the forefront here, articulated through the age-old notions of sin and its wages. It must be noted that the desire to explain poverty and oppression as outcomes or consequences of past sin are particularly potent ways of obfuscating histories of deprivation and inequality.
The second choric episode, serving two distinct functions - to bring the narrative back to the thirty thousand applicants outside the unreal metropolis, and also to comment on the three episodes and their shared histories of oppression and poverty. While the first song had been in the form of a 'kirtan', the second one is a hymn addressed to a Sufi pir.
The exact point when the revolution starts is never made explicit; instead, the series of phone calls, the gradually shortening shots giving way to freeze frames of the terrified officials, the police van with the ominous skull-and-bones insignia, heighten the sense of impending turmoil. It is further ironic that the first phone calls start at a time when the officials are discussing the correct screening process to bring the number down to a hundred from the massive list of 30,000 candidates. The dismissive way in which they are termed as unproductive labour is undercut by visible change in mood when the first phone call arrives - it immediately inspires anxious comparisons between society and a volcano about to explode. The mention of the police reports is significant. It is indicative of the sense of surveillance during the political turmoil of the late 60s and early 70s in Calcutta - a 'clean' police report would absolve someone of the danger of being taken for a Naxalite.
The verbal reportage of the uprising continues in the next scenes, increasing the sense of dread. As the officials sit and plan strategies (in a startlingly revealing moment, the officer calls for the production of 'terror' in order to scare dissenters into submission), news begins to trickle in of the increasing threat of the 30, 000. Interestingly, the proletariat, here comprising of the 30,000 applicants, are being imagined as a single cohesive unit, the 30, 000 beginning to be used as a short-hand for the revolutionary consciousness. The imaginary city has been associated with a culture of surveillance right from the outset - symbolised by the ever-circling radar on the ramparts. The full import of this culture of surveillance is revealed in the way the corporation/administration seeks to contain the threat of revolution. The steps suggested further reveal the anxiety and fear that have taken hold of the ruling-class, compounded by the arrival of the 30,000 at the gates.
Fact and fiction are further blurred when the scene shifts from the unknown surveillance metropolis to the recognisable spaces of the city of Calcutta. The mythical 30,000 have infiltrated the body social of the 'real' city, their banners and posters asserting the approach of a moment of crisis. This sense of crisis is further strengthened by the reporter who is going around systematically documenting and recording every moment of the upsurge.
An iconic moment from the film where the leaflets of the 30,000 are airdropped onto the city. The sequence comprises of parallel shots of both the real and the unreal city, and was shot from the top of a high-rise.
The revolutionary call seeks to bridge the proverbial country and city divide by calling the farmers, middle class and labourers into action against the oligarchy.
The radio broadcast depicting the revolution as a passing 'fancy' is undercut by the familiar image of the young Naxal, seen in 'Calcutta 71'. It immediately grounds the allegory within the matrix of the radical left uprising that rocked the city during the late 60s and early 70s, and which had been similarly dismissed. The series of scenes of people hearing the same broadcast foregrounds the rapidly spreading roots of the movement, despite the obvious attempts at discrediting and suppression.
Much like the actual socio-political scenario of the time, the immediate effects of the uprising comprise of arbitrary arrests, detainment and interrogation, in a bid to instill fear in the populace and especially among the 30,000 candidates.
An intriguing aspect of the 30,000 is that the people - the peasants, the labourers, the middle-class - who are rallying around the idea have assumed that it is in fact a single man who has made the entire upsurge possible; hence, the reverence and devotion for the Messianic figure. They mistake the reporter for the mysterious '30,000', assuming it to be a sign to march on to the city to claim their rights. The march of the dispossessed, one of the most iconic moments from the film, is marked by the quintessential workers' slogan: 'Land to the tillers'. The march itself is reminiscent of the images of many peasant strikes and marches that have been recurrent in Mrinal Sen's films.
The violence of the State, unleashed in order to suppress the uprising, is more suggestive than explicit. The strategies give way to a succession of sequences underlining the gradual production of terror, constantly drawing parallels between the uprising of the 30,000 and the Naxalbari Movement. The young activist attempting to evade capture, photographic stills of dead bodies, rebels killed by the police in the 70s in staged shoot-outs which are intercut with activists of the 30,000 shown lying dead - the blending of fact and fiction that Mrinal Sen had talked about hoping to achieve in the context of 'Interview', becomes the central narrative trope of 'Chorus'.
The final choric episode, with the bard/narrator having given up all attempts at soothsaying and/or reportage in favour of pure frivolity. The humour is bitterly sarcastic in face of the violence unleashed by the oligarchy to control the revolution.
The march of the proletariat in the end, where the 30, 000 are about to swell tenfold, assumes the garb of the carnivalesque, the spectacular - the guilty are punished, food and its rights are returned to the people, and there is complete breakdown of the bourgeois State machinery as the seat of power is abandoned. Mrinal Sen has remarked that he had wanted the end to be a 'collective fantasy' and 'collective emotion', a sort of popular chorus against forces of oppression. While one has constantly referred to the influence of Brechtian political theatre and the use of the theatrical for propaganda in Mrinal Sen, 'Chorus' is one of the most striking examples of Brecht's infleunce at play in its absurdist 'modern fantasy'. Right at the end of the sequence the march of the proletariat under the banner of the 30,000 is intercut with images and newsreel footages from actual strikes and processions; in the final minute or so, a chaotic juxtaposition of a series of images spliced together as the frenzy reaches a crescendo. Sen had regarded 'Chorus' as a 'cinematic experience', especially because of the wistful nature of the film, and the technical challenges associated with it. In fact, he recollects in his memoirs: 'One evening, an angry group came out of the city theatre and, identifying me at the foyer, rushed to me. They asked me if I could provide them with a subtitled print because the film was beyond their comprehension, the fantasy went over their heads. Such a reaction was not new to me, being so used to this encounter with sarcasm about my work. So, I took it all as part of the game. But I wondered why I kept in check a beautiful line, which Lindsay Anderson, the maker of the remarkable film, …If …had earlier told me. He asked me not to forget that “today’s fantasy would turn out to be tomorrow’s reality!” Lindsay was delightfully prophetic! So, I saw, here was my film, nowhere Lindsay Anderson’s. Countrywide Emergency was declared on June 26, 1975.' - (Always Being Born: Mrinal Sen, A Memoir’, Stellar Publishers Pvt Ltd., 2004)