Director: Mrinal Sen; Writer: Mrinal Sen; Producer: Dhiresh Kumar Chakraborty; Cinematographer: K.K. Mahajan; Editor: Gangadhar Naskar; Cast: Anjan Dutt, Geeta Sen, Utpal Dutt, Debapratim Dasgupta, Jyoti Chatterjee, Kaushik Sen
Duration: 01:25:43; Aspect Ratio: 1.222:1; Hue: 12.811; Saturation: 0.143; Lightness: 0.383; Volume: 0.211; Cuts per Minute: 13.006; Words per Minute: 51.207
Summary: The lower-middle-class Calcutta milieu critically examined in Ek Din Pratidin (1979) here becomes the setting for an affectionate comedy with a sting in the tail. A talented young writer, Dipu (A. Dutt), is asked by a newspaper editor (U. Dutt) to write in two days a short story about everyday life. Dipu starts enthusiastically but each situation he addresses appears to have ramifications too wide to deal with in a short impressionistic sketch. He wants to write about families living in overcrowded apartment blocks using coal stoves for cooking because they cannot afford gas. This means the small rooms are constantly filled with smoke. At one point, Dipu’s little brother innocently asks: ‘How many coal stoves are there in the city?’ Dipu, despairing of his ability to deal with the subject in the format commissioned by the newspaper, has an angry wish fulfilment dream which he writes up and presents to the editor who prints the story suitably toned down. Sen returns to the same problem in his next film, Kharij (1982).
'Chaalchitra' ('The Kaleidoscope'; 1981) is the second film in the loosely-defined trilogy of the Bengali middle-class, comprising 'Ek Din Pratidin' before it and culminating in 'Kharij' the next year. Though not thematically or ideologically as well-defined as the famed Calcutta trilogy, all three films deal with the middle-class and its existence within the political and social turmoil in West Bengal during the 60s and 70s. Dealing primarily with man and society in the larger context of middle-class aspirations, hypocrisies and the socio-historical impact of colonialism on the psyche, the films owe much of their thematic lineage to the Calcutta trilogy (especially 'Interview') while attempting a micro-historical study of society (the daily struggles and experiences so deftly brought out both in 'Ek Din Pratidin') instead of the agit-prop aesthetics of the former films. The name is significant: much like a kaleidoscope, 'Chaalchitra' presents vignettes of the urban metropolis and the daily struggles of its people seeking to eke out a living by whatever means necessary.
A set of recurrent tropes from Sen's oeuvre are quite noticeable right at the outset. Since the focus is the urban middle-class, familiar signifiers reappear - the big dilapidated house, the dark and oppressive atmosphere of the mansion in ruins, the middle-class and their ability to assume appearances that are ultimately quite deceptive (the man dresses and undresses himself, moving back and forth between wealth and poverty). The tone is decidedly comic, a definite shift from the sense of tragedy and anxiety of 'Ek Din Pratidin' but not quite the biting satire of 'Kharij'.
The film is also replete with allusions to 'Interview'. The protagonist Dipu (Anjan Dutt) hopes to get a lucrative job and is consequently on a quest - the search for the perfect story like the perfect suit of 'Interview', on which his future depends. Thus the city, unlike the city which makes its presence felt mostly through suggestions and the soundtrack in 'Ek Din Pratidin' and 'Kharij', is again a major component of the diegetic space of 'Chaalchitra' like the films of the Calcutta trilogy. However, unlike 'Interview' where the suit is responsible for the protagonist coming face to face with the harsh realities of middle-class lives and the neo-colonial psyche, 'Chaalchitra' is a study of that pysche and its ramifications on a daily basis. There are very few moments of revelation and the editor (Utpal Dutt) helpfully sets the limits of the study - the stress on the 'middle-class milieu' or 'a big shopping centre' that constitutes its primary consumers, the mention of the word 'clan' to highlight the inherent narrowness of the structure, and the repeated emphasis on the need to be able 'to sell' to this class as they are the primary clientele (hence the need to dull the critique and the satire, to make the news item 'light').
Sen has remarked: 'In Chalchitra too I was aiming at man and society. As long as I was in the interiors, I could not get a society, for I scrupulously avoided anything that could be considered dramatic. While in Ek Din Pratidin and Kharij, I began with a big event and then dwell on that which is apparently non-essential, in an Ibsenian manner, in Chalchitra, I concentrate exclusively on the everyday happenings of a household from the very beginning. As a result, I could not touch the wider world from within the home, and I was compelled to step out. I could no longer be elliptical, as I was in the two other films. I do not know how far I have been able to integrate because several people, whose options I value and who have appreciated Ek Din Pratidin and Kharij, have had reservations about Chalchitra. I may have failed to integrate when I stepped out. The structural difference lies in the fact that in the two other films I limit myself to the interior of the household, and suggest the physical world and make comments on the relation between man and society by implication.' (‘Interview: 1982’, ‘Montage – Mrinal Sen: Life, Politics, Cinema’, Seagull Books, Calcutta, 2002)
Metro Cinema in Esplanade with a billboard of Christ on the cross, and the lines 'Father, forgive them...for they know not what they do.' Metro would be one of the main theatres where Sen's films would get wide release. In fact, 'Calcutta 71' was released only at Metro, and the shows used to be under police surveillance due to the large number of Naxal activists who would flock for the film.
The old North Calcutta house of the protagonist, shared by a number of tenants whose lives constantly intersect. The setting is fact quite similar to 'Ek Din Pratidin' which uses a similar house to establish a microcosm of the Bengali middle-class. In 'Chaalchitra' the action is not restricted to this microcosm but the frame of reference remains constant, bolstered by the presence of Gita Sen as Dipu's mother, much like her role in 'Ek Din Pratidin'. The interactions between the tenants, their daily fights and disagreements, their attempts to upstage each other, all of these constitute the insular world-view of the middle-class which is the focus of this phase of films. Thus, unlike 'Interview' or the previous spate of films, since the aim is to unearth a micro-history of the everyday, the focus is trained as much on the world within the dilapidated house as it is on the world outside. One striking example of the dramatic in the everyday - the kind of story he has been commissioned to find - is the cleaning of the slippery yard where each of the women try to outdo each other and end up, ironically, working together.
The Shyam Benegal film that the studio assistant refers to, being shot in Suri in Birbhum, is probably 'Aarohan' (1982), produced by the West Bengal Film Development Corporation, also starring Gita Sen.
The smoke is a recurrent leitmotif in 'Chaalchitra', repeatedly alluding to the everyday acts of self-deception that sustain the middle-class - aided by material comforts and dreams of class mobility. The son wishes to grab the lucrative job which will nonetheless also involve a sort of moral and intellectual elitism and the mother, consequently, is harboring dreams of replacing the more modest and economical coal oven with a petroleum gas connection. As it becomes clear towards the end, they would be the first family in the household to make the switch, thus, immediately elevating them in the class hierarchy. The fraught nature of these class antagonisms is foregrounded by the next sequence when a neighbour, an old woman, steals coal from their reserves deep in the night. While there is an obvious suggestion of this being a repeated offence, the need to preserve appearances and the class equations within the house do not allow confrontation even though Dipu would like to conveniently use the incident for his story. The smoke is a symbolic referent for the everyday attempts at rendering things obscure, be it class relations or a hypocritical moral code. In this context, it will be especially significant to also note the interactions between the household and the house beside it which is inhabited by an obviously more affluent and upper-class family - their problems with the smoke and the repeated cutaways to the images of the god-man adorning their walls suggestive of the obvious class differences between the two households. This trope of examining the class hierarchy of a single social unit to understand the nature of class in middle-class society in general, is a familar device for Mrinal Sen in this period, seen in 'Ek Din Pratidin' and 'Kharij'. 'Chaalchitra' in many ways is a 'dress rehearsal' of this phase of his cinema, as Sen himself has called it in his memoirs.
The market scenes, especially the fish market, are reminiscent of similar scenes from 'Interview'; a curious social space where infinite forms of class antagonisms come together. At the same time, along with the scenes of daily activities in the household throughout the film, these scenes constantly foreground the micro-historical nature of the narrative. In fact much of the narrative of 'Chaalchitra' is composed of the stories that the protagonist is out searching for - the coal stealing, the upper-class family dumping garbage on the courtyard as an act of revenge, the women being the primary actors in this social formation regardless of which tier of the class hierarchy they inhabit.
Dipu, throughout the film, constantly and petulantly demands that his mother provide him with the story he needs to write. His article needs to be a social document which the the public, nonetheless, must be able to 'swallow' (hence, the repeated references to news that is consumable and marketable).
The search for the cab, composed of the increasingly rapid cuts and jerky camera movements that serve to heighten the dramatic nature of the scene, unveils a nightmarish vision of the urban metropolis. The search is reminiscent of similar sequences of Ranjit Mullick walking through the streets of Calcutta as the city goes about its daily routine, uncaring and unaware.
We have previously discussed how the narrative is composed of the stories Dipu himself is after. Formally too, the film mimics this quest by constantly moving in and out of the house to the city outside and depicting apparently unconnected episodes of citylife. The episode with the palmist, along with the search for the cab from the previous scene, foreground Sen's thematic preoccupation with the changing nature of middle-class desires, aspirations and the consequent everyday struggle with maintaining appearances. On this, Sen has remarked: 'Chalchitra was a film in search of a film. So, I have gone into several situations trying to capture the humour, frivolity and frustrations of a city arising out of, for example, the problem of taking someone to a hospital, or through a glimpse of another world, the world of a good man forced to become a cheat, direct bearing on our central theme of a young man unknowingly changing his lifestyle. My young friend, filmmaker Buddhadev Dasgupta, asked me, ‘How does it matter to you or to society or, for that matter, even to me, if I buy for my wife a soap a little more expensive than the one she is used to? Do I do anything wrong?’ That is not the question.' (‘Interview: 1982’, ‘Montage – Mrinal Sen: Life, Politics, Cinema’, Seagull Books, Calcutta, 2002)
The younger brother's innocuous question regarding the number of coal ovens in Calcutta sets the stage for an analysis of class, wealth and social privileges. As discussed before, the smoke is used symbolically throughout the film to warn the young man of his gradually changing lifestyle and worldview that will inevitably further alienate him from the everyday realities of deprivation and poverty in society. These class antagonisms and the protagonist's journey through the various everyday manifestations of his own class are especially notable in the warlike interactions with the more affluent and upper-class house next-door (who probably do not use the coal oven at all). Sen has stated: 'I use the smoke in a certain context, as Gandhi used salt to fight against the British. Churchill asked the same question, ‘How does it matter to the British Empire if the half-naked fakir boils saline water on the Indian shore?’ But it mattered. As Churchill realized later. I use smoke in the same manner – in my own way, depending on my own experiences.' (‘Interview: 1982’, Interviewed and translated by Samik Bandyopadhyay, ‘Montage – Mrinal Sen: Life, Politics, Cinema’, Seagull Books, Calcutta, 2002)
Sen recalls an incident that apparently inspired the film: 'I do not accuse the young man. I only tell him, warn him, ‘You are changing your lifestyle, mind you.’ The theme came from an experience. A gentleman came to see me at home one day, with four or five children. I couldn’t place him in spite of my best efforts. He looked pretty old. He referred to my village, to my school, to people I had known, but I couldn’t place him. Finally, I realized that he had been in school with me, in Class Six, many many years ago. The children touched my feet, one after another, before the door. I asked them in, and I started playacting, and honestly, I still hadn’t recognized him. He told me about his life, but all that he was really interested in was to prove to his children that he had been in school with an ‘internationally famous film director,’ for that is how he described me repeatedly to them. I acted extremely warm and friendly towards him, offered them refreshments, introduced my wife to them, and chatted with him for over an hour, realizing all the while that his word and mine were entirely different. They were using a vocabulary, the man and his children, completely unknown to me. It was very frustrating and tiresome for me to continue the dialogue, but I had to do it. As he was leaving, I asked him to come again, silently cursing him for having wasted my time when I had been busy with work. The moment I shut the door upon them, I burst out, ‘The bastard! He had to waste my time.’ The moment I said it, I realized that the man must still be on the stairs, telling his children, ‘the man hasn’t changed a bit.’ The thought made me feel so small. I realized how, unknowingly, I was becoming less and less human. That gave me the emotional kick to make this film about how we change ourselves. To establish that, I had to bring different worlds together, bring in a lot of people, and relate the deception of the palmist to the self-deception of my protagonist. The spectator is required to make a cerebral effort, to make the necessary integration of the fragments I offer, and to build a story out of them.' (‘Interview: 1982’, Interviewed and translated by Samik Bandyopadhyay, ‘Montage – Mrinal Sen: Life, Politics, Cinema’, Seagull Books, Calcutta, 2002)
In a convenient turn of events, Dipu's dream, with all its allusions to class antagonisms and the economic aspects of middle-class society, is subsumed by a more generic discourse on pollution ('Smoke is a positive nuisance' as the senior publishing executive puts it). That Dipu is referred to as a Communist is more significant considering how his entire dream has been about his irrevocably changing lifestyle which will automatically elevate him within the class hierarchy of the social space he inhabits. The editor's final lines, though not explicitly stating what agreement the two eventually reach regarding the story, is clearly suggestive of the protagonist's struggle with his desire for a more affluent lifestyle.
With Dipu having gotten the lucrative job, the narrative comes a full circle when the mother's long-standing desire for the gas oven is fulfilled. We have previously discussed the importance of the gas oven in such a social unit, where everyday aspirations and desires are inextricably linked to class and prevalent notions of social mobility and comfort. As anticipated, their's is the first household to make the switch from the traditional coal oven and the entire sequence - with the other family watching in awe - foregrounds the slow but inexorable change that the middle-class goes through (as seen from the incident Sen recollects regarding what inspired him to make the film).