Film as Weapon: A study of Mrinal Sen’s Calcutta 71

“I wanted to interpret the restlessness, the turbulence of the period that is 1971 and what it is due to. I wanted to have a genesis. The anger has not suddenly fallen out of anywhere. It must have a beginning and an end. I wanted to try to find this genesis and in the process redefine our history. And in my mind this is extremely political. I found a continuing link in the film—a young man of 20, uncorrupted. He has lived this age of 20 for the last 1000 years or more. He has been passing through death and squalor and poverty. And for the past 1000 years or more he has bridged despair and frustration. For him the history of India is a continuous history not of synthesis but of poverty and exploitation…I took three or four stories of poverty: grinding, ruthless, unrelenting poverty, poverty that is not glamorous. We have always been trying to make poverty respectable, and dignified…You can find plenty of this in Bengali literature. As long as you present poverty as something dignified, the establishment will not be disturbed. The establishment will not act adversely as long as you describe poverty as something holy, something divine. What we wanted to do in CALCUTTA-71 was to define history, put it in its right perspective. We picked out the most vital aspect of our history and tried to show the physical side of hunger is the same. Over time, the physical look of hunger is the same. But there is a marked change in the people—their perception changes. In a way I call this the dialectics of hunger, the dialectics of poverty. How people move from resignation and from callousness to cynicism and being beaten-down, and anger and self-destruction… and finally to anger and violence which can become very creative in the process.”

Mrinal Sen interviewed by Udayan Gupta (1976) 

It is under the overarching steel frame of the Howrah Bridge, amid the routes of the sedate trams that plod through the crowded streets, and within the amphitheatres of sport and leisure that Mrinal Sen’s sentient gaze in Calcutta 71 situates the corollary of centuries of humiliation, exploitation, and oppression – the history of Calcutta’s impoverished working class. Collating together the political sentiments of the urban workers, the rural poor, and the dispossessed lower middle-classes, Calcutta 71 emerges as a chronological narrative that charts the evolution of class-consciousness. Here, this development is located within a wide range of historical and geographical settings: the disintegrating slums where the urban poor strive to maintain a semblance of dignity as depicted in the 1933 episode, the vacated houses of the rich in which the lower middle-class family live in the 1943 episode, and the migratory route of rice smugglers from the countryside to the city in the 1953 episode.  Though the separate episodes of Calcutta 71 are recounted in chronological order, they are distinctive in form and structure, and therefore defy the constraints of normative linearity. It is the very graduation of political consciousness necessary to overturn the existing order of post-colonial Indian society formed in the image of middle-class and elite interests that links them together.

Calcutta 71, Original Brochure designed by Abhijit Gupta
Calcutta 71, Original Brochure designed by Abhijit Gupta
Disembodied head of the martyr
Disembodied head of the martyr

In combination with the separate episodes and their distinctive plots, Sen uses a variety of techniques – depending heavily on collision editing where successive shots of the poor dying from starvation during the Bengal Famine of 1943, symbols of political parties (such as the Indian National Congress, Communist Party of India (M), and Communist Party of India (M-L), and stylised rock music are interspersed amongst the dialogues of the characters, most markedly perhaps in the fourth episode. In one particular instance, an upper-class young woman attending the politician’s party complains about the discomfort she underwent while collecting funds for Bangladeshi refugees on behalf of her organisation, she concludes with a laugh that afterwards they (the troupe of women engaged in the collection of funds) demanded that they each be offered a Kwality Wall’s ice-cream for their efforts. Immediately, the screen jumps to a tracking shot of bunker beds at a refugee camp where the starving either lie or sit huddled together, and the tempo of the background music from the rock band at the party soars coupled with the off-screen echo of the woman’s voice.[1]  This aforementioned example which illustrates the use of dialectic through the superimposition and interplay of contrasting scenes of poverty and prosperity is methodologically influenced by Eisenstein and Soviet Montage theory. In so far, the combined impact upon the viewer is that of the synthesis – where the hypocritical nature of elite philanthropic work is made visible. Through the lens of spatiality, the contrasting environs of elite philanthropy and the abject misery of the poor are at distinctive odds with each other, engendering a critique of social inequality that suggests it is enmeshed in the segregated geography of Calcutta. In this guise, the container of the filmic medium and the particularities of the visual techniques it offers can be read as the tools of a clandestine didacticism. The theatrical image of the assassinated revolutionary who appears in the final scenes serves to identify the dialectic, drawing from the collated experiences of misery that have been shown on film, a new experience, a gradual development of the revolutionary consciousness of anger.

Solanas and Getino had identified the role of revolutionary cinema as engaged in the transformative process by “providing thrust and rectification” not simply illustrating or reproducing images of a pre-existing situation.[2]  Along this vein, Sen’s film is as much a representation of the socio-political causes that contributed to the growth and popularity of the Naxalite movement in Calcutta as it is in itself a call for mobilisation vis-à-vis a didactic interpretation of these causal events. In the denouement, the revived revolutionary who had been declared dead in the first scene of the film speaks out to the audience, both the audience of the party which he has interrupted and the audience of the film. He recounts the circumstances of his death but does not reveal the names of his murderers and instead explains, “I want you to find out their names on your own. And on this search even though you may feel pain and sorrow, at the very least you won’t be able to indulge in idleness. Tell me, why are you all so idle, why so worriless, why so blind? As citizens of this nation do not you wish to avenge my death? Do not you feel anger or even guilt?”[3]  A collaged trajectory of the previous episodes are presented in brief clips, at the end the disembodied head of the revolutionary emerges again floating in a sea of darkness, he prophecies that “A language is evolving out of the depths of death, it is the language of protest – it asks ‘How much longer?’”[4]  The screen jumps to scenes of public demonstrations and the figurative presentation of a group of advancing soldiers who chase the revolutionary down the streets, and eventually murder him again. In this sense both the visuality and aurality of the medium of film are conducive in producing the sense of unease, a deep-seated instinctual and emotional response. This is not a practice in the art of escapism, the grit of reality is juxtaposed with the jarring nature of the fantastical – the man who speaks from the dead and the advancing masked men who represent the killing force of the Indian army – the result is an agitation of the audience that morally draws them within the revolution itself. The camera, as Solanas and Getino’s called it, had become an “inexhaustible expropriator of image-weapons” and the projector, “a gun that can shoot 24 frames per second.”[5]

[1] Calcutta 71 directed by Mrinal Sen (Calcutta: D. S. Productions, 1972)

[2] Getino and Solanas, “Toward a Third Cinema,” 6.

[3] Calcutta 71 directed by Mrinal Sen (Calcutta: D. S. Productions, 1972).

[4] Ibid.

[5] Getino and Solanas, 8.



In our Insecurity, by Pash


If the security of the land
calls for a life without conscience
To imagine a word other than ‘yes’ is an obscenity
And the mind bends low before the lecherous times
then the security of the land is a threat to us

If the security of the land means
that every strike crushed makes that peace stronger
Martyrdom is no more than death at the borders
Art blooms only at the palace window
Intellect only drives the waterwheel that irrigates the ruler’s crops
Labour is little more than a broom at the palace door
then the security of the land is a threat to us

Pash was the pseudonym of Naxalite poet Avtar Singh Sandhu, assassinated in 1988.