Case Reopened: Mrinal Sens The Case Is Closed
By Robert J. Cardullo
Mrinal Sen made around 30 feature-length films (together with a number of shorts and documentaries), although only a few of them have been shown in the United States and none until the American premiere of The Case Is Closed (1982) in 1984. Inarguably, the delay in Sen's US reception was an ill wind, but it may have blown a little good. That is because, even though his work is distinguished by the attention it pays to the lives of the underprivileged in India ("untouchables", pavement dwellers, servants), most of his films until around 1979 (until And Quiet Rolls the Dawn, that is, whose setting and theme resemble those of The Case Is Closed) were highly polemical; indeed, in the first part of his career, he could have been described as a utopian visionary of the fervently Marxist kind. His earlier films were so overtly or urgently political that they earned Sen a reputation as India's preeminent activist moviemaker.
I am glad, therefore, that The Case Is Closed arrived in the US first, for it is a watchful, implicative film for the most part, not a blatantly obtrusive, finger-pointing one. Like Sen's later pictures in general (he began his career in 1955, as did Satyajit Ray), and like the best films of the Italian neorealists (whom Marxists once attacked for describing the symptoms of social problems rather than probing their capitalist-generated causes), The Case Is Closed thus adopts a subdued tone that trusts the audience to draw its own conclusions from what it has seen which is one description of humanistic art as opposed to agit-prop, or agitational propaganda. This is not to say Sen's earlier films aren't worth seeing, just that they require the gentler introduction that works, like The Case Is Closed, The Kaleidoscope (1981) and The Ruins (1983), can provide.
Opening The Case
I saw The Case Is Closed again recently and would like to treat it here, not only because this film got very little coverage upon its initial release in the US, but also because it concerns the lot of marginalised children. The story, however, is not told from their point of view; the children in this instance happen to be first-time performers as well. Not so the adults, who are professionals, but, importantly where professionals are concerned, also actors whom this Bengali Indian director had worked with on other films in the past. Adapting his screenplay from a 1974 novel by Ramapada Chowdhury, Sen seems to have wanted to decrease the distance between his two primary adult actors and their roles between fiction and reality, as it were by substituting their own first names for the first names that Chowdhury gave to his characters. Moreover, the director includes himself in the equation, for he gives his last name to the family that this man and woman head.
Calcutta, during a cold spell in 1981, is the setting. Anjan and Mamata Sen are a modestly comfortable couple with a small, lovable son. Because both parents are busy working and their child needs care, they do what many of their friends do: they engage a boy of 11 or 12, a country boy from a poor family, to live with them as a servant and babysitter. (The youngster's father turns him over to the couple reluctantly, with great tenderness.) But because the Calcutta winter lasts only two months, the Sens do not buy warmer clothes for their domestic helper, and he is directed to sleep in a damp, unheated cubbyhole under a stairwell. One night, it's so cold that the boy goes to sleep in the kitchen, which is windowless and has a small, coal-fired stove that is still burning. Ignorant of the perils of sleeping in such a space without proper ventilation, he dies of carbon-monoxide poisoning in a room, furthermore, that is mysteriously locked from the inside.
This is the pivotal event in The Case Is Closed, and it happens early. We then follow the effect of the boy's death on the people concerned, and it's like following a laboratory dye as it filters through tissues staining each one of them differently. No one is criminally to blame for the houseboy's asphyxiation, which was accidental, but different sorts of blame, of guilt, are underscored by it. The film touches, for example, on the economic conditions that made it necessary for a peasant father to lease out his son (contrasted with the Sens' pampering of their own young son), and also on the way the police treat the bereaved family more with bureaucratic regulation than human sympathy. Indeed, it is only when the deceased youth's father comes to the Sens' house to collect his son's monthly salary that he receives the shattering news of the boy's death. And not from his employers, but (in an added twinge) from another small boy who has the same job, in the apartment upstairs, as the lad who died, and who hovers outside doors and windows, watching and listening, and contemplating what might have been his fate.
But the real focus of The Case Is Closed is on Anjan and Mamata, whose initial reaction to what has happened is one of surprise and fear. It had not occurred to them, you see, that their servant's life was uncomfortable or that his living requirements were in any way similar to their own. Their fears increase after the family comes to claim the body, for the police are conducting a post-mortem and may, with the urging of the boy's parents, bring charges of negligence against the Sens. Added to their dilemma is the fact that crowds of inquisitive neighbours have got wind of the incident and, seeking news about the "crime", have converged on the couple's residence in footage that has a documentary air about it. Moreover, when the husband finally consults a lawyer, this man quickly exposes the falsity of Anjan's claim that he treated the servant boy just like one of his family members.
Under the pressure of their secret guilt, the Sens even curry favour with the father of the deceased, offering to let him spend the night in their home, in a nice bed with a thick mattress and warm quilts. But the grieving man's sentiments prevent him from availing himself of such a luxury, and he says he wants to sleep in the kitchen where his son slept and died. After obtaining the boy's body and taking it to a burning ghat (a flight of steps leading down to a body of water, in this case Calcutta's Hooghly River) for cremation, the hapless father, who is anything but litigious or vindictive, actually goes so far as to ask permission from the Sens to return to his native village. So Anjan and Mamata do indeed escape prosecution, but, despite their self-protection tinged with aggressive defence, they have not escaped their own misgivings about the conditions under which they made their young servant live and work. And those growing misgivings give The Case Is Closed its quiet, steady momentum until, in the end, the real closing of the case occurs with the uneasy closing of the Sen family circle, or one lone clan, against the world.
Only once does Mrinal Sen let his former polemical self intrude on this understated film: when the dead boy's relatives huddle around a fire in the street, waiting for morning and the chance to claim the body, the flames light up revolutionary graffiti on the wall behind them. Related to this, only a few times does Sen let cinema-consciousness obtrude: he uses several freeze frames in a picture that does not require such italicisation, and occasionally he lets the sound of the next scene begin under the current scene a device that can be subtly used to suggest a continuous or eternal present, but which here, where the agonising present speaks for itself, is merely distracting. For the most part in The Case Is Closed, Sen achieves one sort of film purity: we are simply present at an inquiry, with no sense of tortuous manipulation or easy irony through angles, editing, composition or musical score.
The cinematic style, then, is "no style", or "styleless style", a via negative that does not in any way pressure us to admire the director. To make a film in such a manner requires more experience than one would think and not just of filmmaking. One further example: the cinematography by K.K. Mahajan (19442007), who had also worked with Sen before. Mahajan's palette is controlled to make every unquestionably real object before our eyes a chair, a table, a bed look almost (therefore unobtrusively) as if it were a cut-out, as if we were watching a realistic morality play unfold (as it would have done during the medieval period) on something less than a realistic stage. The effect is not to make us discount setting and environment in the creation of this drama, in their influence on Anjan and Mamata as well as the dead boy's family. Instead, it is to disattach the central characters of the film from their immediate setting invisibly, as it were (rather than crudely or forcibly to do so through rack focusing) in the way only extreme grief, fear and guilt can subjectively do. The effect of this cinematography is additionally, and ingeniously, to make The Case Is Closed linger in our minds or return to our senses, because all during its screening, it has required us imaginatively, visually, morally, judicially to complete it, to join the foreground to the background and hence to a higher plane.
The principal actors, guided by Sen of course, heighten our added feeling of espionage on, and involvement with, the confidentiality of their performances. This is a kind of acting that precludes display and is thus easily underrated as mere "behaving", which it decidedly is not. There's a close parallel between the acting here and the look of the film itself: the actor needs skill enough skill to ignore skill, to concentrate on congruence with character, on permitting us to peep and eavesdrop and participate rather than to project at us. Mamata Shankar (niece of the sitarist Ravi Shankar) and Anjan Dutt have that skill, as do even the two first-time actors who play the servant boys. (Dehapratim Das Gupta plays Hari, the domestic helper in the upstairs apartment, but, in an irony that bespeaks his character's status, the name of the Sens' houseboy has not been available to me, and I don't recall that his character's first or last name was ever used in the film.)
At the time The Case Is Closed was made, Shankar had played in three previous Sen films, while Dutt played the lead in the picture Sen made just before this one (The Kaleidoscope). Shankar is primarily a dancer, which means that, in a compelling paradox, she gives Mamata a consummate, external grace that is belied by her extreme inner torment. Dutt, for his part, has had theatre experience (and has in fact performed in Europe), which means that he knows how to turn his seemingly continuous onscreen presence into a prolonged journey into the interior, just as longer and longer acquaintance with a person in life not only tells us more about him but often alters what we thought we knew about him. In summary, in this film it takes two fine performers from other media dance and theatre to prove something about the cinema that is rarely paid attention: its superior ability to explore human interiority, the intimacies of the heart and mind, the internal growth or change of a character over time.
Closing A Portrait
Subsequent to my re-screening of The Case Is Closed, I made it a point to see Ten Days in Calcutta: A Portrait of Mrinal Sen (1984), a documentary by the German director Reinhard Hauff. (Sen and Hauff converse in English.) It's a fascinating portrait of Sen, of a career dedicated to personal, compassionate, concerned filmmaking, of a man working through the years with a small group of colleagues in modest quarters so as to deal cinematically with his world to put that world on film in a way that he envisions it, without the interference of those who would make only money from the movies. At one point in the documentary, Sen takes Hauff through Calcutta and reveals how this brawling and impoverished, yet vital, city has nourished him. The place and the people come first, in other words, not the fiction and the finance, which is one way of distinguishing the indigenous neorealist cinema of any decade from the global, retro-formalist or fantasist imposture that ever in the name of "progressive" art, on the one hand, or entertainment as a "growth" industry, on the other would colonise it.
One of the arguments against tragedy is that it supports the politico-economic status quo, supports the classical view of the world: the view that, in the instance of The Case Is Closed, the social problem of indentured children in underdeveloped countries cannot be solved because it is a product of circumstances beyond our control, we must resign ourselves to this fact, and all we can do is confer, through art, a measure of tragic dignity on the children, like the boy in Sen's film, who suffer. Those who prefer the social documentary to the social-problem film endorse this argument against tragedy; those who are less doctrinaire, like Mrinal Sen and this critic, recognise the validity of both forms.QLRS Vol. 19 No. 2 Apr 2020