To celebrate the Film at Lincoln Center’s 50th anniversary, Film Comment asked contributors from different parts of the industry to write about a film that played at one of the institution’s festivals or series over the years that reflects its daring and forward-thinking approach to cinema. The following was my contribution to the collection, which appeared in Film Comment’s May-June 2019 issue:
EK DIN PRATIDIN / ONE DAY LIKE ANOTHER MRINAL SEN, 1980 NEW YORK FILM FESTIVAL
Mrinal Sen, the most radical of India’s parallel cinema pioneers, once said that his goal as a filmmaker was to “make things look unpretty, to keep the rough edges.” At first glance, his Ek Din Pratidin seems to belie that motto. Set over the course of a single night, the film captures the anguish of a lower-middle-class family when their sole breadwinner, a young woman named Chinu, doesn’t return home from work. From the chiaroscuro opening shot of a narrow Calcutta alleyway to the camera’s sinuous movements through the family’s crumbling tenant house, Sen directs the film with elegant, atmospheric precision, bereft of the formal and tonal affectations of his other features. And yet, his rough-edged social critique bristles under every frame. The fears of urban life are illustrated harrowingly when Chinu’s brother visits the morgue, checking corpse after corpse for his sister; meanwhile, judgmental whispers trickle through the thin walls of the tenant house, compounding the family’s anxious speculations about Chinu. Sen’s quiet chamber drama becomes an absurdist play of gendered ironies, where the only acceptable explanation for a woman’s truancy is death. Chinu finally returns late at night, but we never learn why she was gone. Sen indicts us with our own curiosity.