Emptiness and loneliness are recurring themes one would notice in Mrinal Sen‘s rich oeuvre of cinematic gems. But, in no other work of Sen, is this existential despair as piercing as in his penultimate film – Antareen. The 1993 film starring Dimple Kapadia and Anjan Dutt, despite winning the National Award for Best Feature Film in Bengali, continues to remain an overlooked gem from the Bengali master. Thanks to MUBI India, I had the fortune of discovering it more than a month ago, and having watched it twice already, I couldn’t resist the urge to spread the word. The film now sits comfortably in the ‘Spotlight on India’ section of the MUBI library, alongside two relatively more popular films of Mrinal da – Padatik and Ek Din Achanak.
Based on Manto’s story Badshahat Ka Khatimah, the film delves into the isolated lives of two strangers who develop a unique connection by talking over the phone. Anjan Dutt’s nameless character is a writer who has come to stay alone in a friend’s ancient mansion in Calcutta. The partly dilapidated mansion with its damaged walls and broken pillars evoke a sense of nostalgia; as though they were holding memories of the years gone by and the lives lived. It has been beautifully shot by Sashi Anand, who doubles as the music director, providing a very haunting and melancholic background score that lends the film tremendous depth. Dutt’s character is seeking inspiration to write from Rabindranath Tagore’s short story, Hungry Stones, in which the protagonist occupies a similar desolate palace, built centuries ago by the Mughals.
Dimple Kapadia essays the role of a lonely neglected housewife who randomly telephones strangers at night to momentarily escape her unbearable loneliness. She is more of a mistress to the man who married her as he stays with someone else. Caught in a prison of her own, one night she accidentally telephones the old mansion where Dutt’s character is staying alone. And, thus begins a virtual relationship between the two strangers, leading to several phone calls in the coming days. Her character’s predicament bears resemblance to the slave girl of Hungry Stones who has been bought by her master. Kapadia’s penetrative stare in front of the camera (which is a trademark in Sen’s movies) invites the viewer to confront the emptiness and helplessness of her character. What started off as an amusing engagement over the phone for Dutt’s character, gradually turns into sympathy and genuine concern for the lady. Will he end up ‘rescuing’ her or shy away from the situation and flee?
Towards the twilight of his career, Sen’s movies started focusing more on the inner turmoils of individuals rather than the mess in society.
If one has watched Mrinal Sen’s earlier masterpiece, Khandhar (1984) which is similarly themed in the ruins of the inner and outer world, the answer to the above question can be derived. Followers of Sen’s filmography must be aware of the contrasting phases in his career. His earlier films, especially the Calcutta trilogy, were charged with political statements and championed the need for change and revolution in society. Whereas, towards the twilight of his career, Sen’s movies started focusing more on the inner turmoils of individuals rather than the mess in society.
Could this change be attributed to the transformation in Sen’s world-view? The frustration of seeing the decadence of society and the failure of the Marxist movement might have led to him becoming increasingly resigned over the years. The journey from optimism to cynicism brings along loneliness and despair as companions. Perhaps, the lonely characters in his later films were reflecting the existential void he was experiencing in his personal life. Whether or not this speculation holds true, one thing is certain that the legendary filmmaker has left a huge void in World Cinema that cannot be filled.
Disclaimer: This article has not been written by Film Companion’s editorial team.