Sumit (Dhritiman Chatterjee), an ideologue of an extremist left-wing party, escapes from police custody. Thanks to his party boss Nikhilda’s (Jocchon Dostidar) connections, he gets refuge in the high-rise apartment of Shilpi Mitra (Simi Garewal), a divorcee, who is a hot-shot executive in an advertising agency. Biman (Provash Sarkar) remains Sumit’s only contact with the outside world. Isolated in his comfortable refuge, Sumit begins to question the actions of his party and its consequences and also develops a friendship with her benefactress. Sumit sends a letter stating his misgivings and asks for an open dialogue. Sadly, his party bosses retain their hard line positions. Sumit is forced to leave his shelter. When he returns home he finds his mother has just passed away. His father (Bijon Bhattacharya) asks him not to worry about social niceties and flee his home in order to carry on with his struggle.
Padatik is the final film in Mrinal Sen’s Calcutta Trilogy, Interview (1970) and Calcutta ’71 (1972) being the other two, films which are deeply rooted in the social, cultural and political milieu of the city of Calcutta, and which the film’s prologue describes as ‘an intimidating and infernal city, unredeemed and probably doomed’, during the period. Employing innovative and often daring cinematic compositions Sen in these films attempts to chronicle and analyse those turbulent times within a broad Marxist ideological framework. These films also established Sen’s reputation as one of the most politically conscious and stylistically avant-garde filmmakers of the Indian New Cinema movement. Padatik, made in the time when the violent left-wing movement (Naxalism) was losing its steam under the tremendous onslaught of the Indian state and ideological dogfights among the various factions, is Sen’s cinematic critique of the excesses of the extreme left. The isolation of the extreme left is best portrayed at its sharpest in Padatik when a scene consisting of a montage of a political rally attended by a huge number of people is juxtaposed with a scene showing Nikhilda, the chief ideologue of the extremist party, working alone in a dingy underground press writing dense prose about the demerits of the bourgeois educational system. Even here Nikhilda behaves like a petty autocrat with the impoverished workers of the dilapidated press, thus betraying his failure to integrate with the working class despite his self-professed “identification with the proletariat.”
Padatik is a film with an extremely minimalist story-line. It uses the travails of the fugitive Sumit to string together a diverse range of cinematic elements, documentary and archival footage, still photographs, speeches of political leaders, newspaper clippings and text inserts to present the director’s critique of left excesses and its failures. This breaking down of emotional continuity and realistic representation is heavily influenced by the aesthetics of the German playwright Bertolt Brecht and the adaptation of the techniques of alienation in cinema by filmmakers most notably Jean Luc Godard. The influence of Godard in Padatik (and in the films Sen made in the late 1960s and early 1970s) extends not only in the overall narrative framework but also in the extensive use of hand-held camera, on location shooting and freeze frames and text inserts, all of which hinder the build-up of melodrama and force the audience to get involved not with the characters but with the polemics of the film. In fact, all the characters of the film are deliberately made devoid of any subjectivity, even Sumit, the protagonist, with all his memories of family and his conflicts with his ex-terrorist freedom fighter father, remains a typical example of the Bengali middle class youth and there is no attempt in the film to endow him with subjectivity of thought and action. Nikhilda, the party boss and Provash, the brain-washed activist are created as cut-outs, they personify certain ideas and do not develop into well-rounded characters with a definite emotional/psychological curve.
The only exception is Shilpi Mitra. The film exposes her psychological and emotional vulnerabilities that hide beneath her sophisticated and ice-cool veneer. Her breaking down after a harassing call from her bully of an ex-husband and her expression for her love for her son who studies in a hostel creates a some of the most engaging moments of the film. But in a typical example of undercutting the possibilities of emotional empathy between the audience and the film’s characters, the scene is juxtaposed with a series of interviews (shot as a part of an opinion survey being conducted by Shilpi for her ad agency) where eminent women such as the writer Leela Majumdar and the singer Suchitra Mitra expound their views on the politics of male domination and the futility of women’s liberation unless all exploitative relations/equations are eliminated. It is Shilpi, who is also responsible for the most memorable sequence of the film, her confession that she is a secret sympathiser of left extremism caused by the death of her younger brother, who left a life of luxury in order to live his life with all the freedom seeking people of the world, and his subsequent disappearance in the killing fields of Punjab (Punjab was another state where Naxalism was rampant in the early 1970s) definitely adds depth to her character otherwise portrayed as typical rich ice-maiden.
Padatik is also a clinical study of isolation and in the sequences that depict Sumit’s stay in Shilpi’s apartment before she returns from her sojourn in New Delhi wonderfully capture the sense of boredom and fear that overwhelm his every moment. The film is able to convey the sense of fear that every ring of the doorbell or the telephone that is created in the mind of fugitive Sumit. The sense of boredom is best captured in the manner in which Sumit chain smokes packets of Charminar cigarette and his desultory reading of the works of Lenin which ironically theorize about choosing the true friends of the revolution. And in one of the films finest moments which also demonstrates the director’s immense control over the medium of cinema, Sumit plays the role of the docile servant and ceremoniously serves bed-tea with one and half teaspoons of sugar to himself in the role of the master! But, despite these phases of wit and sarcastic humor, the film remains shorn of dramatic emotions and is deliberately constructed as an essay on the mental state of the political activist and thus Sumit’s trials and tribulations fail to raise any empathy.
Padatik generated a lot of flak from both the rightist forces and the Marxist ideologues of all shades after its release. While the more conservative sections of the audience (and critics) attacked the films obvious leftist ideological positions, many hard-core Marxists would attack the film’s analysis and criticism of extreme Marxism as petty-bourgeois revisionism. Mrinal Sen, in a later interview, would defend himself from the attack of the Marxists by quoting the Italian Marxist theoretician Elio Vittorini who once theorized, “The problem with orthodox Marxists is that they always feel they have pocketed the truth; the point is not to pocket the truth, but to chase it, to run after it.” However, the film won much appreciation among hard-core cineastes for its innovative structure and its attempt to create a different narrative style in synch with its overtly political content and message. Although it must be admitted that many of the films innovations now look jaded and have become a part of the mainstream cinema, Padatik retains value as a chronicle of those violent and chaotic period of India’s history.
Padatik won the National Award for the Best Screenplay in the year 1974 and was also screened at various international film festivals in both India and abroad.
Bengali, Black & White