The Guerilla Fighter


India / 1973 / Bengali

Directed by Mrinal Sen

With Dhritiman Chatterjee, Simi Garewal, Provas Sarkar

Still from 'The Guerilla Fighter'It is Kolkata in the early 1970s, a place burdened with chaos and history, all of it lurching hastily into an uncertain future, and seen in scattered fragments and rarefied moments of calm. Refugees from Bangladesh’s war of independence have arrived by the tens of thousands, many of them starving in the streets. Frequent “load-shedding” or power outages, prevalent throughout the country during that period, severely weaken the city, and the municipal infrastructure seems too unstable to handle these problems. Sumit, a radical activist, is on the run from the police, and his superiors, deciding against the anonymity of Kolkata’s slums and trash heap hideaways, set him up in the relatively ostentatious but safer refuge of an upmarket apartment.

The Guerilla Fighter finds Mrinal Sen, a plainly uncompromising director, addressing salient issues facing a country in a period of political turmoil. His excellent The Case Is Closed (1982) centers on similar themes of complacency and human indifference, as they suffuse the domestic lives of the middle class. In this earlier film Sen begins with, and periodically returns to, rolling newspaper headlines that create instantaneously a feel for the tidal wave of looming crises that invite either panic or despondency. While these realities are mainly relegated to the background, a dull roar against the intimate self-examination of the politicized radical, they never quite lose their enormity, their clear and visceral urgency.

Hiding out in the apartment, the radical looks sheepish wearing the threads of a petty bourgeoisie, and feels too guilty about the overstocked refrigerator to even touch any of the food. He and his inept comrade Bimal, at a point when they still have yet to meet the woman whose apartment they are using, create a comical sight as the two of them putter awkwardly about the apartment, agog and somewhat sardonic towards its accoutrements. Bimal debriefs him on his new instructions and assumed identity, and then more or less leaves him to his own devices. Everything in the apartment becomes a surreal and regimented abstraction. Sumit intently watches milk boil over in the pot and fails to act. A crude mask, either cubist or African or a synthesis of the two, hangs on the wall, often in plain view, a nakedly inelegant reminder of the rather confused connection that the wealthy share with cultures and lives beyond their walls.

In some of his more stir-crazed moments, Sumit thinks back on the symbols of his cause, the tattered and skeletal poor lining the city’s streets, and they get washed over and subsumed by different revolutionary slogans shouted through loudspeakers. The refugees and the slogans get so numerous that both give way to an unintelligible chaos. Sumit dreams that the loudspeaker is a black hole drawing him in.

Sumit’s father, once a revolutionary fighter in his own right, is now a leader of workers, faced with a big decision in a labor dispute. He is being asked by the bosses to sign away his integrity for the sake of compromise. He complains about the irresponsibility of today’s young political activists. The father and the son represent, respectively, the workers and their self-avowed saviors, locked as one in an ideological Babel.

Still from 'The Guerilla Fighter'After days in the apartment, he finally meets its owner Shila, a woman of startling urbanity who works at an advertising firm. The two of them exchange pleasantries, avoiding the topics of who Sumit is, and what he has done, and what Shila’s relationship to the party is. As though accentuating the cultural gap that yawns between the two characters, Sen cuts to photographs of North Vietnamese soldiers, and clashes between Japanese students and police.

Being away from the struggle, cloistered, Sumit starts to get disengaged from the politics that had once so inflamed his life. He idly picks up the newspaper but it cannot hold his attention for very long. The trouble is that he enjoys life in the apartment, attended by a servant, a sweeper who lives downstairs, an anonymous milk bringer. And he is seduced by Shila’s lifestyle in a place that he refers to, upon arriving there, as “decorated hell.” Beautiful and chic, she initially seems to him to also be vacuous and unprincipled, possibly the last person one would suspect of sympathizing with the Naxalites (members of a communist movement begun in North Bengal in 1967). Only gradually, upon learning of her history, does his attitude towards her change. And by the end one gets the sense that she only tolerates the life of the ivory tower, the parties with self-absorbed colleagues, and she ultimately affords the film some of its most provocative and forthright commentary on post-independence India.

Shila strikes a simultaneously powerful and forlorn silhouette as the modern, working Indian woman. She exemplifies the contradictions that her society presses upon women – the overbearing responsibilities and subsequent lack of faith in her individual, innate ability – and, in her professional life, draws attention to these issues. Ostensibly having Shila interview different women for her advertising research, Sen finds an opportunity for a sort of blunt, Godardian commentary on society. They speak openly of their experiences, some common to the Western world but unaccustomed in rapidly westernizing India.

Elsewhere in the film, and beyond intellectual considerations, the agitated unrest taking place all around is brought into its raw and fullest relief by how it lurks behind the languorous (but undeniably fraught) exchanges between the exile and his host, as he acts a sort of refugee himself, tempted but too proud of his past to ask for admission to polite society. This disparity between dialectic reactivity and a more basic, human response that ultimately sways the masses in times of social transformation lies at the heart of the film’s commentary, its scrutiny of personal responsibility and critical self-obstruction as they play a role in political debate, both public and private.

Still from 'The Guerilla Fighter'Sen infuses the film with frantic documentary footage that, in its wildly reeling manner, communicates the seething thrust of that immense city, a city that may seem strange, foreboding, and at the brink of collapse, even to those who have always called it home. The urban landscape blurs and shudders as if ruptured by earthquakes, workers shout their call to arms, and Sumit’s comrade runs, in a superheated recollection, from his encroaching enemies, who are unidentified and unarticulated, representatives of a oppressive and non-negotiating ruling class. The guerilla camerawork, fairly creating an incoherent and washed out explosion, is scored by a rough collage of bomb blasts and marching feet that would shame most actual war films of the period, its unmistakable tension awash with a headier, more elemental kind of paranoia. Sen seems to be exploring his own emotions surrounding political struggle in his country, coming to terms with its shortcomings and thinking about points at which it has strayed. As his protagonist grows in consciousness, so too does our and the director’s confidence. The city, while still a battleground, is no longer intimidating and severe, but lively and irrepressible as it is and will continue to be.

The time spent in his elective prison gives the fighter pause to examine the conflict to which he willingly gave all of himself, but to whose essential tenets and realities he had not given sufficient thought. Most importantly, who has he allowed himself to become? Who was he before? Without employing his conscience, and acting as a mindless soldier, he in turn became a sacrificial pawn to party leaders who were suspicious, factionalist, and in their own way, quite rash. Sumit’s great epiphany occurs when he steps out of the apartment, finding some reconciliation between his father’s ideology, that of an established and experienced Bengali revolutionary, and the current imperatives that face him and his fellow fighters. Rejuvinated, he feels equipped to tackle collective issues with the delicate reasoning and caring nature ascribed to the individual – to interpret, to feel, and to act.


2 Responses to “The Guerilla Fighter”

  1. hg23 said

    Interesting — reminds me a bit of Cuban movies of the same period – -although they all end up as sympathetic to the revolution.
    — and you did mention Godard
    Is there any humor in it? It sounds relentless

    In case you haven’t see it:

    Dirty Laundry [Lukas Foerster] (German)

    • chaiwalla said

      Thanks for the link. I tried reading it in German but my fluency, if I ever had it, has dropped dramatically over the years.
      There is humor in it, but not on the same level, nor as openly satirical as, say ‘Week End.’ Its humor and seriousness are brought about quite delicately. Sen is more observant than in-your-face, I would say.
      And it’s funny that you mention the Cuban films, since I was just planning a review of ‘Memories of Underdevlopment.’ So that should be coming along shortly.

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