"I wish I could start from scratch. I have done good, bad and indifferent films. I wish I could erase it all and start afresh like the Professor of "Ek Din Achanak" who walked out on his family in a rainy day without even as much as informing anybody. One of the characters says: "one of the saddest things in life is that you live only one life." However famous you are, you are aware of your mediocrity in certain respects. When you realize that, you face a crisis that is insurmountable. Though I have an enviable position as a maker of good, bad and indifferent films, I cannot escape this feeling of mediocrity within. Perhaps it happens because we are too immersed in our own selves." These are, according to this website, the words which Mrinal Sen said about Ek din Achanak (1989). This sentence gives us a sort of clue to the film’s mystery, which consists in the reason for the disappearance of the central character of the movie who decides, one day, suddenly, to leave his little family, never to return. This middle-class history teacher (Sheeram Lagoo), who lives in a small Calcutta apartment with his wife, son and two girls, can thus be looked upon as a representation of the film-maker himself, who apparently felt, like him, a need to escape from what he calls his mediocrity. But contrary to Mrinal Sen, he does escape, and immerses himself not in his own self but in the rainy urban ocean.
So whatever the fictional reason told or suggested by the film, we have to understand this departure as a kind of allegorical suicide by drowning, and the film as a meditation of the impact on relatives of the meaning of such a gesture. Mrinal Sen had already worked on this type of theme. In 1979 he had shot Ek Din Pratidin (And quiet rolls the dawn) in which a family plunges into despair after the disappearance of one of the children. There was also Kharij (1982, The case is closed) which shows a family whose servant dies poisoned by carbon monoxide. In Ek din achanak, the violence is subdued, little or no recrimination occurs as the family starts waiting and looking for causes of the absence of the father, husband and teacher. Instead we go through flashbacks of a few scenes, which give us some insight about what might have happened, and we follow the relatives struggling to keep sane and continuing to live their own lives as best they can. Some manage, like the younger daughter (Seema, Roopali Ganguly) whom we see come back home at one stage, to announce her success at her degree; some manage less well, like the professor’s fragile and diffident wife (Uttara Baokar), who takes the full blow of his absence.
Yet nobody breaks down; they all stick to their interpretation of the event; one year after his disappearance, they realize the year has gone by and are a little amazed, but not much has changed really. And so the film isn’t a statement on the necessity of family union, and how much it costs if one member is cut away from the family tree. They don’t hope he’ll come back, and one is left to wonder what the film-maker is telling us. His Chekhovian characters are left in the movie without their centre of gravity, floating somehow and a little unreal.
The symbolical death becomes a sort of void, an emptiness of meaning which casts a pale not only on the professor’s departure, but on the family and even on the whole of the society which they belong to. The mediocrity infects all of them, together with the visiting uncle, who tries to solve the enigma, and in a lesser degree the former student of the professor, a young woman whom the family suspects of having had an affair with him. It isn’t a moral mediocrity, but an existential one: they are all stuck in their little circles, where nothing really happens, and which only occasionally intersect. In fact they’re all ordinary human beings in their ordinary lives, if one follows Neeta’s (the elder daughter, Shabana Azmi) “discovery” of her father’s secret:
Neeta clearly is Mrinal Sen’s interpreter; she’s the one who mouthpieces her dad’s situation for us, far from any of the false leads which the others cling to: his affair with Aparna (Aparna Sen), or the shame of a possibly plagiarized article. She tries to express his decision and what he has come to mean about him in simple terms:
During one flashback, we see him clutching him one night when he couldn’t sleep, in a loving gesture that doesn’t call for any words:
And at the end of the film, the mother also drops a line which Mrinal Sen quotes (see above):
[Yolo!] It’s something which, she says, her husband had said just before leaving, but apparently she hadn’t understood its importance because she had never mentioned it before. Neeta on the other hand, opens wide her eyes and ears, and we see that for her it’s a major clue.
Ek din achanak thus speaks about the possibility of leaving this life: one day, somebody whom we had grown accustomed to, somebody who was part of us, is gone. We scramble for reasons and causes: it’s our nature to do so. But the film doesn’t intend us to be satisfied with reasons and causes: perhaps what it wants us is for us to be ready for it? Perhaps it wants to casualize death? To make it an ordinary option of any man’s freedom? Maybe. But I rather think it wishes to dramatize the emptiness of all lives, the ordinariness. No one’s life is special to the point of guaranteeing it the glory and glamour that often follows its termination, what one calls “destiny”. Precisely in the film, the professor’s life has no destiny, no eternal meaning. Mrinal Sen debunks the lyricization of life, its cosmic-scale magnification. Instead, what we have is a man going away, and that is all. No wreaths or flowers. I wouldn’t say this is nihilism: the nothingness present at the centre of the movie isn’t destructive, like an acid might be; whereas nihilism seems to me an active force, spreading the negativity of emptiness on whatever it touches. The absence in the middle of the film is like a question, a question without an answer, this is why it is so close to the common viewer: it doesn’t attack it, rather it begs his participation.
Watch the film here