Why Modern Cinephilia Needs to Remember Mrinal Sen and His Genius

Modern cinephilia worships Ray, salutes Ghatak but seldom remembers the genius of Sen.

Updated
Indian Cinema
7 min read
Mrinal Sen, filmmaker.
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(This story was first published on 31 December 2018. It has been published from The Quint’s archives to mark the death anniversary of the filmmaker, Mrinal Sen.)

In Akaler Sandhane (1980), Mrinal Sen’s film within a film about the great Bengal famine, the photograph of a starved body becomes the topic of guessing game. The photograph is actually half hidden, and when fully shown reveals a sculpture of Gautam Buddha in his famished state. Someone announces, “You see, Gods also collapse if they don’t get food.”

This scene, pointing an arrow towards its audience first evokes the misery of a social reality, and finally provokes them to question their very belief.

Akaler Sandhane was a movie about a film crew that arrives at a rural area in 1980 to make a film on the 1943 famine and its impact. As the director and his crew try to replicate the actuality of the calamity, the viewer slowly comes to terms with the systems of hierarchy and exploitation, still prevalent, that created the very tragedy. Part introspective, part inquisitive, Sen, who died this Sunday, not only unsettled the audience, he was also questioning his own tribe of filmmakers on whether their attempt to project reality is true or simply an affected fantasy.

Mrinal Sen and Smita Patil on the sets of <i>Akaler Sandhane</i>.
Mrinal Sen and Smita Patil on the sets of Akaler Sandhane.
(Photo Courtesy: Twitter)
Sen, along with Satyajit Ray and Ritwik Ghatak are usually referred to as the holy trinity of Bengali cinema.

Ray found international recognition in his very first film, and Ghatak became a cult among filmmakers (mostly thanks to his students at the Film and Television Institute of India), slowly turning into the alternative great. Sen neither had the fortune of Ray’s early successes, nor did he find a steady stream of followers. Like his films, out of bounds for narrative cinema, he remained on the outskirts of popular fanfare, and conventional definition.

Mrinal Sen.
Mrinal Sen.
(Photo Courtesy: Twitter)

Born on May 14, 1923 in Faridpur (now in Bangladesh), Sen came to Calcutta to pursue higher studies in Physics. During this student period, he came in contact with the cultural wing of the Communist party. This period was formative because he slowly found friends in The Indian People's Theatre Association (IPTA), and also nursed a reading appetite that let him devour any subject under the sun. All this let him form a worldview that would later reflect in his films.

Sen didn’t really get into cinema at the very onset. He was interested in the aesthetics of cinema, reading, writing, and debating about it. When his job of a medical representative put him onto a grave existential crisis far away from Calcutta, he just snapped one fine day, and decided to come back to the city.

Sen unlike his compatriot Ghatak, never mourned the Bengal partition. Calcutta was a city he adopted with full-hearted feelings, and this city, its cauldron of chaos and beauty, would become his muse.

Mrinal Sen on the sets.
Mrinal Sen on the sets.
(Photo Courtesy: Twitter)

He began his career in films as an audio technician, and it would take him a few more years before he donned the hat of a director.

Sen’s career can be roughly bracketed into three phases. The first period consisted of his struggle to find a clear voice, the second period screamed of his politics, and the third phase was when he became introspective.

His first film Raat Bhore (1955) featured Uttam Kumar and Sabitri Chatterjee, then stars of Bengali cinema, but it was a washout. It was a setback too deep to recover from, but family friend Hemanta Mukherjee came to his rescue to produce Neel Akasher Neechey (1958) for him. The film had two momentous songs by the producer-singer, and became a hit. But Sen wasn’t really happy with it.

Next, he made Baishey Shravana (1960), featuring Jnanesh Mukherjee and Madhabi Mukherjee in her first major role. The title referred to the day of Rabindranath Tagore’s death, but Sen made the film without a single mention of the polymath. Focusing on a couple as the famine slowly seeps in, Sen’s stark narrative began the whisper of the arrival of a volatile talent.

This phase of trial and error, attempts at synchronising ideas and images culminated beautifully in Bhuvan Shome (1969) that heralded many firsts.

This film not only gave Utpal Dutt his first role in Hindi and let Amitabh Bachchan earn his first pay in cinema, it also began Sen’s association with cinematographer K.K. Mahajan. Both Mahajan and Sen would later become one of Indian cinema’s most cherished director-cinematographer collaborations.

Bhuvan Shome, a film about a haughty bureaucrat who finds himself anew during a hunting expedition began as a satire, and slowly transformed into a genteel character portrait. Though Sen intended to delve into ‘inspired nonsense’, unbeknownst to him, his first Hindi film became a precursor of what will be known as the parallel cinema movement in India.

Utpal Dutt and Suhasini Mulay in <i>Bhuvan Shome</i>.
Utpal Dutt and Suhasini Mulay in Bhuvan Shome.
(Photo Courtesy: Twitter)

The second phase, perhaps his most potent, began with Interview (1970), a film about sartorial formalities, unemployment, and disenchantment with the establishment.

Fusing documentary footage, freeze frames, jump cuts, and Brechtian techniques, ‘Interview’ shouted about its politics at the top of its voice.
Mrinal Sen on the sets of a film.
Mrinal Sen on the sets of a film.
(Photo Courtesy: Twitter)

Sen, by his own admission, didn’t mind being a pamphleteer if it could get his point across. Interview was followed by Calcutta 71 (1972) and Padatik (1973), the three films that formed his Calcutta Trilogy. 1970s was the time when Calcutta was ushered into socio-political unrest, and the Naxalite movement. Sen, despite being a lifelong Marxist was more interested in critiquing the system from within, instead of resorting to the slurs of an outsider.

In Mrigayaa (1976), tribal exploitation took center stage, and in Oka Oori Katha (1977), he decided to adapt Premchand’s ‘Kafan’ in his first Telugu film. During this entire period, Sen was interested in the enemy as the outsider, someone who can be easily pointed at.

Mamata Shankar and Mithun Chakraborty in <i>Mrigayaa</i>.
Mamata Shankar and Mithun Chakraborty in Mrigayaa.
(Photo Courtesy: Twitter)

In the third period, Sen came back home, to his middle-class Bengali corridors to shine a light on hypocrisies and moral aptitudes of his own. In Ek Din Pratidin (1979), a daughter, the sole breadwinner of the family doesn’t return home one night, and her absence reveals the posturing of the family members. In Kharij (1982), a servant boy’s death bares the class divide that the bhadralok sensibility refuses to acknowledge. The audience is very slyly made to repent for the moral choices they make. In Khandhar (1983), and Ek Din Achanak (1989), bourgeois hypocrisies open long-festering wounds, and loneliness becomes an unacknowledged companion. All these films reflect the filmmaker’s journey inward, wandering in deeply self-examining mode.

Shabana Azmi and Pankaj Kapur in <i>Khandhar</i>.
Shabana Azmi and Pankaj Kapur in Khandhar.
(Photo Courtesy: Twitter)
Sen’s reading habits, and critical eye made him traverse languages like an expert, and made him a true pan-Indian director. He derived from literature, but he transplanted those stories into the modern context.

If film movements like German expressionism, Nouvelle Vague and Italian neorealism encouraged him to keep on experimenting with the form, his politics spoke of his Marxist beliefs, celebrating and assessing its values. But while doing so, he never lost touch with his humane side. His politics and his methods enriched his films, but it was compassion that ran deep in his films which opened the door to his audiences.

With Sen, the last of the Bengali trifecta is gone. If Ray with his meticulous detailing preferred a certain lyricism to steer his narratives, Ghatak with his pain of Partition always wanted to surprise, mostly to melodramatic effects.

Both despite different approaches could never escape the Tagorean impulses. Sen to a great extent stood apart. He was on a search for the truth, the thing that hides behind a history of exploitation and hypocrisy. He didn’t shy away from making noise, if it could make the audience aware of the truth.

Mrinal Sen in conversation with Satyajit Ray.
Mrinal Sen in conversation with Satyajit Ray.
(Photo Courtesy: Twitter)

Modern cinephilia worships Ray, salutes Ghatak but seldom remembers the genius of Sen. Sure, he was never one to offer happy endings, but he was never contemptuous of his audiences. All he wanted was participation, and his films were a surreptitious invite to his fellow audiences to come together. It’s time we accept the invitation.

(The writer is a journalist, a screenwriter, and a content developer who believes in the insanity of words, in print or otherwise. He tweets @RanjibMazumder)

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