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Mrinal Sen ably tapped Bengal’s political psyche, created celluloid images of reality

By Harsh Thakor 

On 14th May we commemorated the birth centenary of film maker Mrinal Sen. Mrinal Sen was the last surviving member of the famed trio of Bengali directors, Ray-Sen-Ghatak (Ritwik Ghatak), seen as the founders of India’s ‘New Wave Cinema’. Sen, like Ghatak, may not have achieved the level of fame Ray did, but his work was equally admired the world over. Together they enriched the international reputation for the country which no other filmmakers had been able to.
Mrinal Sen was neither versatile like Satyajit Ray nor were his films painted with the pathos of our partition like the cinema of Ritwik Ghatak. Yet the maestro had his own benchmarks in comparison to his illustrious competitors. He devised a style of film making never seen before, making path breaking experiments.
A socialist by ideology, Mrinal Sen tapped into Bengal’s political psyche and created celluloid images of a reality in realms many would not dare to project. The manner he dissected scenes, integrated characters or constructed dialogues had touches of genius. In the manner of Bertolt Brecht, he made an audience detached, think for themselves, and not get swept away by emotion. In a most subtle manner he manifested class antagonism and how social conditions shaped people’s lives. In chronicling political dissent he hardly had an equal.
An avid reader of Karl Marx, Frederick Angeles, Rabindranath Tagore and Munshi Premchand, Mrinal Sen was always donned the qualities of a down-to-earth and affectionate person. Mrinal Sen resented the authority of the Communist party or orthodox party structure. Sen’s greatest attribute was his courage to question himself at the very root, which is a rare phenomenon amongst great artists.
Mrinal Sen was shaken to the ground with the collapse of USSR and East European countries, making him turn inwards. Paying a tribute to Mrinal Sen on his birth centenary year, national award-winning director Kaushik Ganguly, in his next venture ‘Palan’, is recreating the characters of the master filmmaker's critically acclaimed 'Kharij'.
Born into a middle-class family from Faridpur (now in Bangladesh) in undivided India, he witnessed the freedom struggle and the communist movement from close quarters, and even courted arrest. Sen upheld communist ideology throughout his life (according to him, he was a private Marxist). A Marxist, Mrinal Sen was closely associated with the Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA) between 1943-47, though never a member of the Communist Party. He made films that most vividly or lucidly illustrated Indian society - in diverse Indian languages. He made films in Bengali, Hindi, Oriya, and Telugu.
His interest in films was cultivated late and only after he began reading about them. According to an interview of his in the American film magazine Cineaste, occasionally he would get a few copies of foreign cinema journals where he first discovered the Italian neorealist movement. During this time, he did a variety of odd jobs. He worked at a print shop, became a medical representative, an instructor at a private institution, and an audio technician in a Calcutta film studio.

Film Career

It was not a smooth riding for Mrinal Sen in his film career. His directorial debut, Raat Bhor starring Uttam Kumar was rejected. Though Neel Akasher Niche and Baishe Sraban earned him popularity, he became an international legend with Bhuvan Some.
Goutam Ghose says that Mrinal Sen was compelled to write scripts for directors like Ajay Kar’s Kanch Kata Heera. He also wrote Jora Dighir Chowdhuryr Paribar to enable him to earn a decent living till he became famous with his Calcutta Trilogy and then there was no looking back for him.
His film Neel Akasher Neechey (1959) - set in the 1930s and exploring both anti-colonial nationalism and the class divide in Indian society - was the first film ever to be banned in independent India. The film shook India’s first Government because it illustrated the absolute apathy of India’s elites towards its poor and disadvantaged people, even though both inhabited the same soil. The ban was lifted after three months - but was an early sign of the Indian State’s intolerance to dissent.
Govind Nihalani was enamoured with the use of freeze and zoom shots in Mrinal Sen’s Akash Kusum.(1965) t is the story of the dreams of a middle class executive to gain greater stature and greater social acceptability. The young man attempting to secure a footing in the corporate world disguises himself till his deception turns disastrous for him, and ruins their relationship.
He made his first flash in Hindi cinema with Bhuvan Shome (1969).The legendary Uttpal Dutt portrayed the role of a westernized railway officer who unravels there is a life beyond the boundaries of bureaucracy during his duck hunting trip to Gujarat. Suhasini Mulay as a young tribal woman helps Dutt to untap the ordinary joys of life. The negativity of a feudal society that begins stagnating is brilliantly synthesised in Bhavan Some.
He brilliantly delved into the themes of 1970s India in many films. Sen’s Interview, Calcutta 71 (1971) and Padatik (1973) delved in exploring the social and political upheavals in the city during the turbulent naxalbari uprising, and are thematic portrayals of the politics of The Naxalite Movement. In a most subtle manner he illustrated the impact of the naxalite movement in shaping the lives of people
Interview (1971) follows a young man who is disqualified from a job because he lacks a suit to wear. A pathbreaking film. Although based on the colonial hangover, it reflected a wide range of issues like anti-establishment, middle class cowardice, and unemployment.
Calcutta 71 (1972) reveals the dehumanising aspects of deprivation and poverty on the one hand, and hypocrisy of affluence on the other, culminating with a young Naxalite being killed in cold blood by the police. It narrates the violence and corruption throughout the course of history. Scene dissection simply outstanding. A most lucid and illustrative study of the political turmoil of the seventies, documenting the agony of the common people taking intensity to heights rarely reached in Indian cinema. Here restlessness was captured at it’s absolute pitch. The jump cuts of Calcutta 71 entangled with mime acting in certain scenes was a model in direction.
Padatik (1973) examined the contradictions or dichtonomy between middle class values and a young Naxalite revolutionary with the narrative conveyed with cinematic artistry in realms untouched. In ‘Padatik’ we witness the scenario of Kolkata as in the early 1970s; a place brimming with chaos.. Mrinal Sen portrays the burning issues within the scenario of political turmoil, with great sensitivity. The narrative follows a young political activist (Dhritiman Chatterjee) who escapes a prison van and takes shelter in a posh apartment owned by a sensitive young woman (Simi Garewal).Dialogues and scenes carved touching reality at the very rock bottom, with no element of melodrama, giving a viewer a great insight into the political scenario and how its shaped people’s lives.
Mrigayaa (1976) is set in the background of the Santhal rebellion and colonial rule which unfolded the double standards of the colonial state, which rewarded ‘hunting down’ revolutionaries and wild animals - but punished the killing of oppressors. Those features of the colonial state are ressurected by the Indian State today - and that is what makes the film relevant even in today’s India. Mrigaaya' featured Mithun Chakraborty as a tribal man who is reputed to be one of the best hunters around, even by the British rulers. Yet t he was hanged after being found guilty of murdering the moneylender who kidnapped his wife. His trial and death later spark rebellion among the tribal people.
Ek Din Pratidin (1979) superbly manifests middle class patriarchy in India which circumscribes women’s autonomy even as it needs women to earn. This was reflected in a family’s response when their young daughter who is also the main breadwinner fails to return home one night - and then returns the next morning. It ridicules conventional morality.
Akaler Sandhane (1982), with untold mastery , captures how a film unit in a village is trying to capture the pulse of the Bengal famine of 1943 & finds no difference between then and now; or between reel life and real life, The film unravels s the convivial life among the film crew and the hurdles of filmmaking on location. It bridges the link between 1943 and 1980, in the manner of past meeting the present.
Khandhar (1984) written by Premendra Mitra, penetrates the flurry of emotions within the human mind when it is faced with a choice between the revolutionary and difficult, and the ordinary but comfortable. Subash (Naseeruddin Shah), an eager but not-so-well established photographer visits a cast-off village which is in ruins along with his two friends. On the first night of his venture, he notices a girl. The following day, he gets to know that the girl, Jamini (Shabana Azmi), continued to live in the ruins with her dying mother after the village was abandoned by the Zamindars due to a malaria epidemic many decades ago. Scene dissection and direction epitomising artistry at it’s very best.
Jamini represents a conventional Indian maiden on the surface, yet aspires for her circumstances to change. She is an insecure, dutiful daughter who sometimes expresses her indignation of being alone and betrayed by her mother but recognizes her ‘fault’ the very next moment and rapidly returns to abiding to the task of of a caring but mournful daughter. Subash gets drawn to this sensitive and civilized girl, which crystallises the theme. One is left in suspense if history will repeat itself for Subash and Jamini.
Mahaprithivi (1991) begins with the sequence of suicide of a mother one of whose sons, at the helm of the Naxalite movement two decades earlier, was shot dead by the police. It examines the reasons behind her taking this step and whether with communism collapsing in country after country, her son’s sacrifice would be dumped into the dustbin of history.
Mrinal Sen won awards at Cannes and also served as a jury member in the Mecca of film festivals. He termed Cannes his second home. During his lifetime he cherished recollected his interactions with Akira Kurasawa, Richard Attenborough and Jean Luc Goddard. He attributed how Goddard shaped his filmmaking style. He won special jury prizes for Akaler Shandhaney (In Search of Famine, 1981) at Berlin and Kharij (The Case Is Closed, 1982) at Cannes.

Characteristics of Mrinal Sen’s films

First, he had the courage to make films which were staunchly political. His ‘Calcutta Trilogy’ and ‘Chorus’, for instance, were landmarks. Renowned critic Derek Malcolm wrote, “... but against tremendous odds, he has traced the social and political ferment of India with greater resilience and audacity than any other contemporary Indian director...”
Second, Sen refrained from being stereotyped. Two of his popular films — ‘Neel Akasher Niche’ (1958), and the influential ‘Bhuvan Shome’ pioneered the Indian new wave and Sen illustrated untold mastery over the narrative format. However, instead of continuing that way, he altered his conventional format through bolder films that followed.
Third, he not only explored the middle and lower-middle class realities but was brave enough to question himself too. He quoted physicist Niels Bohr: “Confidence comes from not being always right, but from not fearing to be wrong.” This attitude, of never afraid of making a mistake, sparkled his creativity and sustained his spirit.
It is regretful that Mrinal Sen ventured into personalised films after being disillusioned with the fall of Communism, from the 1990’s. In later periods, he did not embark on the task of documenting films s confronting the anti-Communist propaganda or the tormentation of people with the advent of globalisation.
Harsh Thakor is freelance journalist who has done extensive research on film makers. Owes gratitude for information on Mrinal Sen from sources like The Tribune, The Hindu, India Times and Interview of Shabana Azmi



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