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Mrinal Sen at 100: Filmmaker who lived long and died young

Remembering Mrinal Sen, a chronicler of the turbulence of his times, in his birth centenary year

Mrinal Sen at 100: Filmmaker who lived long and died young

Amitabha Bhattacharya

Both Mrinal Sen (1923-2018) and Ritwik Ghatak (1925-1976) had their productive period when Satyajit Ray (1921-1992) was lighting up cinema, churning out one masterpiece after another. Though they are often discussed together, there was not much in common in their preparedness and approach to filmmaking, artistic strength, the style and language they employed, and in their creative vision. Both Sen and Ghatak expressed their great admiration for Ray, but refused to be swayed by him. They charted their own path and made a distinctive impress on cinema.

Sen started rather tentatively and slowly built up his reputation through passionate involvement with the medium and the milieu around, his outlook having been influenced by Marx and the Leftist movement. While most of his films had a narrow support base and his critics were relentlessly questioning his controversial story-telling techniques, he once wondered if the credits should include: ‘Screenplay, Direction and Gimmicks by Mrinal Sen’!

Of the 28 feature films he directed between 1955 and 2002, 20 were in Bengali, six in Hindi (‘Bhuvan Shome’, 1969; ‘Ek Adhuri Kahani’, 1972; ‘Mrigayaa’, 1975; ‘Khandhar’, 1984; ‘Genesis’, 1986 and ‘Ek Din Achanak’, 1989), one in Odiya (‘Matira Manisha’, 1966) and one in Telugu (‘Oka Oorie Katha’, 1977). Besides, he made a telefilm (‘Tasveer Apni Apni’, 1984) and a 13-part teleserial (‘Kabhi Door Kabhi Paas’, 1985-86) and four documentaries, including ‘Calcutta My El Dorado’ (1986). He also authored a few books, the first being ‘Charlie Chaplin’ (1951) and the last, ‘Always Being Born: A Memoir’ (2004).

Genesis (1986)

At the national level, four of his films won the best feature film award, four for best direction, three for best feature film in Bengali and one in Telugu, besides numerous more. Umpteen international awards and jury memberships came his way, from Cannes, Venice, Berlin and others. Dadasaheb Phalke Award, Padma Bhushan, membership of Rajya Sabha and honorary doctorates from universities recognised this maestro’s contribution to cinema. What made Sen such a force to reckon with?

Bhuvan Shome (1969)

First, he had the courage to make films some of which were overtly political. His ‘Calcutta Trilogy’ and ‘Chorus’, for instance, were pioneering efforts. 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...” As an authentic chronicler of the angst and turbulence of his times, he deserves a special place.

Khandhar (1984)

Second, infused with curiosity and the willingness to change course, Sen had the ability to not being stereotyped. Two of his popular films — ‘Neel Akasher Niche’ (1958), liked by Nehru but virtually disowned by Sen later as being too sentimental, and the influential ‘Bhuvan Shome’ that pioneered the Indian new wave and made Sen known throughout the country — demonstrated Sen’s mastery over the narrative format. However, instead of continuing that way, he moved away from this conventional format through bolder films that followed. Later, he would alter his style and focus again.

Third, he not only sought to dissect the middle and lower-middle class realities (‘a ruthless post-mortem’ of his society and class) but dared to question himself too. This had created ambiguities in his style and in what he wanted to convey, leading even to charges of ‘shoddy film-making’. He quoted physicist Niels Bohr: “Confidence comes from not being always right, but from not fearing to be wrong.” This attitude, of not fearing to be wrong, ignited his creativity and sustained his spirit.

Born into a middle-class family from Faridpur (now in Bangladesh) in undivided India, he saw the freedom struggle and the communist movement from close quarters, got involved in them and even courted arrest. In Calcutta to study physics, he fell in love with the city, then the centre of political and intellectual activities in India. Not a card-holding member of the Communist Party, he described himself as a ‘Private Marxist’.

Dipankar Mukhopadhyay in his authoritative work, ‘Mrinal Sen: Sixty Years in Search of Cinema’, categorises various phases of Sen’s creative evolution. In his later phase, how did Sen handle his disillusionment with the failure of communist countries? In Sen’s own words: “Policies, ideals, values and morals were changed overnight, revolutions of the past were ruthlessly denied, manifestos redrafted, and amidst such unprecedented tumult, the statue of Lenin was uprooted. Deep within, I now realise I am a bundle of confusions.” The fiery Sen was devastated, gradually turning quiet and slipping ‘into a sort of personal cinema’, as Mukhopadhyay notes. Some of his later films, remarkable in their own ways, capture this change.

‘Mahaprithivi’ (1991) begins with the sequence of suicide of a mother one of whose sons, at the peak of the Naxalite movement two decades earlier, was shot dead by the police. What could be the reason behind her taking this step? With communism collapsing in country after country, would her son’s sacrifice be seen as futile and the values he stood for be thrown to the rubbish heap of history? Most of Sen’s films raise such uncomfortable questions.

Sen, as a human being, was generous even to his worst critics. From ordinary men and women to Gabriel García Márquez, all were his friends. He could ruthlessly question anybody and endear him thereafter. I remember an episode during the International Film Festival of India, Calcutta, in 1990. Asked by the editor of a daily bulletin, I penned a short piece on Ray’s ‘Ghare Baire’ (1984) suggesting that it should be treated, contrary to general perception, as one of Ray’s major works. Sen did not know me, but during a discussion at the Nandan Complex, expressed his disapproval of my comment. Finding me sticking to my stand, he termed me a ‘freak’. A decade later, there was a chance meeting at the India International Centre, New Delhi. Recognising me, he started chatting in a jovial mood, with his hand placed over my shoulder, as if we were long lost friends!

At a public function to celebrate his 80th birthday, a bemused Sen spoke about his epitaph: “Here lies a man who lived long and died young!” This was quintessential Sen.

His birth centenary is an occasion to watch his films and rediscover this man and his legacy.

Photos From the personal collection of Mrinal Sen’s family.

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