The author has worked with Deccan Herald for two decades, and also with various TV channels such as al-Jazeera and CNN. He currently heads the Eastern Bureau of Parliamentarian
The demise of Mrinal Sen, the last of the Mohicans in the Indian film fraternity, has left some of his close disciples groping for words to express their sense of loss. However, almost all of them have finally taken recourse to cling to the immortal films the maestro has made during his career that spanned for more than five decades, and the memories of the ‘barefoot’ Communist gentleman that he remained throughout.
True, Sen flatly declined to see eye to eye with many of the conventional concepts the modern film making has been associated with – namely the market and RoP (Return on the Product). Unlike some of his contemporaries and a large majority of modern film makers, the market and the return hardly impacted this out-of-the-box director whose non-compromising attitude and stance earned him many a basher at home. Fortunately though, the international acclaim his films had fetched, put those bashers at bay during his lifetime!
It was his passion to continuously experiment with form and content that saw him producing a bevy of ‘reel legends’ like Bhuvan Shome, Ek Din Pratidin, Akash Kusum, Interview, Padatik, Akaler Sandhane, Ek Din Achanak and scores others. IfEk Din Pratidin is an indictment of patriarchy and deals with the middle-class social crisis and Kharij the social milieu, the famine of 1943 gets a different portrayal in Akaler Sandhane, while the political and social unrest finds a voice in Interview , Calcutta 71 and Padatik. It was he who first initiated the new cinema movement in India.
A Different Nuance Everytime
The value of his contribution to the art of cinema is not just artistic but must be assessed in the light of his humanitarianism embracing his warm compassion, especially for the meek, and his profound concern for social justice. He did not seek recourse to any sort of comfort zone (unlike many of his contemporaries) which is why each of his film speaks independently in a different nuance. He has continuously broken his own narrative structure and eked out an independent path for each of his films. Hence, the narrative we find inChorus does not get repeated in Bhuvan Shome; or if Ek Din Pratidin weaves a new structure, Antareen treads an independent path. The endeavour to shed a new light that ‘was never there on earth, sea or land’ on each film (come what may!) has given Sen a signature that is rare in Indian cinema. And obviously, he had eclipsed many an Indian director in his over-riding concern for the humanity.
Through Sen, Indian cinema got actors such as Mithun Chakraborty, Anjan Dutt, Mamata Shankar, Sreela Majumdar and Madhabi Mukherjee to name a few. Also, Smita Patil, Shabana Azmi, Naseeruddin Shah and Om Puri have worked in several of Sen’s films. The living legend made his last film Aamar Bhuvan in 2002.
The first period of his career, up to the three related films Interview (1970), Calcutta 71 (1972) and Padatik (1973), has some memorable political reflections to offer except for the beautiful and exquisitely understated film, Baishey Sravan (1960) and arguably the best comedy film ever to come from the Indian art cinema, Bhuvan Shome (1969). In between, there are some nice pieces of cinematic confection, such as Akash Kusum (1965) , and Neel Akasher Neechey (1958).
Neel Akasher Neechey (1958). (banned by the Indian government for two months) is a commendably original endeavour to portray an unusual character in an unusual historical context. This film demonstrated his courage to handle a theme at a time when the Indo-China relationship suddenly developed an unusual coldness.
However, as well as being fine films in themselves, Baishe Sravan and Bhuvan Shome point to future highlights in Sen’s career. In Baishey Sravan, we meet everyman helplessly entangled in the unalterable course of history or, more simply, the way of things. This way of things finds depiction in various contexts in Sen’s films, while the individuals in conflict with it are also many and varied.
Ever Willing For New
Bhuvan Shome, a near lyric in reel, was a proof that unalloyed comedy in cinema can also draw crowd (and it is interesting to note that Sen never made another comedy). Its timeless humour is very funny, largely due to the superb performance of Utpal Dutt as the almost incorrigible Mr Shome (like ‘Barkis’ in David Copperfield by Charles Dickens).
However, its importance to Indian cinematic history lies at least partially in the technical innovations with which Sen decorated the film and which were used to some extent or another in later works, particularly Calcutta 71. The use of still photography, caricature, animation, quasi-documentary and the like has taken Bhuvan Shome to an unparallel level (Who would ever think of making cinema out of a telephone conversation?). At the same time, there are indications that Sen was ever willing to try something new.
Interview, Calcutta ’71 and Padatik,made and released during the climate of protest, general and intense, of the Naxalite years, reflect the best of what many have described as the political aspect of Mrinal Sen’s films. Protest here is not sloganeering processions punching the air, but a genuine attempt to make the audience think about what might be wrong with ‘the way of things’. Satyajit Ray’s Calcutta triptych (Pratidwandi, Seemabaddha, Jana Aranya) made almost contemporaneously, speak in an identical vein. Admittedly, these films subtly raise fingers at society’s leaders, most notably the self-interested and largely anachronistic captains of industry as well as the faceless puppeteers of the Naxalite movement; but of much greater interest is the suggestion that traditionally held values urgently need to be reassessed. The city, in a moral sense, needs to be rebuilt.
The rest of the decade saw the emergence of Mrigayaa (1976), where Mithun Chakraborty made his debut, along with Mamata Shankar; Mithun won a National Best Actor Award for his performance. Actor-danseuse Mamata Shankar, the daughter of legendary dancer Uday Shankar, says she is ‘indebted to Mrinal da’ for introducing her to the world of light, camera and action in Mrigayaa in 1976. If Mrigayaa is a critical examination of the injustice of colonial justice, Oka Oori Katha is a hard-hitting tale of rural poverty that challenges comfortable middle-class mindsets about ‘the poor’.
But Ek Din Pratidin (1979) heralds a new chapter in the cinema of Mrinal Sen, a chapter that brings into focus the lives of the urban middle-class. Even though there is an urge to protest, the context is different as the issue of questioning the traditionally held values is central.
Ek Din Pratidin is equally important in pushing the cause of women’s emancipation. The subject treated here has come a long way since then, with Satyajit Ray giving his own touch in Mahanagar (1963), establishing a woman’s right to work. In Ek Din Pratidin, the woman in question asserts her right to maintain personal control over her own life, something which many adherent to a patriarchal value system might find rather challenging. The focus of Sen’s protest here is really quite revolutionary in a society that is overprotective of women, subjecting them to excessive control and apprehensive of the potential shame that they might invite – by being raped, for example.
The narrative twist in this film is the consistent refusal to have the girl explain why she was out all night, so obliging the audience – at least those members of it sensitive enough to be niggled and nagged – to think further about traditional values that would suppress and stifle women.
A Silent Crusader
In Waiting for Godot, Samuel Beckett left a void at the end, allowing his audience an infinite space to speculate on what finally happened to Godot. When some people from the audience asked him about the fate of Godot, Beckett’s lone sentence to the query was “I would’ve stated this in the drama itself had I known it.” Several critics of Sen had felt that the director had ‘thrown up the underbelly’ of the city (Calcutta) without revealing a solution. A smiling Sen used to quote Beckett and stole a silent laugh. In his death too, he remained a silent crusader – an innocent yet loaded message “Don’t place bouquet or garlands on my body when I finally depart.”