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Mrinal Sen: Bengal’s avant-garde filmmaker built an oeuvre on dissent and unrest

Mrinal Sen’s filmography is a testament to a much-required parallel narrative on moviemaking.

Shreya Paul
Dec 28, 2021
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“I (was born out of) an accident, long back, 90 years ago, on 14 May, my birthday. I am now waiting for another accident, a major accident, and I hope I can take it gracefully.”

Mrinal Sen’s world of filmmaking arguably gave Bengal the much-needed platform to break out of hackneyed film narratives and hold a mirror to society, ensuring people understand the goings-on in the country. 

A third in the triumvirate of Bengali filmmakers pioneering ‘change’ in the Indian cinematic canvas Sen is still considered one of the greatest Indian directors. A stalwart in India’s (and by extension, Bengal’s) emergence of New Wave cinema, Sen was more than aware of his artistic responsibilities. Thus his works became realistic tableaus that promise sessions of heart-wrenching introspection at the end of it.

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Debuting right in the middle of the 20th century with filmmaking, Sen’s first two films Raat Bhore (1955) and Neel Akasher Neechey (1958) were box office duds. Critics seemed to also not be particularly impressed by his vision. Yet, this never deterred him from pursuing his passion further. Sen’s third feature, Baishey Shravan (1960) not only kickstarted his career as one of Bengal’s most prolific and revered filmmakers, but also provided an incisive commentary about the penury and abject struggles of the people of Bengal at a time when the state was grappling with one of the worst famines ever (which occurred during World War II). 

Baishey Shravan documented the life of an economically backward couple who undergo basic character changes with the altering scenarios among them. The film’s brutally honest perspective on brittle human natures and their constant need to prioritise self over others won the filmmaker global fame. Baishe Shravan’s entry into the London Film Festival made it his first film to cinch a position at an international film festival.

Steadfastly left-wing and anti-establishment in his filmic approach, Sen was more a truthsayer than an ‘entertainer.’ On being asked why his natural instincts lean heavily on the ‘political,’ the director famously said, “I make films, I make films about the situation around me…And what is political and not political that I do not know. You can make a relationship between a man and woman politically. To make films politically and make political films are two different things.”

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Sen’s films evolved into an entire narrative on dissent. But to understand why he had that approach, it is imperative his background be placed under the scanner. One among 12 siblings, Sen’s journey to Kolkata (then Calcutta) was harrowed as a result of the emotionally scarring incident of the Partition of Bengal. 

A resident of the lesser-known town of Faridpur (in modern-day Bangladesh), Sen’s cinematic sensibilities were deeply affected by what he witnessed and experienced in East India, a region that was the seat of unrest and political upheaval as the nation struggled with its independence movements. Understandably then, Sen’s lens was unforgiving and resolute in chronicling political dissent.

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A vocal advocate of film festivals, Sen worked as an enabler to showcase many’ an Indian film across the world. As a result, Sen was deeply influenced by other international filmmakers like Godard in France and the Third Cinema imperative of Latin America. Sen was well aware of the fact that the face of Indian cinema was changing and creating pockets for foreign influences to shape their works. And shape it did. Sen’s use of camera techniques was constantly evolving, sometimes even using mixed media that did away with years of clichéd storytelling formats. 

Sen’s keen lens captured the widespread frustration and anger that Calcutta’s youth were facing during yet another political upheaval. Sen’s agitprop style of filmmaking captured the stifled groans of Bengal as it underwent a surge of Naxalite unrest in the ‘70s. His iconoclastic imagery captured the violent fury that populated Calcutta streets, safely placing his oeuvre within the anti-imperialist and pro-Naxal bracket.

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Sen’s love story with the city of Calcutta is exemplified through his trilogy on it. Interview (1970), Calcutta ’71 (1972) and Padatik (1973) all wore a similar garb of Calcutta-under-duress. 

While Calcutta ’71 ends on the haunting note of a young Naxalite revolutionary being shot dead, Padatik is a revisionist look into how the Naxal movement was akin to dying ember, yet powerful enough to have altered the political setup of a state completely. Billing the struggles of Naxals as a continuum of a greater, historical class struggle at play, Sen's romantic saga with the city was straightforward and without any frills.

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Though many would consider Bhuvan Shome (1969) as Sen’s watershed moment in his filmography, it was with Interview that he seemed to have found a unique voice, a hybrid cinematic syntax that no longer was satisfied with the dreary pace of films prior to it. 

This aesthetic rupture is bolstered by Sen in a scene from Interview which follows a tram sequence where the protagonist abruptly turns and begins to speak at the camera directly, an almost instinctive move which threatens to break down the fourth wall, and thereby the illusion of the entire film.

Narrative treatment aside, Sen also worked at inculcating never-seen-before technicalities into his filmmaking, ensuring that the audience viewing experience undergoes significant transition. Handheld camerawork, Brechtian devices, freeze frames, planimetric framing, flashbacks, and montage were generously introduced within his shot framings, so as to augment the constant state of flux that the city was in.

In the later years, Sen’s works did seem to dilute its anti-establishment agenda but were still exemplary for more reasons than one. The filmmaker’s audacious move to turn the lens on himself and review his own qualitative position was a bold move, one very few people with his cult status would make.

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Sen’s films proudly spoke of unrest, and had the brand of militancy that many modern-day filmmakers are hesitant to replicate. Describing Sen’s filmography, film critic Derek Malcolm said in 1981, “All Sen’s films, even his most lightweight, have attacked with undisguised horror and anger the poverty, exploitation and inherent hypocrisy of Indian society.” And as Malcolm put it, Sen was a paragon of realistic moviemaking, one who not only revelled in bitter truths, but also made no qualms about being that way.


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