Mrinal Sen was a giant of South Asian cinema
On December 30, 2018, when we were struggling from the long queue to exercise our voting rights in the general polls, Mrinal Sen, legendary Bengali filmmaker, surrendered his life and started a journey towards the hereafter. At his residence in Bhowanipore, Kolkata, he breathed his last on account of old age complication and a heart attack. He was 95.
After Satyajit Roy and Ritwik Ghatak, he was the most talented filmmaker in the world of Bengali films. One of the great forerunners of Bengali parallel cinema and being an “auteur” of cinema, Mrinal Sen offered a counterpoint to the mainstream Indian Hindi films.
On May 14, 1923, Mrinal Sen was born in Faridpur, present-day Bangladesh. He left his homeland for Kolkata, and after completing his high school, studied physics at Scottish Church College.
He did his undergraduate from Kolkata University. Being an avid reader and follower of Marxist philosophy, he joined the cultural wing of the Communist Party of India. Though he was never an active member of the Indian Communist Party, he was involved with the Socialist Indian People’s Theatre Association.
Having started his career as a medical representative for a short period of time, he soon joined as an audio technician in a Kolkata film studio and found his way to become a filmmaker. Sen made his debut feature film Raat Bhore in 1955, with Uttam Kumar, as the central performer.
Sen’s first film disappointed him. His next film, Neel Akasher Neechey, earned considerable popularity in the national sphere. But he was not pleased with it either, and wryly observed it as a “half success.” His third film, Baishey Shraban, in 1960 helped him earn international name.
How people went from poor to poorer through the famine of 1943, a man-made catastrophe, is the theme of this film -- poverty, famine, death, and a complete breakdown of human values.
He was anti-establishment is his views, standing in opposition to the conventional social, political, and economic principles of a society. Through keen observation, sometimes he figured out the misleading actions of the revolutionary leaders and the misery of masses for that. Padatik is a clear representation in this context.
To many, Telugu film Oka Uri Katha was Sen’s best political movie, on the misery of the exploited rural landless people. Through this journey, he became identified as a reputed Marxist artist.
However, after the 70s, Mrinal shifted his focus to his own milieu -- the middle class. Ek Din Prodin is one of the best productions on the life and crises of middle-class people.
To many film-critics, this phase was the most creative phase throughout Mrinal’s directorial trajectory. Here, social problems became his prime concern.
He considered Kolkata as a character -- the city, people, their lifestyle, especially class difference and struggle take up a major space in his film canvas. In 1990, Mrinal Sen made one documentary on his own city, Calcutta, My El-Dorado. To Mrinal Sen, cinema was not merely a mode of entertainment. It was used to illuminate and educate people of all walks of life.
Sen was a great socio-political thinker. The lesson we get from his films is that the spectator will not get any prescription to get rid of present harsh realities; rather the story of the film will involve you to know the root cause of contemporary problems.
Besides many national film awards, Mrinal bagged the Dadasaheb Phalke Award, India’s highest film award, in 2005. In 1983 he received the Padma Bhushan, India’s third highest civilian award, won Berlin awards for Chorus in 1975, and Parashuram in 1979.
Sen was not materialistic in his lifestyle. Recently, a private bank of India offered him Rs5 crore to make a film. He refused the proposal, saying he could make six films with that sum of money.
We, in our country, are usually facing the same socio-political crises that Sen experienced in his lifetime. He made films one after another, centring around these problems.
We can take a lesson from his courageous and innovative ideas and works, and do the same by experimenting through multiple forms here in Bangladesh. We have lost a maestro, an institution, a pioneer of the sub-continent.
Mohammad Zahidur Rahman teaches history at the University of Chittagong.