Tuesday, June 25, 2024


Dhaka Tribune

Mrinal Sen: A mosaic of Art, Cinema, and Politics

Mrinal Sen has always been denoted as a political filmmaker but he did not restrict himself in the genre of political cinema only

Update : 23 Dec 2023, 11:25 AM

Mrinal Sen’s disembarkment in Calcutta (now Kolkata) at the age of 17 might remind one of the image of “Apu” -- holding suitcase and bedding -- from Aparajito. Sen came to the city leaving “Faridpur” (his native village) behind but did not remain an outsider for long in Calcutta. Studying in Scottish Church College, Sen started partaking in the then communist movement and within a year of his arrival in Calcutta he spent a week in Lalbazar police station for his association with CPI -- which was a banned political party back then. Although Mrinal Sen’s politics started long before his arrival in Calcutta; his family had a political background because of his father’s -- a renowned advocate in Faridpur -- association with the Indian National Congress. During childhood Sen had enjoyed the company of many freedom fighters; for instance, his first joyride in a motorcar on his mother’s lap was along with Bipin Chandra Pal, who came to Faridpur for a political meeting. Mrinal Sen’s biographer Dipankar Mukhopadhyay has documented an interesting anecdote -- Sen’s encounter with Netaji -- in his book Mrinal Sen: Sixty years in search of cinema: “Young Mrinal was howling with a toothache, when his extremely handsome ‘doctor’ came up and comforted him. Later he also sent an ointment for application on Mrinal’s swollen gum and assured him that he would be alright in no time. Sen did not know the name of the ointment, but remembers that he had read “Made in Germany” on the tube. Sure enough, Netaji’s treatment gave him the much-needed relief.” 

Shortly after Mrinal Sen’s arrival in Calcutta, his memories of Faridpur started losing their colors but Sen was indebted to Faridpur till his last breath. His native village had shaped him in many ways. Sen watched his first cinema in Faridpur. When he was in his early teens, a touring cinema company came to Faridpur and screened Devdas. Little Sen pensively watched the film inside a make-shift auditorium while it was raining outside. Dipankar Mukhopadhyay beautifully articulates this experience of Sen by writing: “In one sequence, when young Devdas and Parvati were running hand-in-hand, suddenly rain came pouring down and the boy observed how the pitter-patter of the raindrops on the tin roof matched perfectly with the footsteps of the young couple running on the screen. He did not know he was learning one of his greatest lessons -- the importance of soundtrack in a movie.”    

As he grew up he became a voracious reader. He read Ernest Hemingway and poets like Stephen Spender and W.H. Auden just after entering his adolescence. He was greatly moved by the ideas of “classless society”. At home in Faridpur Sen enjoyed the company of Mohit Sen and Bagala Guha who were one of the best minds of Bengal CPI -- which his father did not like because of his political stand -- quite opposite to the Marxist rebellion ideas. Nonetheless he continued keeping his communist company even after coming to Calcutta and here he became a member of a study circle where Marxist doctrines were discussed. Sen became close with the leading Marxist theoreticians like Professor Hirendranath Mukherjee, Gopal Haldar, and Niren Roy -- who would later gift him Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain when Sen was leaving Calcutta for a brief time to settle in Kanpur as a medical representative. 

Bored with his job, Sen soon came back to Calcutta and discovered the reading room of The Imperial Library (now known as The National Library) where he grasped history to literature -- poetry to philosophy. Mrinal Sen became as much familiar with The Imperial Library as Borges was familiar with the Library of Babe”. There he discovered the Czech writer Karel Capek and made his mind to translate Capek’s last novel The Cheat in Bengali. His transcreation saw the light of the day in 1946 -- a decade before he emerged as a filmmaker. In the early 40s he discovered another book named Film by Rudolph Arnheim which was his first exposure to the medium of cinema and after finishing it he read Vladimir Nilsen’s Cinema as a graphic Art where Nilsen shared his experience of working with the famous Soviet filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein. The idea of making Pushkin’s long poem The Brazen Horseman into a film-script fascinated Mrinal Sen. Slowly Sen was developing his own ideas and theories on Cinema which reflected for the first time in 1945 when his first major article titled The Cinema and the People appeared in the pages of Indo-Soviet Friendship Society magazine. Eight years later Sen came up with his first book on Cinema titled Charlie Chaplin with an insightful cover design -- illustrated by none other than the maestro Satyajit Ray. 

The intense readings of the 40s and the infamous Bengal Famine of 1943 left an imprint on Mrinal Sen. During that time he was spending almost ten hours a day in the Imperial Library reading room and strolling down the city like a maverick across the city. Memories of dwelling in such an ominous time reflected later in his films such as Akaler Sandhaney.“In Sen’s development as a filmmaker” his biographer comments “famine played a crucial role -- just as partition did with Ghatak’s cinema.” Famine, hunger and poverty have worked as a leitmotif in Mrinal Sen’s Cinema. He scrupulously documented the early 70s political turmoil and middle-class crisis, poverty, and exploitation of the poor in his Calcutta trilogy. Sen gave a voice to the voiceless which is apparent in the climax scene of his film Interview where the protagonist broke the glass of a garment store in rage and stripped a well-dressed mannequin. Sen also loved to experiment technically with the medium of cinema. He structured the film Interview as what we call today “Meta-Cinema” -- this genre was not well-known among the Bengali audiences of that time.

Mrinal Sen has always been denoted as a political filmmaker but he did not restrict himself in the genre of political cinema only. Khandahar and Genesis are the two less-talked Mrinal Sen films -- where he tried to explore the themes such as loneliness, human emotions and relationships. Mrinal Sen’s films became technically rich after his collaboration with the master of lights and shadows -- K.K. Mahajan. The restless cameras of Interview and Kharij, and the slow-moving camera which caught the mood of sadness in Khandahar were ahead of their times. 

Sen started receiving global recognition from the 70s.  Interview was awarded in the Sri Lanka Film Festival and Karlovy Vary Film Festival. Chorus received the silver medal in the Moscow Film Festival and the FIPRESI award in the Berlin Film Festival. Akaler Sandhaney received Silver Bear and Kharij was acknowledged in the Cannes, Chicago, and Valladolid Film Festival. Sen also proved himself as a successful documentary filmmaker. His non-feature films such as Moving Perspectives, Tripura Prasanga, and Calcutta: My El Dorado were warmly accepted by the critics and audiences. His first documentary Moving Perspectives was awarded the Silver Trophy in Pnom Pench Film Festival. 

Mrinal Sen spent his whole life in search of cinema. He never stepped back from experimenting with image and sound and at the same time he was never afraid of making his voice go public. With his rageful leftist revolutionary ideas tinged with mellow witticism, he exposed the exploiter and the exploited clearly in the light of day. Now it has been five years that we lost him but we’re forever indebted to him for his brave and critical societal comments.            

Soumalya Chatterjee is a former student of comparative literature, Jadavpur University.

Top Brokers


Popular Links