Skip to main content

Mrinal Sen ably tapped Bengal’s political psyche, created celluloid images of reality

By Harsh Thakor 

On 14th May we commemorated the birth centenary of film maker Mrinal Sen. Mrinal Sen was the last surviving member of the famed trio of Bengali directors, Ray-Sen-Ghatak (Ritwik Ghatak), seen as the founders of India’s ‘New Wave Cinema’. Sen, like Ghatak, may not have achieved the level of fame Ray did, but his work was equally admired the world over. Together they enriched the international reputation for the country which no other filmmakers had been able to.
Mrinal Sen was neither versatile like Satyajit Ray nor were his films painted with the pathos of our partition like the cinema of Ritwik Ghatak. Yet the maestro had his own benchmarks in comparison to his illustrious competitors. He devised a style of film making never seen before, making path breaking experiments.
A socialist by ideology, Mrinal Sen tapped into Bengal’s political psyche and created celluloid images of a reality in realms many would not dare to project. The manner he dissected scenes, integrated characters or constructed dialogues had touches of genius. In the manner of Bertolt Brecht, he made an audience detached, think for themselves, and not get swept away by emotion. In a most subtle manner he manifested class antagonism and how social conditions shaped people’s lives. In chronicling political dissent he hardly had an equal.
An avid reader of Karl Marx, Frederick Angeles, Rabindranath Tagore and Munshi Premchand, Mrinal Sen was always donned the qualities of a down-to-earth and affectionate person. Mrinal Sen resented the authority of the Communist party or orthodox party structure. Sen’s greatest attribute was his courage to question himself at the very root, which is a rare phenomenon amongst great artists.
Mrinal Sen was shaken to the ground with the collapse of USSR and East European countries, making him turn inwards. Paying a tribute to Mrinal Sen on his birth centenary year, national award-winning director Kaushik Ganguly, in his next venture ‘Palan’, is recreating the characters of the master filmmaker's critically acclaimed 'Kharij'.
Born into a middle-class family from Faridpur (now in Bangladesh) in undivided India, he witnessed the freedom struggle and the communist movement from close quarters, and even courted arrest. Sen upheld communist ideology throughout his life (according to him, he was a private Marxist). A Marxist, Mrinal Sen was closely associated with the Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA) between 1943-47, though never a member of the Communist Party. He made films that most vividly or lucidly illustrated Indian society - in diverse Indian languages. He made films in Bengali, Hindi, Oriya, and Telugu.
His interest in films was cultivated late and only after he began reading about them. According to an interview of his in the American film magazine Cineaste, occasionally he would get a few copies of foreign cinema journals where he first discovered the Italian neorealist movement. During this time, he did a variety of odd jobs. He worked at a print shop, became a medical representative, an instructor at a private institution, and an audio technician in a Calcutta film studio.

Film Career

It was not a smooth riding for Mrinal Sen in his film career. His directorial debut, Raat Bhor starring Uttam Kumar was rejected. Though Neel Akasher Niche and Baishe Sraban earned him popularity, he became an international legend with Bhuvan Some.
Goutam Ghose says that Mrinal Sen was compelled to write scripts for directors like Ajay Kar’s Kanch Kata Heera. He also wrote Jora Dighir Chowdhuryr Paribar to enable him to earn a decent living till he became famous with his Calcutta Trilogy and then there was no looking back for him.
His film Neel Akasher Neechey (1959) - set in the 1930s and exploring both anti-colonial nationalism and the class divide in Indian society - was the first film ever to be banned in independent India. The film shook India’s first Government because it illustrated the absolute apathy of India’s elites towards its poor and disadvantaged people, even though both inhabited the same soil. The ban was lifted after three months - but was an early sign of the Indian State’s intolerance to dissent.
Govind Nihalani was enamoured with the use of freeze and zoom shots in Mrinal Sen’s Akash Kusum.(1965) t is the story of the dreams of a middle class executive to gain greater stature and greater social acceptability. The young man attempting to secure a footing in the corporate world disguises himself till his deception turns disastrous for him, and ruins their relationship.
He made his first flash in Hindi cinema with Bhuvan Shome (1969).The legendary Uttpal Dutt portrayed the role of a westernized railway officer who unravels there is a life beyond the boundaries of bureaucracy during his duck hunting trip to Gujarat. Suhasini Mulay as a young tribal woman helps Dutt to untap the ordinary joys of life. The negativity of a feudal society that begins stagnating is brilliantly synthesised in Bhavan Some.
He brilliantly delved into the themes of 1970s India in many films. Sen’s Interview, Calcutta 71 (1971) and Padatik (1973) delved in exploring the social and political upheavals in the city during the turbulent naxalbari uprising, and are thematic portrayals of the politics of The Naxalite Movement. In a most subtle manner he illustrated the impact of the naxalite movement in shaping the lives of people
Interview (1971) follows a young man who is disqualified from a job because he lacks a suit to wear. A pathbreaking film. Although based on the colonial hangover, it reflected a wide range of issues like anti-establishment, middle class cowardice, and unemployment.
Calcutta 71 (1972) reveals the dehumanising aspects of deprivation and poverty on the one hand, and hypocrisy of affluence on the other, culminating with a young Naxalite being killed in cold blood by the police. It narrates the violence and corruption throughout the course of history. Scene dissection simply outstanding. A most lucid and illustrative study of the political turmoil of the seventies, documenting the agony of the common people taking intensity to heights rarely reached in Indian cinema. Here restlessness was captured at it’s absolute pitch. The jump cuts of Calcutta 71 entangled with mime acting in certain scenes was a model in direction.
Padatik (1973) examined the contradictions or dichtonomy between middle class values and a young Naxalite revolutionary with the narrative conveyed with cinematic artistry in realms untouched. In ‘Padatik’ we witness the scenario of Kolkata as in the early 1970s; a place brimming with chaos.. Mrinal Sen portrays the burning issues within the scenario of political turmoil, with great sensitivity. The narrative follows a young political activist (Dhritiman Chatterjee) who escapes a prison van and takes shelter in a posh apartment owned by a sensitive young woman (Simi Garewal).Dialogues and scenes carved touching reality at the very rock bottom, with no element of melodrama, giving a viewer a great insight into the political scenario and how its shaped people’s lives.
Mrigayaa (1976) is set in the background of the Santhal rebellion and colonial rule which unfolded the double standards of the colonial state, which rewarded ‘hunting down’ revolutionaries and wild animals - but punished the killing of oppressors. Those features of the colonial state are ressurected by the Indian State today - and that is what makes the film relevant even in today’s India. Mrigaaya' featured Mithun Chakraborty as a tribal man who is reputed to be one of the best hunters around, even by the British rulers. Yet t he was hanged after being found guilty of murdering the moneylender who kidnapped his wife. His trial and death later spark rebellion among the tribal people.
Ek Din Pratidin (1979) superbly manifests middle class patriarchy in India which circumscribes women’s autonomy even as it needs women to earn. This was reflected in a family’s response when their young daughter who is also the main breadwinner fails to return home one night - and then returns the next morning. It ridicules conventional morality.
Akaler Sandhane (1982), with untold mastery , captures how a film unit in a village is trying to capture the pulse of the Bengal famine of 1943 & finds no difference between then and now; or between reel life and real life, The film unravels s the convivial life among the film crew and the hurdles of filmmaking on location. It bridges the link between 1943 and 1980, in the manner of past meeting the present.
Khandhar (1984) written by Premendra Mitra, penetrates the flurry of emotions within the human mind when it is faced with a choice between the revolutionary and difficult, and the ordinary but comfortable. Subash (Naseeruddin Shah), an eager but not-so-well established photographer visits a cast-off village which is in ruins along with his two friends. On the first night of his venture, he notices a girl. The following day, he gets to know that the girl, Jamini (Shabana Azmi), continued to live in the ruins with her dying mother after the village was abandoned by the Zamindars due to a malaria epidemic many decades ago. Scene dissection and direction epitomising artistry at it’s very best.
Jamini represents a conventional Indian maiden on the surface, yet aspires for her circumstances to change. She is an insecure, dutiful daughter who sometimes expresses her indignation of being alone and betrayed by her mother but recognizes her ‘fault’ the very next moment and rapidly returns to abiding to the task of of a caring but mournful daughter. Subash gets drawn to this sensitive and civilized girl, which crystallises the theme. One is left in suspense if history will repeat itself for Subash and Jamini.
Mahaprithivi (1991) begins with the sequence of suicide of a mother one of whose sons, at the helm of the Naxalite movement two decades earlier, was shot dead by the police. It examines the reasons behind her taking this step and whether with communism collapsing in country after country, her son’s sacrifice would be dumped into the dustbin of history.
Mrinal Sen won awards at Cannes and also served as a jury member in the Mecca of film festivals. He termed Cannes his second home. During his lifetime he cherished recollected his interactions with Akira Kurasawa, Richard Attenborough and Jean Luc Goddard. He attributed how Goddard shaped his filmmaking style. He won special jury prizes for Akaler Shandhaney (In Search of Famine, 1981) at Berlin and Kharij (The Case Is Closed, 1982) at Cannes.

Characteristics of Mrinal Sen’s films

First, he had the courage to make films which were staunchly political. His ‘Calcutta Trilogy’ and ‘Chorus’, for instance, were landmarks. 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...”
Second, Sen refrained from being stereotyped. Two of his popular films — ‘Neel Akasher Niche’ (1958), and the influential ‘Bhuvan Shome’ pioneered the Indian new wave and Sen illustrated untold mastery over the narrative format. However, instead of continuing that way, he altered his conventional format through bolder films that followed.
Third, he not only explored the middle and lower-middle class realities but was brave enough to question himself too. He quoted physicist Niels Bohr: “Confidence comes from not being always right, but from not fearing to be wrong.” This attitude, of never afraid of making a mistake, sparkled his creativity and sustained his spirit.
It is regretful that Mrinal Sen ventured into personalised films after being disillusioned with the fall of Communism, from the 1990’s. In later periods, he did not embark on the task of documenting films s confronting the anti-Communist propaganda or the tormentation of people with the advent of globalisation.
Harsh Thakor is freelance journalist who has done extensive research on film makers. Owes gratitude for information on Mrinal Sen from sources like The Tribune, The Hindu, India Times and Interview of Shabana Azmi



Eight years of empowering tribal communities through water initiatives in Chhattisgarh

By Gazala Paul*   In the heart of Chhattisgarh, amidst the echoes of tribal life, a transformative journey has unfolded over the past eight years. The Samerth organization has diligently worked to elevate the lives of indigenous communities in the Kawardha district through the project, "Enabling Baiga Community to access safe drinking water." 

Martin Crowe played instrumental role in making New Zealand a force in world cricket

By Harsh Thakor* Late Martin Crowe was the perfect manifestation of how mere figures could not convey or do justice to the true merit of a batsman. Crowe was arguably the most complete  or majestic batsmen of his era or the ultimate embodiment of batting perfection, or the classical batsmen. He perished 7 years ago, due to a rare and aggressive form of cancer, follicular lymphoma, which originated in 2012. In September, we celebrated his 60th birthday but sadly he left for his heavenly abode.

Regretful: Kapil Dev retired not leaving Indian cricket with integrity he upheld

By Harsh Thakor  Kapil Dev scaled heights as an entertainer and a player upholding the spirit of the game almost unparalleled in his era. In his time he was cricket’s ultimate mascot of sportsmanship On his day Kapil could dazzle in all departments to turn the tempo of game in the manner of a Tsunami breaking in. He radiated r energy, at a level rarely scaled in his era on a cricket field. Few ever blended aggression with artistry so comprehenisively. Although fast medium, he could be as daunting with the ball as the very best, with his crafty outswinger, offcutter, slower ball and ball that kicked from a good length. Inspite of bowling on docile tracks on the subcontinent, Kapil had 434 scalps, with virtually no assistance. I can never forget how he obtained pace and movement on flat pancakes, trapping the great Vivian Richards in Front or getting Geoff Boycott or Zaheer Abbas caught behind. No paceman carried the workload of his team’s bowling attack on his shoulders in his eras muc

How the slogan Jai Bhim gained momentum as movement of popularity and revolution

By Dr Kapilendra Das*  India is an incomprehensible plural country loaded with diversities of religions, castes, cultures, languages, dialects, tribes, societies, costumes, etc. The Indians have good manners/etiquette (decent social conduct, gesture, courtesy, politeness) that build healthy relationships and take them ahead to life. In many parts of India, in many situations, and on formal occasions, it is common for people of India to express and exchange respect, greetings, and salutation for which we people usually use words and phrases like- Namaskar, Namaste, Pranam, Ram Ram, Jai Ram ji, Jai Sriram, Good morning, shubha sakal, Radhe Radhe, Jai Bajarangabali, Jai Gopal, Jai Jai, Supravat, Good night, Shuvaratri, Jai Bhole, Salaam walekam, Walekam salaam, Radhaswami, Namo Buddhaya, Jai Bhim, Hello, and so on.

Towards 2024: Time for ‘We the People of India’ to wake up before it is too late

By Fr Cedric Prakash SJ*  It is Constitution Day once again! We, the people of India, gratefully remember 26 November 1949 when the Constitution of India was passed and adopted by the Constituent Assembly. The Constituent Assembly comprised women and men of distinction, who were able to represent the heart and soul of the people of India without fear or favour. They gave of their best, so that we may a visionary Constitution, which would be the mainstay for and of democracy in India!

Ceasefire a tactical victory for Palestinian resistance, protests intensify across globe

By Harsh Thakor*  The Zionist leadership and Netanyahu’s government were compelled to concede the defeat of their first attempt after almost 50 days of daily fighting in the Gaza Strip.  Netanyahu was forced to concede that he was unsuccessful in suppressing the Palestinian Resistance; and that the release of the prisoners was only plausible because they accepted Hamas’ terms.

Odisha leadership crisis deepens: CM engages retired babus to oversee depts' work

By Sudhansu R Das  Over decades, Odisha has lost much of its crop diversity, fertile agriculture land, water bodies, employment potential, handicraft and handloom skills etc. The state has failed to strike a balance between the urban and rural sector growth; this leads to the migration of villagers to the urban areas leading to collapse of the urban infrastructures and an acute labor shortage in rural areas.  A large number of educated, skilled and unskilled Odia people have migrated to other states for higher education, quality jobs and for earning livelihood which plummet the efficiency level of government departments. Utmost transparency in the recruitment and promotion in the state government departments will improve governance mechanisms in the state.  "No near and dear one approach" in governance mechanisms can only achieve inclusive growth for the state on payment basis. This is a moral hazard. When so many educated young people seek employment outside the

1982-83 Bombay textile strike played major role in shaping working class movement

By Harsh Thakor  On January 18th, 1982 the working class movement commemorated the 40th anniversary of the Textile Workers Strike that lasted for 18 months, till July 1983. It was landmark event that played a major role in shaping the working class movement. With more than 2.5 lakh workers from 65 textile mills joining in this strike for almost two years, this strike became one of the most significant strikes in terms of scale and duration All democrats should applaud the mill workers’ united battle, and their unflinching resilience an death defying courage continues to serve as a model for contemporary working-class movements. Many middle class persons harboured opinions that the Textile workers were pampered or were a labour aristocracy, ignorant of how they were denied wages to provide for basic necessities. The Great Bombay Textile Strike is notably one of the most defining movements in the working class struggles in Post-independent India. Bombay’s textile industry flourished in

Massive tropical deforestation: Big finance's $307 billion go to forest-risk commodities

A note on report by Forests & Finance coalition -- Rainforest Action Network, TuK Indonesia, Profundo, Amazon Watch, Repórter Brasil, BankTrack, Sahabat Alam Malaysia and Friends of the Earth US: *** A new report released on ‘Finance Day’ at COP28 by the Forests & Finance Coalition , provides a comprehensive look into the role big finance plays in driving deforestation, biodiversity loss, climate change and human rights abuses in tropical forest regions. The report reveals that since the Paris Agreement, banks have pumped over $307 billion into high risk forestry and agriculture companies linked to tropical deforestation, proving that the policies of major global banks and investors are failing to prevent continued widespread forest and biodiversity loss.

20% of Indian businesses have no emission plan in place despite climate emergency: Report

By Jag Jivan   New research underlines urgent need for strategies and transition plans to combat climate change, remain successful and meet stakeholder expectations.