Mrinal Sen along with Satyajit Ray and Ritwik Ghatak, ranks among the most accomplished and acclaimed filmmakers in the world of Bengali cinema. In a prolific career spanning almost five decades, Sen has directed 27 feature films, 14 short films and 4 documentaries of varying content and cine-aesthetics but always exhibiting a deep analytical mind and humanist ideology.
Mrinal Sen was born on May 14th, 1923 in Faridpur, a district town now in modern Bangladesh. After finishing his school in Faridpur, Sen came to Kolkata to study physics. In Kolkata, he was heavily influenced by Marxism and joined the Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA) the cultural front of the Communist Party of India. At the same time he developed his abiding interest in cinema after reading a book on film aesthetics and technique. In the fertile intellectual milieu of Kolkata of the early 1950s, Sen along with his friends and contemporaries like Ghatak and Salil Choudhury dreamt of making realistic and intellectually challenging films over endless cups of garam chai and bidis. Due to financial problems, Sen took up the job of medical representative and had to leave Kolkata for a couple of years. But the urge to make his own film, compelled Sen to come back. He managed to get the job of sound-recordist and thus began his career in films.
Mrinal Sen made his debut with Raat Bhore (1955), a film which Sen himself has labeled to be eminently forgettable. His second film, Neel Akasher Neechey (1958), earned him his reputation in the Bengali film industry. Neel Akasher Neechey, a film with strong neo-realist influences, tells the story of Wang Lu, an honest Chinese silk trader who develops a fraternal relationship with Basanti, the wife of one of his Kolkata clients. Under the influence of Basanti, an independent woman with strong leftist tendencies, Wang Lu develops an interest in the struggles of his impoverished countrymen and joins the resistance movement against the Japanese forces upon his return to China. The film with its overtly Marxist theme ran into censor problems and was banned for more than 2 months. The film was quite popular after its release and is remembered for the brilliant performances by Kali Bannerjee as Wang Lu, Manju De as the feisty and irrepressible Basanti and the smash-hit Hemanta Mukherjee song O Nadire Ekti Katha Sudhai Sudhu Tomare. His third film, Baishey Sravana (1960), also received critical and popular appreciation.The film is set in a Bengal village just before and during the horrific famine of 1943 in Bengal that saw over 5 million die. Madhabi Mukherjee making her first major impact in Bengali cinema plays a 16 year old girl who marries a middle-aged man. Initially she brightens up his life but then World War II and the Bengal Famine hits them. The couple’s marriage disintegrates. In the end the wife hangs herself.
After Baishey Sravan, Sen made five more feature films but none of these scaled any great heights both in terms of form and content. After the failure of Matir Manisha (1966), made in Oriya, Sen’s career hit a low point and he found it extremely difficult to find producers for his projects. In 1969, he applied for a loan from the newly formed Film Finance Corporation (the precursor of NFDC) and managed to get funds for his next film. The result was Bhuvan Shome (1969), a radical departure from Sen’s earlier films and the usual Indian cinema of the period. The film tells the story of Bhuvan Shome (brilliantly played by Utpal Dutt), a strict disciplinarian bureaucrat with a Victorian morality who gets corrupted and humanised through his interactions with some simple village folks while holidaying in the remote Kuchh area of Gujarat. A disastrous duck-hunting episode, an attack by a marauding buffalo, a rocky ride in bullock cart and finally the discovery of the simple joys of human relationships and struggles in the company of an exuberant village belle Gauri (Suhasini Mulay, in a memorable role) results in humanising the tough and autocratic Shome Sahib. The film brilliantly captures this transformation through its novel cinematic technique and treatment. With its liberal use of freeze frames, quirky scene transitions and jump cuts complementing its wry, sardonic treatment Bhuvan Shome is considered to be one of the early examples of the Indian New Cinema of the late 1960s and 1970s. The film is also notable for being the first cinematic work of Amitabh Bachchan he gave the voice-over at the beginning of film.
After the success of Bhuvan Shome, Mrinal Sen made a series of films which established his reputation as a political filmmaker with strong Marxist leanings. The three films Interview (1970), Calcutta ’71 (1972) and Padatik (1973) now referred collectively as the Calcutta Trilogy are notable for their cinematic experimentations and strong Marxist ideological underpinnings. The use of non-conventional narrative structures and cinematic techniques heavily influenced by Jean Luc Godard to portray the turbulent and violent times of Kolkata in the 1970s make these films testaments of the times. Of these three, Calcutta ’71 is perhaps the most ambitious. It tells three stories of poverty and exploitation as observed by a passive young man who remains ageless and timeless throughout the film. Only at the end when this young man attempts to become an active participant he is killed off by the forces of state that perpetuate the exploitation. Chorus (1974) and Mrigaya (1976) complete the political films of Sen. The former is a political fantasy while the later vividly captures the plight of a young Santhal who rises against the British masters after his wife is sexually assaulted by them. Of the two, Mrigaya follows a more conformist narrative and cinematic structure. The film also won a young Mithun Chakraborty the National Award as the Best Actor.
Post Mrigaya, Mrinal Sen entered what is considered to be the most creative and mature phase of his career. Films like Ek Din Pratidin (1979), Akaler Sandhaney (1980), Chalchitra (1981), Kharij (1982), Khandahar (1983), Ek Din Achanak (1989) and Mahaprithibi (1991) explore the tensions and contradictions inherent in the Bengali middle class existence. In these films Sen eschews his earlier avant-garde experimentations and adapts a more conformist style in order to capture the moral, ethical and class contradictions that shaped the petit-bourgeois urban reality in Calcutta of the period.
Akaler Sandhaney (In Search Of A Famine) is about a left-wing liberal film crew that comes into a typical village to shoot a film about the Bengal Famine of 1942-43 and stays in an old zamindari mansion now inhabited by only a dying old man and his faithful wife a role wonderfully acted out by Mrinal Sen’s wife Gita Sen. Using the film-with-in-a-film structure with great lan, Sen in this multi-layered film investigates the politics of the Famine, the rural-urban divide that moulds the attitudes of various villagers towards the film unit, the moral ambiguity of the liberal-left and of course the magic and joys of making movies. Supported by an ensemble caste led by the incomparable Smita Patil as the sensitive heroine and KK Mahajan’s expressive photography and Salil Chowdhury’s evocative music, Akaler Sandhaney remains one of Mrinal Sen’s finest cinematic efforts. The film won the National Award for the Best Film and also its director the Best Director Award. The film also won the Silver Bear at the 1980 Berlin Film Festival. Kharij (The Case is Closed) delves deep into the guilt, the anxiety and the hypocrisy of a middle-class family affected by the sudden death of their young servant boy due to asphyxiation caused by his sleeping in the stuffy family kitchen. The film, which starred Anjan Dutt and Mamata Shankar in the lead roles ,won the Jury Award at the 1982 Cannes Film Festival.
Many of the films of Sen’s late phase are characterised by a sparse narrative line combining with minimalist aesthetics. Genesis (1986), an Indo-French-Belgian-Swiss co-production, starring Naseeruddin Shah, Om Puri and Shabhana Azmi is a powerful portrayal of the eternal man-woman and lover conflict set amongst the empty landscape of the Rajasthan deserts. Antareen (1993), starring Dimple Kapadia and Anjan Dutta and adapted from a Saadat Hasan Manto short story, depicts the lives of two solitary protagonists who come together accidentally through a telephone call. With his last film till now, Aamaar Bhuvan (2002) – the story of a poor Muslim farming family Sen returns to his earlier pre-occupation with poverty and exploitation but his time within the limits of traditional narrative structures.
Mrinal Sen and his films have received awards at numerous national and international film festivals such as Karlovy Vary, Cannes, Venice, Berlin and Moscow. He has also served as a member of the Jury at various prestigious international film festivals. He was a nominated member of the Rajya Sabha from 1998 to 2003. The French government has decorated him with the Commander of the Order of Arts and Letters, the highest honour conferred by the country. In 2001, The Russian government honoured him with the Order of Friendship. Mrinal Sen is also a Padma Bhushan recipient and was awarded the Dada Saheb Phalke Award in 2005 for his immense contribution to Indian cinema.
Always Being Born, Mrinal Sen’s memoirs, was published in 2004.
Mrinal Sen passed away in Kolkata on December 30, 2018.