Mrinal Sen (1923-2018)

Abhijit Ghosh Dastidar

Mrinal Sen was born in a Hindu family in Faridpur district, East Bengal (now Bangladesh). He studied undergraduation Physics at Scottish Church College, Calcutta. Rudolf Arnheim's "Film as Art", a book on film aesthetics, created in him theoretical interest in cinema. Mrinal was forced to take a job as a medical representative in Uttar Pradesh. On return to Kolkata he worked as an audio technician in a film studio, which was the beginning of his film career. Earlier he had worked as a freelance journalist. From 1943 to 1947, he was involved with the Indian People's Theatre Association (IPTA), sponsored by the Communist Party of India.

The long and glittering trajectory of Mrinal's films stretches from "Raatbhore" (1955) to "Amar Bhuvan" (2002). Mrinal followed the Italian communist Elio Vittarini's dictum of the 1940s : "The point is not to pocket the truth, but to chase the truth". Starting in the mid-1950s, Mrinal's films explored societal divisions and other themes in movies like "Baishe Shravana" (1960), about a dumpy middle aged man, who marries a teenager; and "Akash Kusum" (1965), about a lower middle class man who inflates his credentials, with the aim of winning over a young woman. Mrinal's "Neel Akasher Neechay" (1958) was the first film to be banned in independent India, but was later released on review.

Being a practising Marxist, Mrinal was close to the people and the poor of Kolkata, Bengal and India. His films were marked by political analysis, protests and a study of the socio-economic conditions. The political quartet emerged with "Interview" (1971), where a man loses his job as he cannot afford to buy a suit. "Calcutta 71" (1972) studies 40 years in the history of social deprivation, told with Brechtian rigour. "Padatik" (1973) makes an analysis of the extreme left. "Chorus" (1974) with a surifeit of barbed wires and police in uniform cries out against repression. From the second half of the 1970s, diverting from class struggles, Mrinal's film making became reflective and strengthened local story telling techniques. He was hugely influenced by the French new wave, European resurgence, and Latin American cinema pointing to a different road. "Bhuvan Shome" (1969) abounds in freezes, jump cuts and sound puns. Lindsay Anderson's "If" (1968) was a strong influence. Mrinal's films won prizes at several festivals, including special jury prizes for "Akaler Sandhaney" at Berlin (1981) and "Kharij" at Cannes (1982). Along with contempories like Satyajit Ray and Ritwik Ghatak, Mrinal built up the parallel cinema in India, far removed from the rigidly formulaic Hindi language musicals. His films were not just artistic, but disturbing and annoying. "Oka Oori Katha" (1977) on grinding poverty, concludes with the film roll burning.

Vol. 51, No.34, Feb 24 - Mar 2, 2019