Mrinal Sen died of age-related ailments on Sunday morning at his apartment in Bhawanipore in Kolkata. He was 95. He is survived by his son, Kunal. His wife, Gita Sen, died in 2017.
Across 60 years of movies, short films and documentaries, Mrinal Sen’s repertoire illustrated his unwavering conviction that “the film maker has to be an agent-provocateur – one who disturbs the spectator and moves him to action”.
Born on May 14, 1932, Sen was influenced by the techniques of French New Wave directors. He developed a unique style, fusing contentious subjects, inter-textual connections, documentary footage, and cross-references from his own films and those of other filmmakers.
The incendiary Calcutta trilogy (Interview, Calcutta ’71 and Padatik) is located in Sen’s own city, but is not trapped in its context of colonial hangover. With Brechtian moments built into its structure, Interview (1970) concerns the sartorial formalities that illogically determine chances of middle class employment. Sen’s contempt for such superficialities erupts in the final moments of the film, when the disillusioned protagonist smashes a shop window and strips a mannequin of its suited splendour.
In Calcutta ’71 (1972), a young man weaves four strands of the film together identifying the plight of a timeless global youth – “I am twenty years old, and over a thousand years I have been a witness to poverty, misery and death. On my journey through a thousand years I have seen history, the history of poverty, deception and exploitation.”
Just as relevant is the theme of Padatik (1973), one of the few overtly political films to be made in India. The disenchantment with political dogma is the stuff that ultimately corrodes a system.
The architects of such systems are seen in Chorus (1974), a political fantasy set in the future. Scheming manipulators create organisms of exploitation and then fear their own creations. The outcome is not so much the point as the subterranean rage of a people who rise to question the pecking order.
Such engagements set Mrinal Sen’s films apart from conventional narratives. The continued relevance of Sen’s films is captured by John Hood: “Sen’s audience goes to the cinema not to escape everyday life but to re-experience it” (Chasing the Truth, Seagull).
Of course, Sen’s attempt to create a self-reflective audience was not infallible. The sociopolitical satire of Bhuvan Shome (1969), in which Sen wanted to expose the character of a corruptible and hidebound bureaucrat, was summed up by his contemporary, Satyajit Ray in seven famous words – “Big Bad Bureaucrat Reformed by Rustic Belle.” (Our Films, Their Films, Orient Blackswan).
While Sen enjoyed and even courted criticism, he maintained that a simple journey from bad to good was mere “wish fulfillment”. Consequently, Sen’s characters are made to hurtle down a cul-de-sac, while his audience, often cut to the quick, is left to examine its own understanding of one man’s meat being another man’s poison.
Nothing could have fleshed out such a theme better than the period piece Mrigayaa (1976). The movie tracked both animal and human hunters in the tribal heartland of Orissa, extracting superb performances from debutantes Mithun Chakraborty and Mamata Shankar en route. However, it is the dispassionate “ dehumanising effect of poverty” depicted in the Telugu film Oka Oorie Katha (1977) that leaves viewers speechless.
In 1980, Sen returned to “the dialectics of hunger and the dialectics of poverty” with Aakaler Sandhaney (1980), which echoes his earlier Baishey Sravan (1960), regarded as his most cruel work. The film’s title actually translates as the 22nd day of Sravana in the Bengali calendar – it is the death anniversary of Rabindranath Tagore.
On this date, by tradition, Bengal proudly commemorates the glory of Tagore’s cultural contribution. Sen maintained that less famous people lived and died on that day, and weathering resistance, he created a film with no reference to the great poet. Baishey Sravan (1960), in which the lovely Madhabi Mukherjee makes her debut, is a human document about how the poor are made poorer through the pitiless man-made Bengal Famine of 1943. There is no distressing footage – a symbolic storm unleashes fear and panic, cracking village hearths, homes and livelihood. With alarm more than sentiment, we are alerted to ravaging and irreparable loss.
Aakaler Sandhaney (1980) is a film-within-a-film. It portrays a well-intentioned but inadequate urban director (who by Sen’s own admission could have been himself) and the efforts of his fairly disengaged unit to create a film of devastating rural hardship. In the sharpest comment on the gulf between real worlds and the attempt to represent them, the characters play a game – they look at photographs of human suffering and try to guess their context. A photograph of black nothingness is held up by Smita Patil, an actress in both Sen’s film and the film being shot. With typical urban disconnect, she regards it as ‘‘past, present and future’’.
Middle-class doublespeak became Sen’s focus in Ek Din Pratidin (1979), Kharij (1982) and Ek Din Achanak (1989). With threadbare stories wrapped in bourgeois hypocrisies, each of these films involve a crisis and opens windows on a fractious society riddled with complexes. Guilt and responsibility are intangible but inevitable takeaways – not even the poetic beauty of Khandhar (1983) sets anyone free.
In his conversations with Samik Bandopadhyay, Sen refers to Niels Bohr, a leading thinker in the world of 20th century physics, and makes the point that truth attains a quality only when it becomes controversial. Mrinal Sen’s films are a tribute to such truth.
Corrections and clarifications: An earlier version of this story incorrectly described the Telugu film Oka Oorie Katha as Mrinal Sen’s only film in a language other than Bengali or Hindi. The filmmaker had also made the Odiya-language Matir Manush in 1966.