Mrinal Sen was Indian cinema’s street fighter

A key pillar of the celebrated triumvirate that gave Bengali cinema sustained global heft from the 1950s through the 1980s, Mrinal Sen was known to his friends and acquaintances as a shy, reserved man. But he wasn’t one to mince words or lose an opportunity for a conversation.

In the late 1980s, Sen was filming Ek Din Achanak in Kolkata’s rundown Aurora Studios. I, then a rookie with a local newspaper, called him one evening with a request for an interview. His response was typical of the man. He said: “A director in the middle of a shoot is like a student preparing for an exam. You shouldn’t disturb him.” I mustered a sheepish apology. But before I could hang up, he stopped me and added: “But I do have a lunch break. We could talk then.” The interview happened at the appointed time the next day and lasted well beyond the lunch break. I asked him a single question and he talked and talked. I listened, hanging on to every word he uttered.

Satyajit Ray was the quintessential classicist, perfectly measured in word and deed. Ritwik Ghatak was a maverick nursing the pain of Partition and pouring his heart out in his films. Sen was Indian cinema’s equivalent of a street fighter who revelled in discomfiting the bhadralok with pointed jabs at their complacency. He did that most notably, and with disquieting acuity and undisguised relish, in Ek Din Pratidin (‘And Quiet Rolls the Dawn’, 1979) and Kharij (‘The Case is Closed’), which earned him a Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival in 1982.

Mrinal Sen was Indian cinema’s street fighter

As a filmmaker, the image that he had was that of a stormy petrel, principally owing to the strong political thrum of his work. But most of Sen’s films, from 1960’s Baishey Shrabon (‘Wedding Day’) to 2002’s Aamaar Bhubon (‘This, My Land’), reflected the mind and spirit of a socially engaged chronicler of aspects of independent India that mainstream Indian filmmakers chose to gloss over, if not completely neglect.

A lodestar

Sen’s first Hindi film, Bhuvan Shome (1969), is generally regarded not only as the starting point of India’s parallel cinema movement but also as a lodestar for the succeeding generations of commercially-oriented filmmakers who turned their attention to stories of import from the hinterland and from spaces populated by India’s urban underclass.

In 2010, when Sen was 87 — he was born in Faridpur, East Bengal, now Bangladesh, on May 14, 1923 — he was in Cannes to present a restored print of Khandhar (‘The Ruins’), which had premiered in 1984 in the festival’s Un Certain Regard sidebar. Until then, every film of his that had made it to the Cannes line-up had played in the main competition. But that year, responding to a personal plea from festival president Gilles Jacob, Sen opted to vacate the Competition slot for Ghare Baire (‘Home and the World’), which an ailing, just-out-of-hospital Ray had completed in time for the festival.

Mrinal Sen was Indian cinema’s street fighter

On that trip to Cannes, Sen was frail, so he was accompanied by his son Kunal Sen. But his mind was as sharp as ever as he reminisced about his illustrious and highly productive career, which had sadly ended nearly a decade earlier. It didn’t matter because what he had achieved while serving the medium for nearly half a century was second to none. How many filmmakers in the world have a body of work as memorable as Sen’s?

Each of his critically lauded films — the Calcutta trilogy (Interview, Calcutta 71, Padatik), which laid out his political ideology in no uncertain terms, Mrigaya (‘The Royal Hunt’), which launched Mithun Chakraborty’s career, and Oka Oori Katha, a powerful Telugu adaptation of Munshi Premchand’s Kafan, besides Chorus, Parasuram and Aakaler Sandhane (‘In Search of Famine’) — can stand alongside the best on its own steam.

(The writer is a film critic based in New Delhi.)

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Printable version | Oct 28, 2020 9:06:20 PM |

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