Legends of Cinema: Screenplay, Direction and Gimmicks by Mrinal Sen

May marked the filmmaker’s birth centenary. We look back at his films and why they are such an important part of Indian film history
Legends of Cinema: Screenplay, Direction and Gimmicks by Mrinal Sen

Legend: noun
1. An extremely famous person, especially in a particular field
2. An explanation of the meaning of symbols used in a document, especially a map

Picture this rip in the fabric of cinema. 

Mrinal Sen’s tenth film, Interview (1971), is in progress. The Bengali actor Ranjit Mallick — longingly handsome, childishly charming, with a nose that juts out of his face like a bow window; elegant yet striking — plays the namesake character Ranjit. 

He is standing on a crowded tram, harried, in pursuit of a suit that he needs to wear for a job interview at a private Scottish company. The interview will take place later that day in front of a panel of elite, anglicised men. After spending half the day trying and failing to procure his suit from the laundry, he is now on his way to his friend’s house to borrow one. Next to him on the tram, seated, is an old man, and next to that old man, also seated, is a young woman, reading a popular film magazine. Ranjit looks closely at the photos in the magazine she is reading. For a second he is unnerved. The young girl peers up at him, then back at her magazine, and looking confused, she peers at him again.

Tension has been introduced into the scene. Why is she looking at Ranjit so strangely? Why are Ranjit’s eyes brimming with caution?

It takes a second to align our senses to the scene. The photo that the young girl was seeing in her magazine is of Mallick. The girl looks up from the magazine again, and finally confirming this is the same person from the photos, she shies away. The old man, whose gaze has been suspiciously darting between the man standing before him and the young girl, comments, voicing our confusion, too, “What is going on?” What is this middle-class working man’s photo doing in a popular film magazine? 

Ranjit swoops in with an explanation directed at the old man, “It’s not her fault. It’s mine. But you are curious, isn’t it? I’ll not hide anything from you.” In a moment, the “you” of the dialogue changes from the old man, to us, the audience — Mallick the actor as Ranjit the character breaks the fourth wall, locking eyes with us. The film ruptures. The illusion of the story falls apart. 

A still from Interview (1971), when Ranjit Mallick breaks the fourth wall.
A still from Interview (1971), when Ranjit Mallick breaks the fourth wall.

“The picture you have seen is of me. I’m not an actor or star. My name is Ranjit Mallick,” Ranjit explains to us. He gives a biographical breakdown of who he is: A proofreader of advertisements in a weekly magazine; that director Mrinal Sen saw his uneventful bhadralok life and asked if the director could follow him for a day with his camera. We get shots of Sen’s cinematographer K.K. Mahajan with the camera. We hear a voice say “cut” and Mahajan gets off the tram. 

But the cinematic cut, where a scene should end, is not one that Interview believes in, because Ranjit continues talking to us: “Let me tell you one thing. Whatever you have watched till now is not totally correct. It is true that I am travelling by tram. It is true that I have an interview. But who you saw as my mother is not my mother. She is an actress. But believe me, she is acting exactly like my mother would.”

Then, bidding us farewell, he gets out of the tram for he has other more important things he has to get to; and we too as spectators have to get on with our work — to spectate him. 

Is your mind swirling? Given Mallick is actually an actor, making his debut with Interview, this scene is made even more unstable. It is a moment of an actor acting like he is a non-actor being made to act, and this acting is supposed to collapse the distinction between who he is and what he is performing, while simultaneously making us aware of that distinction. How’s your head feeling now? 

Cinematographer K.K. Mahajan from Interivew (1971)
Cinematographer K.K. Mahajan from Interivew (1971)

Of Gimmicks and/or Statements

There are many ways to think of this rip. As a cinematic gimmick. As a provocative statement. But what is it that differentiates a limp gimmick from a provocative statement? And if it is a statement, what is it that Sen wants to evoke with this attack on the smoothness of the fictional visual image? Why jerk us out of this world he had so carefully created thus far in the film?

Argentinian filmmakers Fernando Solanas and Octavio Getino, in their seminal text Towards A Third Cinema, write, “In … cinema — art of the masses par excellence — its transformation from mere entertainment into an active means of de-alienation becomes imperative.” This is a very Marxist sentence, with its emphasis on the idea of alienation, which Karl Marx originally defined as a feeling of being separated from the product of one’s labour. “De-alienation” would, then, be the process by which you derive joy from participating in the world, seeing your subjectivity reflected in the things you produce; but not through cinematic catharsis or a relief-giving solution. Rather, in a way that involves prioritising reason over emotion, thought over feeling. 

That is what Mrinal Sen does with that moment in Interview. He makes us aware of the facade he has concocted so we are not manipulated by its cinematic sheen. To be cinema, but also, to not be too much like cinema — that is the odd, fragile balance Sen is trying to strike. 

Not just Sen. While filmmakers and critics like Andre Bazin were suspicious of the idea of “truth” in cinema, there was Jean-Luc Godard, moving towards “find[ing] the images that oppress us in order to destroy them” so that he can “make political films politically”. Sen, too, grappled with this theory through his practice. He constantly fractured his films with what some call innovations, others call gimmicks. He even considered the following credit: “Screenplay, Direction and Gimmicks by Mrinal Sen”. 

If filmmakers have been taught to create worlds that are self-contained, where we don’t worry or ask about the destiny of the characters after the end credits roll, Sen’s cinema is intensely aware of its protagonists living a cinematic afterlife beyond the frame. He wants the audience, too, to imbibe that intensity of awareness.

Towards the end of Interview, Ranjit does not get the job — all because of his outfit, his inability to procure a suit. But Sen isn’t interested in ending the film here. He wants to squeeze every possibility of Marxist anger out of it. Sen’s voice — representing us, the viewer — asks Ranjit, suspended in blackness, only his face visible in a spectral light, if he feels something more than sadness. Perhaps, anger? Ranjit breaks the fourth wall, and in this back and forth between “viewer” and “protagonist”, he is riled up until he attacks a mannequin, shredding the Western formals that adorn it, leaving it naked. Stills of Vietnamese peasants, African soldiers, student protestors in Calcutta, women picketers on the street flash by. Ranjit’s frustration is placed alongside global revolutionary movements and it leaves an odd aftertaste — is it supposed to elevate Ranjit’s frustration to that of revolutionary anger, or is it supposed to make it seem farcical and self-righteous? 

As a cinematic gesture, it screeches. As a cinematic provocation, it intrigues. Sen is asking, as Ranjit is moved towards an anti-colonial anger, how much of the revolutionary anger we have comes from personal, petty angst. If Ranjit got the job, then his satisfaction, his joy would never let him feel and subsequently express the anger that crystallises into an ideological baton to strike at enemies. Can revolutionary anger be convenient, contingent?  

A still from Interview (1971)
A still from Interview (1971)

Celluloid Furies

In one sense, Interview, perhaps ends with Ranjit’s anger. But Sen’s next film Calcutta 71 (1972) begins with Ranjit in a dream-like courtroom, suspended among a white walls, where he is on trial for attacking the mannequin. Does Interview end here, 20 minutes into Calcutta 71

While Interview pokes at the structure of cinema, Calcutta 71 completely shatters it. Set around the time of Naxalbari violence (when a wing of the Communist Party of India renounced parliamentary procedure and took up guns to insist on what they considered justice), it is narrated by a young man of 20 who was murdered by the police; a hauntingly-lit face suspended in blackness. At best, Calcutta 71 feels like a collection of scenes — random, unconnected — each invoking some aspect of shame, disgust, guilt; based on short stories or novellas: Atmahatyar Adhikar (Right to Suicide) by Manik Bandopadhyay, Angar (Ember) by Probodh Kumar Sanyal, and Esmalgar (The Smuggler) by Samaresh Basu. One chunk evokes the poverty of a family who attempt to, one rainy night, take shelter in their rich neigbour’s home as their roof collapses; the other chunk speaks of a woman who takes up sex work with the encouragement of her mother who still insists on keeping up appearance of respectability; and the last chunk is about a teenaged rice grain smuggler who is travelling on the train with his friends, making merry, chasing chaos. 

Fiction becomes one way to archive the past when facts refuse to perform that function. The writer Ashoke Mukhopadhyay notes that according to police records, 1,783 Naxalites were killed between March 1970 and August 1971 in Calcutta and its suburbs. This number is a severe under-estimate. Amnesty International in its 1974 report alleges that between 15,000-20,000 people were detained in West Bengal prisons on alleged charges of Left-wing extremism. How do you distil and express this seismic shift? By producing a film that is not self-contained, perhaps? That invites the viewer to complete it, not by merely watching it, but by being agitated by it. 

Calcutta 71, like Interview, does not know where to end. It seems to rumble, rotate its images around, returning to scenes it has already shown us, reorganising itself as the film seems to move forward. But is it moving forward? That the narrator of the film is a young man who is murdered, who is speaking beyond the grave, itself makes the idea of time in this film restless. Historian Auritro Mujumder says the film “constellates” — as in it brings disparate things in close proximity, such that the whole feels like something distinct from, something grander than the sum of its parts. Shots of young people protesting, flinging rocks; the police attacking them with batons and scattering them with teargas pepper the film — all real footage of street fights captured by Sen over two years.

Unexpectedly, the film was a commercial success. Ashish Rajasdhyaksha in India: Filming the Nation, noting Sen’s contribution to the Naxal movement, writes, “Interview (1970) and Calcutta '71 (1972) became political causes celebres, the theatres where they ran became venues for rallying leftist activists, and screenings were repeatedly interrupted by police raids.” In an interview with Samik Bandyopadhyay, for his book Over the Years, Sen noted, “People ... would watch the film over and over again, just to catch a glimpse of their friend.” Many ‘wanted’ people were arrested from the serpentine queues around Metro, the cinema in central Calcutta. During a screening Sen was accosted by two young men who insistently asked when he’d shot a particular protest because on the screen, they’d spotted their friend who would later die, shot dead by the police. They wanted to know more, seeing him memorialised in the amber of cinema. Mothers would visit the theatre the way one would visit graves — to get glimpses of a life that was flickered out by political violence.  

But cinema has to be more than a stylized archive animated by the politics of its maker. Once the idealist filmmaker burns all conventions to the ground, what is, afterall, the new cinema they are after, that Mrinal Sen is after?

A still from Calcutta 71 (1972)
A still from Calcutta 71 (1972)

An Agent of Cultured Rage

Mrinal Sen was born on May 14, 1923, in Faridpur, in a country which would over the century become first East Pakistan, and then Bangladesh. His father, a lawyer at the district court, introduced in him the spirit of protest. At Faridpur College, Sen joined the student wing of the Communist Party of India (CPI). When he moved to Calcutta, in 1940, to study at Scottish Church College, he got involved in the Indian People’s Theater Association (IPTA), the cultural wing of the CPI. Here he met actor Gita Shome, who would later become his wife. It was also here that he met Ritwik Ghatak, the filmmaker. 

If the aesthetics and politics of IPTA plays moved Sen, he would take time to warm up to cinema as a vocation. He was, instead, interested in reading about cinema — Rudolph Arnheim’s The Art Of The Film, Spottiswoode’s Romance of The Movies, Vladimir Nilsen’s Cinema As A Graphic Art. This was around the time director Satyajit Ray and critic Chidananda Dasgupta, who had founded the Calcutta Film Society — in 1947, the first film society in India — were among those who held screenings, inviting directors like Jean Renoir and John Huston when they visited India, and publishing works of criticism and interviews. Soon, Sen began writing about cinema, only to eventually be pushed into making cinema and in this way, deepening his moorings in Calcutta.  

Mrinal Sen’s son, Kunal noted of his father, “Unlike his friend Ritwik Ghatak, he (Sen) was not significantly affected by the Partition. He came to Calcutta of his own will and accepted it as his home.” Sen was, instead, haunted by images of the Bengal Famine of 1942. Ray and Sen, having dismissed commercial Bombay cinema, looked instead to world cinema. While Ray was entranced by Hollywood personalities like John Ford and Frank Capra, Sen was moved by Eisenstein and Pudovkin. One third of the Satyajit Ray-Ritwik Ghatak-Mrinal Sen triumvirate that animates our grasp over film history, Sen moved in ways that were distinct from the other two. Each was preoccupied with a unique brand of realism that they stylistically pursued in their distinctive ways, centred around the social flux of their time. 

The city of Calcutta itself would shape-shift over the decades and its prominence would wane. In the 1930s with the founding of the New Theatres studio in Tollygunge — from which Bengali cinema got its ugly moniker ‘Tollywood’ — cinema flourished in the city. Two decades later, a wealth of talent had migrated to Bombay and with dwindling patronage, the pioneering film studio New Theatres shut down in 1955. Sen and Ray are among those who chose to stay back in Calcutta and make sense of the city through their cinema. 

Sen began his journey as a film director in 1956 with Raat Bhore, a journey of four and a half decades that would include 27 feature films, 14 shorts, and 4 documentaries. While he made six feature films in Hindi, one in Telugu (Oka Oori Katha, 1977), one in Odia (Matira Manisha, 1966), Calcutta and Bengali remained the centre of his imagination, even as he garnered more attention in film festivals, becoming the first Indian to be invited to the Cannes Film Festival jury, serving in 1982. 

Broadly, Sen’s filmography has been theorised into three parts, each washing over one another, neither distinct nor watertight — the first coming out of India’s independence when we became a post-colonial nation; the second coming out of the tectonic shifts taking place in Calcutta in the late 1960s-early 1970s with Naxalbari; the third is the internationalism that came out of the dissolution of the Soviet Union, trying to examine the moral fumblings of people living in the shadow of bhadralok capitalism. 

It was only in his third film Baishey Shravan (22nd Day Of Shravan, 1960) that Sen’s artistry, politics, and political artistry was seen in clear focus. The film begins in the late 1930s and tapers into the years of World War II, with the Bengal famine in the background. While the famine is never shown, what unfolds on screen is the resulting slow disintegration of a couple, an old man and a young girl, till the girl dies by suicide. Here is poverty shown as grotesque, alienating as opposed to the more romanticised version in Ray’s films, which were exhibiting to critical and commercial acclaim at home and abroad. Sen, in a 1976 interview with Udayan Gupta noted, “We have always been trying to make poverty respectable, and dignified… You can find plenty of this in Bengali literature. As long as you present poverty as something dignified, the establishment will not be disturbed.” To disturb the establishment — Sen articulated one of the crucial tenets of his cinema; one that would be tested, twisted, and tamed over the coming decades.

The Poetics of Interruption

While that is a thematic tenet, there is also Sen’s use of aesthetics — what some might argue is his abuse of aesthetics — which has come to be associated with the auteur. The freeze-frame, where a single frame from the film stock is “frozen”, pausing the fluidity of video, by printing multiple copies of the same frame, making it feel like a photograph, along with the puncture of actual photographs is one such stylistic punch — a citric addition that yanks you out of the film. Used first in Alfred Hitchcock’s Champagne (1928) and popularised by François Truffaut’s 400 Blows (1959), the freeze frame bled its way into Indian cinema through a cut that Sen made. Literary critic Torsa Ghosal calls this Sen’s “poetics of interruption”.

Sen’s persistent obsession with photographic freeze begins with Akash Kusum (1965). These interruptions exert a dual, almost contradictory force over the film. A photo of a character holding the Canon film camera; the lovers, played by Soumitra Chatterjee and Aparna Sen, posing for one another; then a photo of this photo being taken — with both the photographer and the photographed in frame — allows both a deepening of the moment by freezing it, and a rupturing of it by making its staged quality apparent. A photo of the two lovers sitting in a park, pensive, looks like a behind-the-scenes shot. This is a moment where actors are resting, keeping their characters aside for a moment. Cinema is laid bare even as its beauty is contained. 

A still from Akash Kusum (1965)
A still from Akash Kusum (1965)

But there is something else these photos allow. Sen brings in the world outside of the film into it. When he has to show the rain, he shows photographs of people in the city braving a heavy downpour. A sudden recognition that a world outside of this world exists, a distinct departure from the demand of a film being a consummate universe, that for its duration allows the spectator to sink into it.  

If you consult film history, Sen’s and Indian independent cinema’s watershed moment is Bhuvan Shome (1969), a film about a bureaucrat (played by Utpal Dutt) whose erect spine and crippling sense of discipline is suddenly thrown into a tailspin when on a bird-hunting expedition, he meets Gauri (Suhasini Mulay), a Gujarati villager. In a twist of narrative contrivance, Gauri turns out to be the wife of a government officer who has been taking bribes. In the beginning, Dutt’s Bhuvan Shome is thinking of getting rid of this officer. By the end, charmed by Gauri, as if wearing rose-tinted sunglasses, he not only forgives the corrupt officer, but promotes him. Amitabh Bachchan’s voiceover — the first time we hear him in cinema — having a dialogue with Bhuvan Shome’s inner voice; aspect ratios warping and wefting alongside this; photographic freezes; animations of birds and piling paperwork; zippy scene transitions; sharp, exaggerated zooms — there’s a Chaplin-inspired playfulness to the film that is rarely glimpsed in the rest of Sen’s filmography. Bhuvan Shome was also Sen’s first collaboration with cinematographer K.K. Mahajan, with whom he would further explore the edges of cinematic possibility in Interview, Calcutta 71, Padatik (1973) and Chorus (1974). 

Bhuvan Shome was commercially successful in Calcutta and Rajshree Films, who were the commercial distributors releasing the film in Bombay, were surprised by the enthusiastic embrace the film received from audiences. However, it also had its fair share of detractors, including Ray who reduced it into a film about a “Big Bad Bureaucrat Reformed by Rustic Belle”, a film with a “spiky syntax” that “looks a bit like its French counterpart, but is essentially old-fashioned and Indian beneath its trendy habit”. Sen insisted the film is generally misunderstood. The bureaucrat isn’t “reformed” by the end, but “corrupted”. In his interview with Udayan Gupta, Sen said his intention was not to show how Shome is humanised, but how, by the end, “the tough bureaucrat … suffering from Victorian morality … has been defeated, has been corrupted”.  

A still from Bhuvan Shome (1969)
A still from Bhuvan Shome (1969)

That Bhuvan Shome can elicit such opposing interpretations speaks to its ambivalence. The film, like Sen’s filmography, doesn’t exhibit the clarity of an agit-prop, and neither is it disinterested in the politics of its time. Perhaps the film dangles between these two contrasting opinions. Perhaps Bhuvan Shome is both humanised and corrupted — humanised when the stiff, starched figure slackens his spine, dancing at an office table that’s overflowing  with paperwork; corrupted because he’s effectively enabling an officer who may use the new posting to get more bribes. 

It is in the films that came after Bhuvan Shome — with the Calcutta trilogy of Interview, Calcutta 71 and Padatik — that Sen would cement his cinema to be one of anger. As historian Rochona Majumdar writes in her book Art Cinema And India’s Forgotten Futures, the rage of Sen’s young protagonists was different from the other, more charismatic anger of the heroes that Bachchan embodied in the Seventies. While Bachchan’s anger was often aimed at individuals, Sen’s characters “carr[ied] the burden of leftist ideology”, an anger that was a “generalized feeling rather than directed at a single individual or group”. Sen’s Calcutta trilogy also differed from Ray’s sensual, sensitive and tender Calcutta trilogy, which trailed the life of one individual as he moved from the village to the city. Sen was interested not in a person, as much as this feeling of anger that he tried to give shape through characters, something that was, as Majumdar puts it, “cathectic on to the body”. This was an anger that was socially constructed. People in Sen’s films are not angry, but become angry, often through the vagaries of state violence. 

The conventional idea of time in movies is that as it moves forward, there is greater clarity, greater progress. It is similar to the idea of linear time in history — the assumption that we are progressing with every century being churned out and then shelved into history. Sen chafed at this. As he expressed in Ami Ebong Chalacchitra (Films and I), for him the idea of “continuing synthesis in Indian history” is “unadulterated idealism, genuine exaggeration. I would say that it is the opposite of synthesis; ours is a history of continuing poverty and exploitation running through the ages.” If the history is one of continuing violence, then a cinema which attempts to capture it, must also absorb that same structure. If history does not provide resolution, neither should cinema. If history can’t put a balm over violence, why should cinema?

The power of discontent

Sen’s films are not stories contained between the first and last frame. They’re about protagonists who lived before and after the first and last frame. You — having engaged with the film — ask a question, like a sigh, and it is in the asking of the question that the film attains some semblance of completion. 

For example, watching Ek Din Pratidin (1980), which follows the worried huffs of a family because the only earning member — a woman — has not come home, leaving no trace or explanation of where she is, one question animates our viewing, “Where did she go?” Towards the end, she comes back, but even then, as the film closes, there is no answer to this question. Sen claims that where she went and what she did with her time is immaterial. What is this voyeuristic urge to know how her time is spent? By tying this urge — expected, even encouraged in cinema spectatorship — to cinematic catharsis, Sen questions our very “expectations” of cinema as extractive and worrying. 

To watch a film must not feel satisfying, must not feel consummate, complete, contained. It must make you reach out into the world, and into yourself, an unresolved, unresolvable squirm. This seems to be a throughline of Sen’s filmography. Take Kharij, The Case Is Closed (1981), based on Ramapada Chaudhury’s namesake novella, which traces the journey of Anjan (Anjan Dutt) and his wife Mamata (Mamata Shankar) — names of characters and actors merging uncomfortably — as they wake up one morning to find their boy servant lying dead in the kitchen. It is a phenomenally cold winter and the boy, Palan — who usually sleeps under the stairs — decided to lock himself in the heat of the kitchen. He did not realise that he was slowly poisoning himself with carbon monoxide from the unextinguished coal pit that served as a stove. 

The film shows that Palan is seen as a commodity by the film’s central characters. Early in Kharij, Anjan asks Mamata what she wants — a flat? A sari? A fridge? None. She wants, instead, a boy servant, one who is less than 12-13 years old so he would eat less, work more, complain less. It is such a casual demand, made so sweetly, you would not question its moral fractures initially. When Palan’s father leaves the boy with Anjan and Mamata, child labour is (deceptively) almost framed as relief — there is a famine in Palan’s village and this way, at least he would be fed and taken care of in a safe environment. There are gradations of care, as we learn after the boy’s passing. The couple, even after a year of Palan’s working, do not know his family name, nor his address, nor his age. 

Towards the end, when Palan’s father meets Anjan after cremating his son, the film builds in tension. The graffiti on the crematorium walls: “Avenge. We’ll avenge”, “Sarniran, we'll avenge your death, 1971" — references to the Naxalite movement — add to the crescendo of feeling. We see Anjan standing on the stairs and Palan’s father walks towards him. Will the grieving father channel the fury that was literally writ large, and perhaps strike Anjan? No. He just folds his hands and takes his leave, abandoning the audience to the state of discomfort that comes from unrealised fantasies. We almost got what we wanted, that moment of cinematic catharsis, but for the obstinacy of Mrinal Sen. 

A still from Baishey Shravan (1960)
A still from Baishey Shravan (1960)

Cinema as Education

One broad stroke of criticism Sen’s cinema receives is that it is joyless. Pleasure, ambience and beauty are not things Sen, a poet laureate of ambivalent range, took seriously. If they managed to slip into his filmmaking, as they do in films like Khandhar (1984) and Genesis (1986), it’s almost as though this happens in spite of the director, rather than because of his active intention. For Sen “it is very important to me to make things look unpretty, to keep the rough edges.”

What is indisputable though is that his cinema is an education. As Majumdar writes in Art Cinema And India’s Forgotten Futures, these movies “foregrounded the radical Marxist and Maoist political leanings of the youth of the day”. There is an almost ethnographic joy in watching these films — ethnographic joy as distinct from cinematic joy; the former being rooted (somewhat) in the cerebral and the latter being rooted (somewhat) in the visceral. 

Sen understood this. “If you don’t like a film, you say it is a lousy film or that you don’t like it, and the matter ends there. In my films, I have found that people who have not liked them are still quite shaken up by them. I have found them to get angry and disturbed and walk out of my movies saying, ‘It’s an anti-social film’,” he told Udayan Gupta. His cinema was not even attempting to be slotted in the good v/s bad binary, but was in pursuit of other binaries — to be disturbed v/s to be passive; to know v/s to not know; to comfortably know v/s to agitatedly know. When Sen calls himself an “agent provocateur”, it is an acknowledgement of this. 

But what if those he wants to provoke have become immune to his weapons? His films can offer nothing to progressive contemporary circles, where guilt is often considered a virtue, one that stems from self-reflection and acknowledgement of privileges — and often, ends there. What Sen thought would provoke and disturb, is now, ironically, comforting and edifying. Sen’s cinema has nothing to offer to the progressive who has been desensitised to guilt. It is possible that they seem redundant to the viewer today. It is possible that Sen’s cinema of education seems too naive, too neat.

In the New Cinema Movement Manifesto, which Sen co-wrote with Arun Kaul, he noted, regarding the dearth of an audience for good “off-beat” films. “If the number of discriminating spectators appears, at first sight, to be heartbreakingly small, the reason is that the established film industry, motivated by the grossest economic considerations, has been for decades dishing out crudest vehicles of their notions of mass entertainment and thus conditioning the tastes of the majority of filmgoers,” Sen wrote. And it is in this respect, too, that Sen’s cinema can be considered an education — this idealistic impulse that through cinema he can re-shape our collective ideas of goodness and badness. But in order to do that, we must first be shocked out of our passive acceptance of these binaries. 

Do not mistake this “education” as Mrinal Sen’s condescending priggishness. While he can often be patronising in his interviews, especially towards that which is popular and widely consumed, his is an incredibly self-reflective filmography, which has embedded in it the criticism of itself. If in 1960 he made Baishey Shravan, on the effects of famine on the fragile relationship between a young girl and an older man, twenty years later, in 1980 he would make Akaler Sandhane (In search of famine), in which a film crew goes to a village to shoot a film against the backdrop of the Bengal famine, stirring up chaos, leading to a villager commenting, “They came to take pictures of a famine and sparked off another famine” — a piercing dialogue on his practice as a filmmaker, something that is innately exploitative. 

A still from Chaalchitra (1981)
A still from Chaalchitra (1981)

The Private Marxist

Writing about New Cinema, Sen said he hoped to “lay stress on the right questions and bother less about the right answers… in looking fresh at everything including old values and in probing deeper everything, including the mind and the conditions of man.” There is a terrible ambiguity in this language, one that flirts closely with platitudes of idealism, in pursuit of “the enlightened filmmaker and the enlightened audience”. But one thing is clear: He is dissatisfied with what is being consumed and this dissatisfaction is expressed by throwing his wrench at any and all conventions. The joy of his cinema — to see him keep trying — is the flip side of its agony: To see a filmmaker keep trying, continuously and relentlessly, without necessarily knowing what he wants to get out of it. 

There is a second, more potent criticism, of the politics of Sen’s cinema from the radical left, which complains the director made films about politics, but his films were not political. He was described as a “private Marxist” (whatever that means), unable to fling himself into a movement, always showing cautious critique before ideology. While he did organisational work, like smuggling posters and letters and providing shelter to fugitives, he was, as noted by writer Abhrajyoti Chakraborty, “forever flitting between objectivity and commitment”. If there was any semblance of sympathy towards the Naxalite movement in Interview and Calcutta 71 — which despite being about that time, that movement, never used that word — Padatik disabuses any such claim. Here, the protagonist is a Naxalite (Dhritiman Chatterjee) who grows increasingly disillusioned with the movement. The film was dismissed by some as a “policeman’s report”. 

For Sen, the demands of cinema are like the demands of ideology — it is important to stay away from its blinding, exhaustive allure, which makes you think there can be no other alternative; that this is all there is. To commit to an ideology is to lose the possibility of objectivity, of pursuing other worlds, of seeing things and saying things as they are. 

It is also true that his provocations can today feel so tame that you wonder if we’re mistaking adamance for ideology. When you finish Baishey Shravan, for example, a question snags. The significance of the title, the twenty-second day of the Bengali calendar month of Shravana, is obvious only to Bengalis of a certain ilk as the day that Rabindranath Tagore passed away in 1941. For urbane Bengal, it is a cultural landmark, but what relevance does this date have in a remote village during the Bengal famine?  Why did the two protagonists, the old man and the young girl, have to get married on this date? An impatient lady, part of the Indian Board of Film Censors, asked, “You could as well have Teishey Shravana (23 Shravana), couldn’t you?” To which Sen replied, “No, I couldn’t. Because they got married on Baishey.” 

Sen’s son Kunal added some context to this adamance. When Tagore had died, Sen was a college student and had gone to witness the funeral procession. In that crowded, raucous grief, Sen had seen a man trying to make his way to the crematorium while holding a little child in his arms. “To this one individual, the death of Tagore meant nothing,” Kunal noted, wondering perhaps it was this memory that made Sen take a date so sacred to the Bengali imagination and twist it into redundancy, a deliberate reminder that a world exists outside of cultural milestones, that they diminish in stature when placed as a backdrop to personal histories. In the world of Malati and Priyanath, Baishey Shravan was the date their destinies became inextricably bound through marriage. The death of a poet, even if he was hailed as “Kabiguru” (the poet guru), is practically irrelevant. 

A still from Baishey Shravan (1960)
A still from Baishey Shravan (1960)

You might consider this an evasive, ambivalent style of storytelling. If he truly wanted to subvert the cultural calendar by invoking Baishey Shravan in a different context, why not state his intent more directly, more profoundly, more intensely? Sen’s cinema is slippery, in that sense. It refuses to be tied down — to ideology, to moral readings, to neat conclusions. 

Even in his later films from the 1980s and 1990s, many of which would travel to Cannes and Berlin, till 2002 — his last film, Aamar Bhuvan — while the direct anger tames into indirect satire, the films float around, refusing either closure or catharsis. Even aesthetically, his later films are less restless, more willing to be coherent, less excited by disruption than his earlier films.

There is, perhaps, something of Sen’s personality in his films. When Forrest Williams was chasing Mrinal Sen for an interview in the 1950s-60s — speaking to him in cabs, restaurants, mosquito-ridden hotel rooms, studio lots, and his home — he noticed something peculiar about the way Sen interacted with a question. He danced with it, as opposed to grasping it with a forthright grip. Initially, Forrest thought Sen was evading the question, only to realise that he would obliquely answer that question much later, somewhere else. Forrest wrote, “What a brisk-mannered American acquaintance hastily and mistakenly put down as delay or even elusiveness is, in the intellectual style of a quick-witted and perceptive man such as Sen, rather a means of communicating more gently and enduringly by inviting you to put images together.” 

Inviting you to put images together — this is a double-edged sword. While it produces an eternally-searching spectator, it also produces the kind of dry cinephilia whose mouth waters at the mention of metaphor; the kind that prefers meaning to feeling, or sees feeling entirely from the perspective of meaning, as embedded in it; the kind that excises the sensual aspect of cinema, seeing a film as a jigsaw to be put together, with thought and caution. 

Finally, there is the criticism of his process. Bhuvan Shome, made with a loan from the Film Finance Corporation, critiques the very state that is its patron. Similarly Chorus (1974) was financed by the United Commercial Bank, then considered one of the largest banks in the country, connected with the Birlas. Part of political cinema is not just the content, but the process of it being made itself. When filmmakers like Anand Patwardhan were making films cheaply with Super-8 and 16-mm, circulating their films in more grassroot circuits, Sen opted for a kind of cinema which allows for the possibility of some commercial returns on a producer’s investment (box office success was perhaps too much to expect). Sen kept the budgets of his films low because this allowed him to have more independence and be less beholden to both financiers as well as the audience. “He was convinced that anyone making a film with a big budget must compromise,” his son Kunal told Ina Puri in an interview for Punch Magazine. 

To take money from the state, but to not make state-sponsored propaganda; to archive the anger of a generation, but to not idealise it; to poke at the hollow ideals of middle-class Bengalis, but to not dismiss their material conditions; to make films, but to be sceptical of cinema; to be political, but to not be ideological — These are things Sen’s cinema shows us. 

As we look back at Sen’s cinema, a lot of it feels dated — or put differently a lot of it feels so inextricably tied to its time, its context it refuses to be transposed to other times, other contexts. A lot of it feels incapable of doing anything with the contemporary public conscience, which has moved through another wave of feminism, another groundswell of liberalism, Marxism, and queer radicalism. 

But let the records show that someone, somewhere, tired of the lethargy of structures and strictures decided to shock it, poke at it, someone who “employ[ed] illusions in order to see better”. May there be more. 

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