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A Lustrum in the Life of Mrinal Sen

June 13, 2023 | By

Between 1966 and 1969, a demi decade, the shift in Mrinal Sen’s cinematic temperament is prodigious. From trying out innovative techniques to perplex his audience in parts, to maturing as an activist filmmaker who could dive deep into the history of poverty of the nation, it is these five years that, in a microcosm, defines Sen’s phenomenal flight as arguably India’s most polemical filmmaker. Silhouette editor Amitava Nag scrutinises these five years to understand this shift of temper.

Mrinal Sen shooting on a Calcutta street

Mrinal Sen shooting on a Calcutta street

It was a Monday on 1 July 1968. The Park Street Post Office was teeming with activities, business as usual. The time was precisely 9 in the morning. A car pulled up. And before one could pronounce three ‘Mississippi’s a daring robbery had taken place. There were absolutely no doubts that the robbers were well-informed, and the loot amounted to close to four lakh rupees. Over the next nine months there were three more cases, now in banks both private and public. Police went berserk, no one could be traced for sure although the indications were rife that the robberies were masterminded by Ananta Singh, one of the principals accused of the Chittagong Armoury Raid of 1930. Singh turned a communist when he was serving imprisonment but soon became disillusioned by the different factions of the erstwhile communist party. Interestingly, copies of the manifesto of the Revolutionary Communist Council of India (RCCI), an extreme revolutionary group instituted by Singh earlier in the decade, were found at the sites of each of these robberies. Since a year back the Naxalbari movement in the northern part of West Bengal had already started spreading fire across the state and further. Calcutta was soon caught up in the vortex of rebellion.

Mrinal Sen working on a script

Mrinal Sen working on a script (Pic: Mrinal Sen family’s personal collections)

Mrinal Sen was forty-five years old, in 1968. Within a span of five years, from the 1966 till 1970, he went from being a talented filmmaker to one of India’s finest. Intriguingly, how, in the course of a lustrum, did he go from directing a sparklingly poised Akash Kusum in 1965 to making the brilliantly inventive and extraordinarily nuanced Bhuvan Shome and onto the politically riveting Calcutta Trilogy of the early ‘70s?

It is hence a necessity to try understanding how Sen’s work emerged as a function of his times. To acknowledge and appreciate the emergence we need to recount the social and political history of Bengal as well as India at that juncture of antiquity. It was a time when India as a nation was going through adjustments and alignments. Indira Gandhi became the first woman Prime Minister of India in 1966 and in the very next Dr Zakir Hussain, the first Muslim President of the nation. The mistrust for Congress which ruled the country for two decades was rampant, not only in terms of the revolutionary movements but also in the Legislative Assembly election of West Bengal in 1967 when the first non-Congress government, the United Front, came to power.

But the seeds were sowed much earlier. It was 1959, twelve years after India’s much-coveted Independence. A near-famine situation arose in Bengal due to a crop failure and an inappropriate public distribution system. Shadows of 1942-43 loomed over the Bengali diaspora as peasants and farmers of the villages once again started making inroads to the city.

Sen had already made Baishey Sravana in 1960 about the effect of famine on the intimate spaces of unfortunate lives. The film was based on the annihilation of 1942-43, but there again, as he was making this film, his first significant one, another famine started showing its ugly teeth. It was only the worst of times. People were out on the streets marching against the government in demand of food in plenty, at affordable prices. In the opening scene of Satyajit Ray’s Apur Sansar made in the same year we could hear such a protest on the streets as Apu shuts himself from the external realities to dive into the inner depths of existence. The government could somewhat control the situation in 1959, but the crisis was actually far from being over. Seven years hence, Bengal was out on the streets once more on the issue of food. By then the Communist Party of India had disintegrated and the Communist Party of India (Marxist) aka CPI (M) had already been formed in 1964. The emergence of a young CPI(M) added sharp teeth and nails to the movement this time. It was then, in 1966, that students at colleges and universities mostly in and around the prestigious College Street jumped onto the bandwagon along with an active participation of the youth of the refugee colonies of South Calcutta. It was no wonder that Bengal needed a change, a change of old-aged ideas, a change from elderly leadership, a change from relying on hegemony to rushing headlong.

Baishey Sravana

​Jnanesh Mukherjee and Madhabi Mukherjee in Baishey Sravana (Pic: Mrinal Sen family’s personal collections)

Every crisis in the history of mankind had churned out unfamiliar terms, innovative words, new vocabulary to depict the plight, to underline the catastrophe. If “maggi gondar bazar” or “chaaler dam aacra” were terms to highlight the impoverishment of common necessities during the wartime, the oft-used word in the 1960s was “gherao.” Originally a Hindi/Bengali word meaning encirclement it soon denoted a bona fide tactic of labour activists in West Bengal and India. So much so that it finally got its due place in any standard English dictionary even though its relevance as a potent method of labour politics has evaporated over the course of time. The reflection of gherao, strikes, protests were rife in the two Calcutta Trilogy of both Sen and Ray as a symbol of occupation and bringing life to a standstill. However, it will be interesting to observe, even as a digression, that in case of Ray’s earlier Goopi Gyne Bagha Byne made in the turmoil of 1969, the same had a subtler application. Christened by a boon from a ghost-king, the protagonists Goopi and Bagha could bring any living being to a standstill with their singing. While a gherao would typically immobilise the ones at the centre by those who encircle, Ray inverted the power dynamics in the film where the two at the centre, through their singing, were able to inactivate and paralyze a much bigger encirclement.

Mrinal Sen with Satyajit Ray and Indore Sen

Mrinal Sen with Satyajit Ray and Inder Sen (Pic: Mrinal Sen family’s personal collections)

After the lack of commercial success of Akash Kusum in 1965 and wearied by a long fight with Satyajit Ray on the film in the pages of daily newspaper The Statesman for months, Sen was drained. As much the current political scenario enervated him, the public spat with Ray kept him disenchanted. Calcutta and Bengal were not providing him with a support that he wished he had, and most importantly till then, he was regarded as one of the better directors at the most, not to be mentioned with the likes of Ray and Ghatak in the same breath. In 1966 Sen made Matira Manisha in Odia from a story written in the same language. Things did not improve either commercially or in terms of critical appreciation, rather his racial lineage was questioned. Both Ray and Tapan Sinha had already made films with actors from cinema of other language – but they kept the formula simple, the actors were all from Hindi cinema, the characters were made Hindi-speaking in predominantly Bengali films.

matira manisha

On location for the shoot of Matira Manisha (Pic: Mrinal Sen family’s personal collections)

The following year, in 1967, Sen made his first documentary Moving Perspectives. Running just short of forty minutes this Films Division documentary was Sen’s first tryst with colour. More importantly, it gave him the opportunity to travel across the country to shoot the film and to engage with the pulsating transformation of greater India politically. It helped Sen, for sure, in clearing his lens when he embarked upon his Calcutta Trilogy a few years later. The synopsis of the film at the Films Division website reads – “The film unfolds the history of India since the beginning of time to present day through the help of sculptures, paintings, photographs and live action shots. It highlights the Indian Independence Movement starting with the revolution in 1857, culminating with India declaring herself a sovereign Democratic Republic in 1950.” Understandably, being a government project, the documentary strived hard to put forth the brighter side of India’s history dating back to thousands of years but carefully omitting the Indo-China war of 1962. Yet, Sen did drill in moments of unsurety through the recurrent usage of the portrait of an old woman, distraught and a tad troubled, looking directly at the camera.

While shooting for Moving Perspectives Sen was introduced to Films Finance Corporation (FFC), another government organization with the purpose of supporting and promoting non-commercial-oriented films. As a bid to promote quality cinema, the FFC was established in 1960, the Film Institute of India in 1961, and the National Film Archives of India in 1964. Shooting Moving Perspectives helped Sen not to remain out of work for long. He was, in no serious mood to portray a one-dimensional history of India’s glory when the reality around him was blazing. Later, in an interview in 1974 Sen emphasized his stance about making Calcutta 71 (1972) — “This was the time when I felt I should spell out the basic ills of the country, the fundamental diseases we are suffering from and the humiliations we have been subject to. This was the time to talk of poverty—the most vital reality of our country, the basic factor in the indignity of our people. I wanted to interpret the restlessness, the turbulence of the period that is 1971 and what it is due to. I wanted to have a genesis. The anger has not suddenly fallen out of anywhere. It must have a beginning and an end. I wanted to try to find this genesis and in the process redefine our history. And in my mind this is extremely political. I found a continuing link in the film—a young man of 20, uncorrupted. He has lived this age of 20 for the last 1000 years or more. He has been passing through death and squalor and poverty. And for the past 1000 years or more he has bridged despair and frustration. For him the history of India is a continuous history not of synthesis but of poverty and exploitation.”

Calcutta 71

The drenched family in Calcutta 71 (Pic: Subha Das Mollick)

This militant transformation in the aesthetics of his cinema was indeed a call of the times. Times did change very fast. It was impossible for a politically aware Sen to find his expression only through farce and satire aimed at the middleclass bourgeoise. He wanted to strike directly to garner opinions and to reorient his filmmaking paradigm. Even earlier through Punascha (1961), Pratinidhi (1964) or Akash Kusum (1965) Sen was trying to understand his time and space. But in 1968, after making a commissioned Moving Perspectives and looking at the happenings of his beloved city Sen felt the desperate need for a change in attitude. For him, the linear narrative mode of filmmaking with occasional freeze shots and jump cuts were no longer enough. It was the first time after seven films that he replaced Sailaja Chatterjee as his cinematographer. Starting with Bhuvan Shome (1969) Sen engaged K K Mahajan to operate the camera of his next fifteen films. Mahajan soon became an inseparable part of the Indian New Wave and Sen appreciated — “He is so buoyant, so absolutely dynamic, so desperate with his gadgets.”

Mrinal Sen on location

Mrinal Sen on location (Pic: Mrinal Sen family’s personal collections)

The year 1969 saw the nationalisation of fourteen commercial banks in India as well as the first nuclear power plant at Tarapur and the setting up of the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO). On the 20th day of July, the same year, one certain Neil Armstrong became the first man to step onto the surface of the Moon, saying “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” Before moving to his own version of a trilogy on the city Satyajit Ray took four urban youth away from the hustle of Calcutta in the midst of a jungle in Aranyer Din Ratri (1970). A year before Sen made a similar effort in Bhuvan Shome to mock the middleclass bureaucrat by taking him out of his comfort zone into the immensity of nature. In these films both Ray and Sen were shifting gears, their edit pattern seemed hurried and busy, there was a latent tension between the shots. By his own admission, Sen wanted to approach filmmaking and his mode of expression differently with Bhuvan Shome. It remains till date one of the pioneering films of India, a harbinger of the Indian New Wave along with Mani Kaul’s Uski Roti and Basu Chatterjee’s Sara Aakash. Most importantly these three films of 1969 not only recalibrated their directors’ dictums, more significantly they ushered in a revolution in the cinema of India beyond the earlier hegemonic bastions.

Ichhapuran a film by Mrinal Sen

Ichhapuran ​​​(The Wish Fulfilment) (Pic: Mrinal Sen family’s personal collections)

Between Bhuvan Shome and Interview (1970), the first of his Calcutta Trilogy Sen made Ichchhapuran, a short film produced by the Children’s Film Society in 1970. Based on a short story by Rabindranath Tagore, the film is about a father and son and their exchange of soul. Fable-like it explored the desires and wishes of both the generations and the problems that arose with a change of role and responsibilities. Forgotten as a minor film, Ichchhapuran holds the trump card to understand Mrinal Sen’s prodigious shift in temperament. It also, in a microcosm, holds the fancy of a race which more than ever, was caught in the fulcrum of vacillating yearnings – to mature at a young age and to stay young when ancient. It was the vicissitudinous of the times, of the Bengali race in the last lustrum of the ‘60s.

Without a peer, in that demi decade, Mrinal became synonymous with mirror.


Click Mrinal Sen@100

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Amitava Nag is an independent film critic based in Kolkata and editor of Silhouette. His most recent books on cinema are Murmurs: Silent Steals with Soumitra Chatterjee, 16 Frames and Smriti Sattwa o Cinema. His earlier writings include the acclaimed books Satyajit Ray’s Heroes and Heroines published by Rupa and Beyond Apu: 20 Favourite film roles of Soumitra Chatterjee published by Harper Collins India. He also writes poetry and short fiction in Bengali and English – observing life in a platter. He can be reached at
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