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The Filmic Journey of Mrinal Sen

December 20, 2018 | By

Mrinal Sen is one of the leading filmmakers of India. His films deal with poverty and other uncomfortable truths that plague India, probably a reason why his films have been less discussed and watched as well. Veteran film scholar Siladitya Sen’s book Mrinal Sen-er Filmyatra explores the journey of the filmmaker through the decades. A Silhouette book review.

Hardcover: 160 pages
Publisher: Pratikshan Publication (2015)
Language: Bengali
ISBN-10: 8189323873
ISBN-13: 978-8189323875
Available on: Amazon

Though the Indian New Wave cinema is mostly attributed to Bhuvan Shome, and its director Mrinal Sen donned as a pioneer, the Indian film-going ‘public’ has almost a strange sense of aloofness towards Sen and his films. The glitter of the foreign film-festivals ensured that Sen has been revered and not ignored, but yet, his cinema is something that the middle-class has chosen succinctly to look away from. While his contemporaries, Satyajit Ray and Ritwik Ghatak, have received their share of audience adulation, for Mrinal Sen it has mostly been a stoic silence suspended in the lightness of discomfort. In an interview, Sen once commented “It is not enough, to my mind, to be just ‘realistic’. The point is to give direction. Which means, one needs to develop a partisan attitude as one gets to the analysis of reality. This, of course, calls for commitments, political and social…I, for one, believe in involvement. I stand by my commitment.” In a sense he deserves and desires a commitment from the viewer too, an involvement which is not mere ‘entertainment’ associated with the art form. He continues hence, “Film, like literature and other art media, has a certain role in our society. It creates a certain climate. It may also provoke a certain kind of debate. My job is to provide information from a point of view which is clearly not neutral…My intention is to communicate as effectively as I can, to provoke the audience.” This goal of a director provoking his spectator to act upon the injustices around is a rather tall ask specially in today’s commoditization of art. It is even more important from that perspective to look at Mrinal Sen’s cinematic oeuvre and his social comments.

Siladitya Sen’s book Mrinal Sen-er Filmyatra (Pratikshan Publication, 2015) is an important book in this respect. Siladitya is a veteran film critic, author and an authority on Mrinal Sen. In the preface he mentions how Sen relies on him for writing on cinema and Sen’s own films. Siladitya has structured the book interestingly enough interspersing Sen’s conversations, comments, soliloquies and the testimonials of others including Sen’s wife and actress Geeta Sen and actor-director Anjan Dutt as well analyzing Sen’s cinematic aesthetics and politics as critiques. This lends the book a delicate fervor and helps the reader to understand the art of the master film-maker.

One notable observation of Siladitya is the fact that Sen, unlike Satyajit Ray, didn’t fall back on classical literature to commence on his journey of cinema. This, almost non-literary source of his narration, gave his films a rare aura and a unique fragrance.  The primary reason for such a decision is probably embedded in the comments quoted above. ‘Poverty’ has always been a primordial focus of Mrinal’s work. Mrinal once quipped that since he made films on poverty, hence the spoken language of it is immaterial, due to which apart from Bengali and Hindi Mrinal Sen’s ventured into other languages as well.

In the chapter termed ‘Kathopokothon’ (meaning ‘Conversations’) Sen writes about his deep understanding of the medium, its interaction with the other art forms as well as the need for a different politico-aesthetic vision of the audience for viewing films. He explores the need of improvisation on the locations (another marked difference from Ray), the different editing techniques he adopted in his films and the nuanced frame compositions almost all of which may be safely termed as ‘non-traditional’. One brilliant example can be in Khandahar where he used the sound of a bucket falling in a well as an edit transition between two shots.

In the book, Mrinal Sen also explains why his cinema is replete with instances of strong women characters – “Throughout my life I have worked with these ‘Durga’s in my films. Insignificant, name-less faces of women thronged my films… but how powerful they are as individuals. Their internal strength is so powerful that more ofthen than not you will rarely find such intensity in a male”. Here, in a sense, Sen merges in thought with both Satyajit Ray’s and Ritwik Ghatak’s in finding the woman’s voice more significant in the cacophony of man’s. Geeta Sen’s account of her roles as the recurrent mother archetype is hence important – to understand not only Geeta’s preparations but also to understand Mrinal Sen’s approach towards the other gender through his cinema.

Siladitya has reviewed Mahaprithibi, Amar Bhuban and Khandahar in detail though he glanced upon Sen’s repertoire with the inquisitiveness of an avid observer, thereby not missing on any significant information. Particularly interesting is his comments on Sen’s use of ruins in his films – either as home of the characters or as a destination to them. The author contemplates if Sen is trying to put forth an element of uncertainty to the middle-class dreaming of a happy and settled life. Elsewhere he regards the aesthetic conditioning of Mrinal Sen’s films transcending a false beautification of art and leading us to echelons of truth.

Mrinal Sen’s first contribution to cinema and the Bengali audience is his writing on Charlie Chaplin – the eternal tramp whom he visited more than once in his long artistic career. The depiction of ‘truth’ in Sen’s films is markedly different from that in Chaplin’s cinema. Sen probably never aspired to become a Chaplin. It was not be, neither did it happen. Yet, Sen’s films always remind us of a world within us, one that the upper-middle class wishes to look away from – the frailties, injustices and inequalities there in. In his film Yatra, Mrinal Sen wanted his audience to focus on this uncomfortable truth of being human.

More to read 

Ek Din Pratidin – Mrinal Sen’s Indictment on Patriarchy

Where Morality Counts

Book Review: Beyond Apu Brings Out the Versatility of Soumitra Chatterjee

Re-claiming Indian Parallel Cinema

Creative Writing

Whether you are new or veteran, you are important. Please contribute with your articles on cinema, we are looking forward for an association. Send your writings to amitava@silhouette-magazine.com

Amitava Nag is an independent film critic based in Kolkata and editor of Silhouette. His most recent book on cinema is 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.
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