Silhouette editor Amitava Nag talked about the different phases of Mrinal Sen’s journey through cinema in a discussion with Dr Neha Tiwari and Dr Vijay Sharma at the 125th symposium of Srijan Samvad, organised virtually on Sunday, 25 May 2023.
Even though Mrinal Sen’s film career started with Raatbhore in 1955 and ended with Amaar Bhuvan in 2002, his creative excellence reached its zenith in the first three and a half decades, from the mid-’50s till the ’80s. Inspecting closely, this career can be analysed into four phases, not based on decades but based on the genre and the moot temper of his films in these phases.
This coincides with the golden phase of Bengali cinema – the mid-‘50s to late-‘60s. However, while most of the prominent films of the times were based on literary sources, for Sen the lookout was always for a new language. Even if he was making films within the narrative structure during this phase, his sources were mostly minor writings. Two films that stand out in this phase are Baishe Sravana and Punascha.
The former was looking at the devastating Bengal famine of 1942-43 through the prism of decaying relation of a couple. Decay and ruin continued to be Sen’s recurring motif in cinema, the seed of which was first planted in Baishe Sravana.
The latter was about an unmarried woman going out to work because her fiancé was not earning sufficiently for the both of them – another first of its kind in Bengali cinema.
This is the phase which first showed Sen’s tryst with experimentation with form. Akash Kusum had a number of freeze frames and jump cuts – this is when he was visually been influenced by the French New Wave directors, mainly Godard. It was also Sen’s first attempt at a polemical angle in criticizing how a young man’s dreams were crushed by unemployment and inflation in the mid-60s.
In 1969 three films – Bhuvan Shome by Sen, Uski Roti by Mani Kaul and Sara Akash by Basu Chatterjee were considered the New Wave of Indian cinema. Bhuvan Shome is a satirical take on India’s democracy. It has two very interesting aspects of Sen’s later films – open-endedness and merging documentary shots within feature film narratives.
Sen’s Calcutta Trilogy (Interview, Calcutta 71 and Padatik) is the highlight of this phase and here Sen had been harping time and again on the concept of poverty and how it degrades human beings – not only in the urban space but also in the rural villages.
It is then that in a sense Sen was trying a new agitprop style akin to Third Cinema of Latin America. He was neither interested in the linear narrative style of his first phase, nor was he then bothered by a sort of authorship in cinema. Here filmmaking became chaotic, but inclusive. In Interview for example the distinction between reel and real is blurred purposefully with Ranjit Mallik speaking to the audience time and again.
The last one is Mrinal Sen’s most interesting phase. The gimmicks of the third phase, the attempt at fusing documentary with fiction made way for the films made in this last phase of his creative life. In these films he looked deeper into the hypocrisies of the educated middleclass educated class. Unlike in Akash Kusum or Bhuvan Shome or even Padatik, here Sen was whipping the middleclass for their pretense and double standards.
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