Girish Kasaravalli explores Mrinal Sen’s cinematic legacy. From Sen’s compassionate introspection to his pioneering ‘vérité’ style, Kasaravalli delves into the enigmatic filmmaker’s impact on Indian cinema and his support for emerging talents.
It does not speak too well of the system that many Indian film-lovers, like yours truly for instance, have not been able to see Mrinal Sen’s films as often as they would have loved to. The tragedy of Indian film-viewing is that we are more than familiar with the works of European masters, but not with the creations of our own masters.
I must confess at the very beginning that I have seen very few Mrinal Sen films; and most of them, just once. So, what follows is more in the nature of random impressions. Truth to tell, I am more familiar with the films of Satyajit Ray or Ritwik Ghatak, with whom Mrinal Sen forms the ‘trimurti’ of modern Indian cinema.
I have not seen any of Sen’s pre-Bhuvan Shome films, although I have heard and read praises of more than one film made in that period. Similarly, I have not had the opportunity of watching any film made by him after Khandahar (Aamaar Bhuvan is an exception).
Someone once remarked at a private gathering in Bangalore that Sen is more successful as a compassionate father than as an angry rebel. There are many people I know who prefer the director’s ‘father series’ (Ekdin Pratidin, Kharij, Khandahar; Ekdin Achanak) to his ‘rebel series’ (Padatik, Calcutta ’71, Chorus, Mrigaya, Parashuram). From what I have seen of each genre, I find the impression quite valid, if one were to consider only the end-product as material for discussion.
The trilogy of Ekdin Pratidin, Kharij and Khandahar brought out a very sensitive, contemplative Sen who looks at his subject and characters as a ‘critical insider’. (The reputed Kannada litterateur Dr U R Ananthamurthy popularised the term ‘critical insider’ in the Kannada art and culture scene. Dr Ananthamurthy applied this term to those works where the creator takes an attitude to society which is similar to that of Gandhi who, as opposed to Marx, approached the unjust system like the mother approaches an erring son. The artist creator who follows this approach, looks at his subject with eyes uplifted by passion but uplifted even more with unbiased insight.) In the trilogy, Sen uses this approach.
In these films, Sen doesn’t laugh at the hypocrisies of the middle-class or ridicule them. Rather, he tries to analyse them with a tinge of ‘vishaad’ (sadness, often born of mature introspection). The director’s introspective analysis of characters has the curious, welcome effect of the viewer turning introspective as well. There are many passages in these films — replete with tragic under-currents, which cause our accusing fingers to be pointed at not just the characters concerned, but our own selves as well.
The best of Satyajit Ray reminds one of a well-written novel characterised by dexterous layering, intense structuring, wide canvas, and the possibility of multiple interpretations.
On the other hand, Sen’s films of the trilogy period are like well-written short stories. They are defined by their austere simplicity, which is direct yet ambiguous. Usually, they hover around one incident which is, however, left open enough to outgrow the plot.
Chekov says that a good short story does not show you the moon, but shows the reflection of the moon in a small pool of water. What you see is an image of the moon, but the image is so intense that you experience the original.
Mrinal Sen’s oeuvre can be divided into three parts – (1) Up to Bhuvan Shome; (2) Bhuvan Shome onwards; and (3) Ekdin Pratidin onwards. What I have written so far pertains to the early films of the third phase. This phase in Sen’s career/filmography attracts me the most. I really feel sorry that not much has been written about this period. (However, my favourite Sen film is Aakaler Sandhane which, although I have seen just once, still pervades my memory.) Although I agree with the statement mentioned earlier, that Sen is at his best in the films included in the third phase, the contribution of the films in the second phase to Indian cinema is far from being negligible.
If you keep Ray at the centre of things with his realist humanist position, you will find that few have emulated his path. Well-known younger filmmakers like Adoor Gopalakrishnan, G Aravindan or Buddhadeb Dasgupta have swung away from Ray in varying degrees.
Unlike Ray, these filmmakers do not embellish their images and narration with details and ‘touches’ reminiscent of classic Hollywood films of the ’40s or French cinema of the ’30s-’40s represented by Renoir and others. They would rather use stylized expressions, often bordering on the minimalistic or even the surrealistic. Their images and modes of narration are carefully constructed. The use of spatial and temporal elements do not stem from the analytical-dramatic potential of the plot. Like in a poem, here the director wants the spectator to enter the plot through ‘codified’ images.
If the younger directors swung away from Ray in one direction, Mrinal Sen swung away from his older contemporary in another direction.
Sen’s images are fresh and unmonitored, which give an immediacy to the narration. Thus, he is probably the first Indian filmmaker to work in the ‘verite’ style. This style has given Indian cinema a necessary shot in the arm. The plot, the construction, the images (captured by K. K. Mahajan) gave a different experience to the Indian audience which has traditionally been fed with well-moulded plots and dramatic presentation. It is unfortunate that no other Indian filmmaker apart from John Abraham in Amma Ariyan followed this style.
The truth is that Mrinal Sen’s films, from Bhuvan Shome to Ekdin Pratidin, gave a new direction to Indian cinema.
Mrinal Sen’s ability to elicit drama out of nothing is admirable. Let me cite an instance. In Ekdin Pratidin someone brings some bad news to the mother, played by Gita Sen. She turns around and exclaims “Ki!” (“What!”) Then there is a small movement of the camera with shrill music accompanying it. The impact it creates is very cinematic. One comes across many such beautiful moments in his films. You can’t explain from where Sen creates tension/drama. One has to see his films to experience this invisible quality. Here I am also reminded of the director’s cutting in Aakaler Sandhane which can be excellent material for film students and filmmakers to understand the effective use of elliptical cutting.
* * *
Sometimes I have the feeling that I know and understand Mrinal-da, the human being, more than the works of Mrinal Sen, the artist. His friendly attitude to those around him can work like a revitalising tonic. No one can deny, not even his worst detractors, how actively he encourages the young and the upcoming. That is because he is forever youthful at heart; youthful, energetic, and remarkably quick on the uptake.
I still remember my first meeting with Mrinal-da. He had come down to Bangalore in 1977 to inaugurate a film festival called Nostalgia, organised by Suchitra Film Society.
I had just completed Ghatashraddha.
A few filmmakers had seen the film and liked it. They told Mrinal-da about it. Since he had a tight programme during the day, he sent word to me whether it would be possible to arrange for a screening at 1 am — at 1 in the night! I arranged for the screening and waited at the entrance to the studio to receive him. He came at 1 am and saw the film which got over at 3.30 am. We came out and we talked about the film till 4.30 am.
Later, he wrote an article in ‘The Illustrated Weekly of India’ praising the film. I know of other instances where young filmmakers have received similar encouragement from Mrinal da.
(This exclusive essay was first published in ‘Mrinal Sen 80: A Motif supplement’, October 2003)
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