By Nitya Chakraborty
Mrinal Sen, the ace film maker who depicted both the political turmoil of Calcutta in 1960’s and 1970’s along with the selfishness and cowardice of the Bengali middle class through his 28 feature films, steps into his 100th year of birth on May 14 this year. The owner of the Dada Saheb Falke award and Padma Bhushan, apart from countless international awards died in Kolkata on December 30, 2018 at the ripe old age of 95.
In understanding the making of Sen as a filmmaker of global recognition, one has to go back into the political situation of Bengal in 1940’s as also three decades after independence. Sen came to Kolkata to study in college from his ancestral home of Faridpur, now in Bangladesh and got involved soon in the political and cultural vortex of Calcutta in the second world years and after. He passed B.Sc in Physics but the range of his extra academic interest covered more and more films, dramas and then politics. The young dreamers of 1940’s Calcutta were in search of a new culture covering films, dramas and literature oriented to the pro-people politics of the period. Sen became an active part of that group.
In 1948, Calcutta Film Society was set up under the leadership of Satyajit Ray and Chidananda Dasgupta to monitor the films of the foreign countries as also to discuss how to impart a new social dimension to the Bengali films. Sen became active in that. Apart he was a regular at Paradise Café where the young dreamers like him discussed how to bring a radical change in all the spheres- drama, music, films included. The Paradise Café group included at that time Salil Chowdhury, Hrishikesh Mukherjee, Tapas Sen, Ritwik Ghatak and Bansi Chandra Gupta. All of them later became masters of their own areas.
After working for some time as a medical representative in North India, Mrinal came back to Calcutta and took the final plunge in film making. That was the time when all three of them Satyajit Ray, Ritwik Ghatak and Mrinal Sen started making films. Though Satyajit Ray made his first stunning film Pather Panchali in 1955, Mrinal also came out with his first film Rat Bhor in the same year. But this was a flop film and Mrinal himself tried to forget this first attempt. Interestingly Ghatak made his first film ‘Nagarik’ in 1952 much before Ray’s Pather Panchali but the film could not be released. Finally, Ghatak’s first film ‘Ajantrik’ was released in 1958 and got big national and international acclaim.
After his setback in the first film, Sen made Neel Akasher Nichey in 1958 on India- China relations through human ties but as a film, it was ordinary. His use of form as also story telling improved much in his ‘Baishe Sravana’ and later in ‘Patinidhi’ and’ Akash Kusum’. But his major success was in 1969 when he made Bhuvan Shome. This was a turning point in his career as a film maker having command over both technique and the characters.
Bhuvan Shome portrays the encounters between the eponymous middle-aged bureaucrat and a sweet village girl, whom he meets during a birding trip in the hinterlands of Gujarat. The bureaucrat finds a new meaning in human relationship through his interaction with the girl. He realizes that there is a life beyond the office and one can enjoy the small things which he generally ignores. Just power and wealth are not all. Sen for the first time made fantastic use of the ambience in that part of Gujarat with the mainline story. Music was great, Utpal Dutta as the bureaucrat was at his best. Bhuvan Shome emerged as the landmark as a low budget new wave film. Mrinal Sen became a darling of the young struggling film makers of that time in the country.
Interestingly, Mrinal Sen took a completely different turn in his coming films in the next decade by focusing solely on the political turmoil of the period. He took a position and his protagonists all challenged the status quo and the then establishment. Interview (1971), Calcutta 1971(1972) Padatik (1973) and Chorus (1973) belong to this period. Calcutta was then was having a turbulent times with the police action against the Naxalites as also inter party battles among the left. Sen responded to the demand of the times in that particular period, though he himself was not fully convinced about his own creations.
This politically sensitive period was soon followed by another turn with the making of ‘Mrigaya’ in 1975. This film made the debutant Mithun Chakraborty famous Mrigayawas the take off from an Oriyan story – the relationship between a tribal and a British official. There is nothing common between them excepting passion for hunting. Sen imparted such a dimension to the relationship and its unfolding step by step, it came out as a great human document. The film got many awards.
In the next two decades of his film making career, Sen became more introspective. He bothered more for the relationships in the family in the given social framework. His characters were more nuanced, realistic even though they belong to the suffering side of the community. Ekdin Pratidin, Kharij, Ekdin Achanak, Mahaprithivi, Antareen, Amar Bhuvan belong to this category when Sen is more poised, reconciled to the reality and more interested in exploring the inter-personal relationships in a fractured social framework. The old values are changing but new values are not yet firmly on the ground.
Mrinal Sen’s film ‘Kharij’ is among the best of his creations in exposing the self serving nature of the middle class. Ramapada Chowdhury’s story was itself superb but its film adaptation surpassed the written story in its total impact. Sen through the last scene in the film, has catapulted the film to \new heights which the story could not give. Sen, being himself belonging to an ordinary middle class family had good understanding of the class nature of this section. This was fully manifest in Kharij and a few other films. His was a journey of more than five decades in film making. There were many twists and turns. But his focus was on the Bengali society in general which he knew intimately.
At a personal level, I interacted with all the three film directors Satyajit Ray, Ritwik Ghatak and Mrinal Sen in my days in Calcutta in 1960’s and 1970’s, but my relationship with Mrinal was most intimate. He was the President of South Calcutta Film Society of which I was the general secretary. I was a regular at his small Manoharpukur Road flat adda in the morning hours when he was free. He was an incorrigible Calcuttan. He used to quote the great poet Mirza Ghalib. Ghalib who stayed in Calcutta of eighteenth century for over a year had said ‘If I were a bachelor, I would have stayed back here for ever. Here, to be a commoner, is better than being a ruler’…
In his memoir which he wrote at the age of 82, Sen said ‘I am living in a city which all my life, has excited me, provoked me, inspired me and has offered me a booty of delicious and bitter sentiments. This is my city, which irritates me, makes me laugh and cry makes me take a flight. It acts as much like a stimulant as an irritant’. Yes, Calcutta has been missing him since his demise. (IPA Service)