With the passing of Mrinal Sen, the curtain has fallen on a sublime phase of Indian cinema, when three great film-makers from Bengal created a lasting impact on Indian cinematic aesthetic and sensibility. Sen died in Kolkata on Sunday after a long battle with age-related ailments. He was 95.
Ritwik Ghatak, who died in 1976, went too early, but his films vividly portrayed the impact the Partition had on the Bengali psyche; Satyajit Ray, who died in 1992, lived long enough to receive the lifetime achievement Academy Award, leaving behind a body of work suffused with the restrained sensibility of the bhadralok, and his incapability to do much about the decline around him; and now Sen, the third of that triumvirate, has gone, whose work began on a sentimental note, then turned radical and, towards the end of his life, felt resigned to accept the status quo. Their styles were different, but they were united in their humanism.
Of the three, Sen was the boldest, making films in several languages—besides Bengali, he made films in Odiya (MatirManish, 1966), Hindi (a few, including Bhuvan Shome, 1969, and Mrigayaa, 1976), and Telugu (Oka Oori Katha, 1977). He also experimented with camera trickery, including freeze-frames, jump-cuts and using documentary footage; and techniques, such as Brechtian alienation and animation. In Interview (1971), for example, the actor, Ranjit Mallick, looking for a suit that he needs to appear at a job interview, starts talking to the viewers by looking at them straight and says: “My name is Ranjit Mullick, I live in Bhawanipur, and work for a weekly magazine. I go to the press, correct the proof and do other tasks. I have a very uneventful life, you know? Yet that is precisely what attracted Mrinal Sen… Yes, yes, the filmmaker, you know?" And in Bhuvan Shome, a group of hand-drawn birds circles on Shome’s head as he studies a manual to prepare for the bird hunt he is determined to go on—an encounter that will humanize him, making the curmudgeonly bureaucrat let go of his stiffness.
Sen’s cinema can be divided in at least three phases. He disavowed much of his early phase, urging critics and fans not to pay attention to his early films, such as Raat Bhorey (1955), which had the misfortune of being made around the same time when Ray was making Pather Panchali, and Neel Akasher Neechey (1959), which showed Sen’s politicization, in challenging the hegemony of both imperial powers, Japanese and British. Neel Akasher Neechey was also the first film to be banned in independent India. His first phase ended with Pratinidhi (1964); of that phase, there was only one film Sen spoke warmly of often, Baishey Shravana (1960).
Sen’s experimentations began with Akash Kusum (1964), which he made at a time when the unrest was beginning in Bengal. As Sen focused more on overt politicization and radicalization in Bengal, Ray turned inward, making films like Charulata (1964) and Nayak (1966), moving away from the present. His films on the city—Calcutta 71 and Padatik, for example—took up that agenda more overtly than Ray would, in his Calcutta trilogy—Pratidwandi (1970), Seemabaddha (1971), and Jana Aranya (1975), which showed the debasement of middle class aspirations, but also the hopelessness and helplessness in setting things right.
Sen turned to tribal India later, with Mrigayaa and Oka Oori Katha, and in the next phase, with Ek Din Pratidin (1979) leading up to Ek Din Achanak (1989), Sen seemed to accept the limits of radicalism.
Sen’s willingness to experiment and to make films in languages new to him, and by experimenting with techniques he hadn’t yet tried, he showed how he was true to the craft as well as art.