Fresh out of university, when I found a job in a documentary non-profit, my parents were not quite sure of what my job entailed or what my employer really did. I’d like to believe that the appointment letter printed on the office letterhead, listing Mrinal Sen among its trustees, went a long way in convincing them that this would be a “respectable” place to work at.
My family did not have a cable connection till the late-nineties and it was a ritual to sit in the living room and watch the films that the Bengali Doordarshan channel would play: some days it would be the music of Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne, the gut wrenching melodrama of Meghe Dhaka Tara one day or the uncomfortable, claustrophobic Kharij some other day.
I was very young when I watched Kharij and it is perhaps the first film of Sen’s that I watched.
While I needed a rewatch to jog my memory on the plotlines, I will never forget the feeling of discomfort that came from watching the camera close in tightly on a young Mamata Shankar’s face, so graceful and yet so helplessly stuck within that frame, not knowing what to do.
Sen was a follower of the Communist Party right from the days of his involvement with the IPTA, from the days when he visited Friends of the Soviet Union, an organization that showed early Soviet films made by the likes of Donskoi, Pudovkin and Nikolai Ekk.
After stumbling upon Rudolf Arnheim’s Film as Art, he voraciously read every book on film theory he could lay his hands upon and wrote for radical journals that would barely pay. When the film society movement started in the late 40s, with Satyajit Ray founding the Calcutta chapter, Sen didn’t have enough money to become a member.
‘I am a filmmaker by accident and an author by compulsion,’ Sen said in his memoir. His films emerged from a deep aesthetic that was always political, to the point of sloganeering sometimes.
In the scene when the funeral procession of the dead servant boy passes the streets of Calcutta, we see Leftist graffiti on the wall. That is perhaps the director being trapped within a frame: a Marxist grappling with class inequality and the middle class hypocrisy that plagues a society.
But when one peeled the layers away, what always shone through Sen's films was a sensitivity, an active empathy for people pushed out into the social margins. What is also omnipresent in his films, is an ever-vigilant critique of Bengal’s Leftist government and its failure to address class differences.
It was a politics that aimed to serve across a cross section of the society, a humanity that drew out literature from all over the country: from Mahadevi Verma to Kalindi Charan Panigrahi, from Premchand to Samaresh Basu, writers from all over India found their stories making their way into Sen’s narratives.
His Calcutta trilogy: Calcutta 71 (1971), Interview (1971) and Padatik (1973) was not just a social and moralistic portrayal of the tumultuous city in the 70s, but it was essentially a political one, and there was never any doubt about which side he was on. His greatest talent as a filmmaker was perhaps being so transparent with his politics and yet managing to tell a story exquisitely, complete with nuances the audience couldn’t have foreseen.
Mrinal Sen’s filmmaking was collaborative and heavily reliant on improvisation, perhaps a direct effect of his IPTA days. It was through IPTA that he met the strongest collaborator he has ever had: actor Gita Sen whom he married after seven years of courtship. His famous first gift to her was the Czechoslovakian communist Julius Fuchik’s Notes from the Gallows.
Acting frequently in her husband’s films, Ms Sen’s acting career slowed down after the birth of her son but she continued to be Mrinal Sen’s most trusted and harshest script consultant.
Earlier in 2018, the Churchill biopic The Darkest Hour and its immense glossing of history made me revisit Ray’s Ashani Sanket and the colours stood out to me: a beauty that is stark by its absence in Sen’s Akaler Sandhane, a self-reflexive film-within-a-film about a film crew visiting a village in the eponymous search of a famine; Sen was always the one to turn his fingers towards himself.
When Chinu does not return home all night in Ekdin Pratidin (poetically titled And Quiet Rolls the Dawn in English), there is no big reveal: no one knows where she really has been and that isn’t the point of Sen making the film.
The bengali bhadralok audience couldn’t stop asking him where Chinu went that night—there had to be a moralistic judgement for a much desired catharsis. But Sen wouldn’t allow this, he said he didn’t know where she went. The film’s big reveal was off-screen: the exposure of the double standards patriarchy laid thick on the social lives of women, especially working women.
Mrinal Sen’s death is obviously the end of an era, the passing away of the last of the triumvirate that brought in India’s new wave in cinema. But it also symbolises the quiet passing away of the rigour with which Sen and his comrade-critics, Ray and Ghatak, attacked the society and the labour with which they made films without seeking money or fame.
It symbolises the ebbing of the idea of cinema as a result of collaborative back breaking labour; a labour he undertook with his wife, his trusted cinematographer K.K. Mahajan and the many actors who he often drove to frustration with his unflinching cinematic vision.
He wasn’t a man to rest in peace, and although news stories inform me of his body being cremated, it is my belief that his artistry deserves a thousand rebirths (as a Communist, he would probably flinch at this) each time a girl of six discovers his “dry” films playing on TV, chooses to watch them over a sea of more “entertaining”, glitzier films. And then keep revisiting them in brilliant flashes while sitting in film classes, continents away from Calcutta.
Although death may seem to be a finite end, I hope that Sen’s vision is, as his memoir is called, Always Being Born.