Remembering Mrinal Sen, whose films connote courage and consciousness

Mrinal Sen. Photo: Nasir Ali Mamun/photoseum

Only a handful of Bengali filmmakers are revered in the realm of world cinema whose names are mentioned with legendary directors such as Jean-Luc Godard, Francois Truffaut, Ingmar Bergman, Luis Bunuel, Akira Kurosawa, Yasujiro Ozu, Ousmane Sembene, Federico Fellini, Michelangelo Antonioni, Glauber Rocha and others. Because of the innovative cinematic language, significant social messages and distinctive stylistic attributes of their films, these Bengali directors are recognised as important icons of global "auteur" cinema. They are Satyajit Ray, Ritwik Ghatak and Mrinal Sen who revolutionised art film-making in India.

Their films were instrumental in drawing the world's attention towards Bangla cinema. Films of these three illustrious directors also played an important role in influencing many other filmmakers in different regions of India to make socially-aware and artistically innovative films that depart from the conventions of commercial cinema. Ray and Ghatak died many years ago. Mrinal Sen passed away recently at the age of 95. His films replete with formal innovation and overt political statements will, undoubtedly, continue to inspire filmmakers throughout the world who have a serious interest in coming to grips with contemporary reality and using cinema as an instrument for raising a socio-political consciousness.

Ray, Ghatak and Sen made films in Kolkata in the same decades. Often, they dealt with similar subjects such as moral degeneration and political corruption of contemporary society. However, they used very different filmic forms. Their stylistic signatures are evident in their work and such unique styles serve to qualify their films as auteur films. Ray's films incorporate a liberal-humanist approach and they often emphasise lyricism and subtlety. His films bear certain similarities with the work of European art filmmakers, whereas Ritwik draws largely on indigenous elements to convey his messages. Melodrama is an important attribute in Ritwik's films.

Mrinal Sen's films differ significantly from the film language created by his two renowned contemporaries. Sen confronts the urgent problems head on in his films and he often deploys complicated cinematic devices such as direct audience address method, written words on the screen, juxtaposition of documentary footage and fictional scenes, still images, contrapuntal music, etc. to disrupt the spectator's passive immersion in the narrative. Through the uses of unconventional shots and direct political statements, Sen makes the spectators think critically about the messages conveyed by his films. Therefore, his films become effective as politically critical films because he counteracts the principles of conventional cinema both thematically and stylistically.

"All [Mrianl] Sen's films, even his most lightweight, have attacked, with undisguised horror and anger, the poverty, exploitation and inherent hypocrisy of Indian society" (Sight and Sound 50, no 4 (1981), p 262). This observation by film critic Derek Malcolm succinctly describes the cinema of Mrinal Sen. Sen himself once said, "my intention is to communicate as effectively as I can, to provoke the audience. The filmmaker has to be an agent-provocateur—one who disturbs the spectator and moves him to action" (cited in Shoma A Chatterji, 2003, p 31).

Sen's films stand out in the realm of Indian cinema because he frequently uses cinema as a weapon for exposing social and political injustice. Instead of providing people with an escape from the troubles and tensions of contemporary reality, Sen disturbs and shocks the spectators by showing the roots of present-day problems. His bitter denunciations make the spectators aware of the guilty forces responsible for oppression, depravity and corruption in society. Due to the uses of an unconventional story line and innovative film techniques, his Hindi feature Bhuvan Shome (1969) became very different from mainstream entertainment-driven films. Yet, Bhuvan Shome became a commercial success and it ushered in a film movement which came to be known as the New Indian Cinema. The new cinema directors addressed various social issues. But Sen's films were different owing to his strong interest in making explicitly political cinema.

At the early years of the 1970s, Sen's Interview, Calcutta 71 and Padatik grappled with turbulent political realities when West Bengal was witnessing tumultuous and chaotic circumstances because of the Naxalite Movement. These films examined the causes of contemporary discontent and the director overtly criticised the unjust attitude of the establishment. Sen was surely taking a stand for the oppressed and displayed his sympathy for the revolutionaries aspiring to change the system. However, in Padatik he was also critical of the rigid and flawed beliefs held by a leader of the revolutionary party. During that perilous period, it was not easy to make such criticisms thorough cinema. But Sen amply demonstrated courage and kept making such politically critical films in those turbulent years with a view to creating consciousness of the spectators.

His subsequent films such as Ak Din Pratidin (1979), Akaler Shandhaney (1980), Kharij (1982), etc. also became critical of social problems. But at this phase of his filmmaking career, instead of condemning the establishment Sen probed the mentality of people belonging to different classes in contemporary society and criticised prejudiced attitudes, callousness, and moral degeneration of the general people. His attempts to disclose the faults and weaknesses of middle-class members indicate that Sen was aware of the negative qualities possessed by the people of his own class. And he did not hesitate to castigate those undesirable mental attributes. Unorthodox film techniques are also used in these films, showing Sen's interest in keeping his films formally innovative.

Sen's sincere and courageous efforts to make socially-meaningful and politically-conscious films brought considerable reputation for Bangla cinema. Looking at his films, we may ask a question: Do we see that such critically-acclaimed films influence the work of contemporary Bangladeshi directors? Given that we are experiencing various social and political problems in contemporary society, it is very important to produce films which would examine the underlying causes of such problems in order to strengthen people's consciousness. But do we see our filmmakers drawing inspiration from Mrinal Sen who used cinema not as a medium of trivial entertainment but as an instrument for achieving social liberation?

It would be beneficial for our cinema if our filmmakers and film viewers perceive the importance of having artistically-innovative and socially-committed films which help people think deeply and critically about social conditions and their responsibilities towards the society. The establishment should also provide filmmakers with the opportunity to make films which attempt to make people aware of contemporary problems. Mrinal Sen's interest in keeping his films unconventional in form and content enabled the spectators to see some exceptional Bangla films. We hope Sen's successors will gain inspiration from his courage and social commitment.

Dr Naadir Junaid is Professor, Department of Mass Communication and Journalism, University of Dhaka.

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