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Remembering Mrinal Sen (1923–2018)

His Life, Work and Legacy

Amitabha Bhattacharya ( is a retired IAS officer.

Mrinal Sen became a part of the milieu he had depicted in his films. He had direct knowledge of middle- and lower-middle-class existence, and never observed reality from a distance. He moved with the crowd, but was, perhaps, a lonely traveller in his journey towards discovering the meaning and potency of cinema.

The author has benefited from his discussions on Mrinal Sen with Deepankar Mukhopadhyay although their views on the subject often differed.

Judged by national and international acclaim, Mrinal Sen would easily rank among the leading film-makers of India. His first film was released in 1955 and the last in 2002, with his creativity peaking in the 1970s and early 1980s. He made 28 feature films, including one for children, to his credit, of which 21 are in Bengali, one each in Odia (Matira Manisha) and Telugu(Oka Oori Katha) and five in Hindi (Bhuvan Shome, Ek Adhuri Kahani, Mrigaya, Genesisand Ek Din Achanak), a 13-episode Hindi teleserial (Kabhi Door Kabhi Paas), and fourdocumentaries. Sen’s creative output hasfew parallels. His national recognition—Dadasaheb Phalke Award, Padma Bhushan, nominated membership of RajyaSabha, Honorary DLitt by fouruniversities, fournational awards for best feature film, four national awards for best direction, three for best feature film inBengali, and umpteen other awards—can only be matchedby his recognition at the internationallevel, at the film festivals of Cannes, Berlin, Venice, Moscow, Montreal, Chicago, and Karlovy Vary. In addition, the Union ofSoviet Socialist Republics (USSR)honouredhim with the SovietLand Nehru Award,France with the Commandeur de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres, Vladimir Putin feted him with the Order of Friendship of the Russian Federation, and, in 2017, Sen was madea member of the Oscar Academy. Besidesbeing on the juries of major festivals ofthe world, he served asthe chairperson of the Film and Television Institute of India, Pune (1980–83) andpresident of the International Federationof Film Societies (1990–99). Other than Satyajit Ray, no other Indian film-maker has perhaps been so awarded, at home and abroad.

Formative Years

Born into a middle-class family in Faridpur of undivided Bengal, Sen grew up at a time when the freedom struggle was at its zenith. As a child, he was taken to a police lock-up for shouting “Vande Mataram.” During his early years, he had been sensing the growing communal tension and indulged in a violent protest when Syama Prasad Mookerjee, in a public meeting, said that “the friendly understanding between the Muslim League and Subhas Chandra Bose was prejudicial to the interest of the Hindus” (Sen 2004: 15). He came to Calcutta to study at Scottish Church College and did his honours in physics. This was a turning point in his career. He fell in love with the city—then the centre of intellectual and political activities of India—and was drawn into the vortex of the leftist movement. Sen’s lifelong affair with Calcutta (his El Dorado) and love for Marxism—though he refused to be a card-holding member of the Communist Party—would remain major influences on his work. But, his romantic mind was also nurtured by Rabindranath Tagore and other writers of Bengal. Sen, therefore, never appreciated the dogmatic party line, especially on matters of art and culture. Consequently, some of his films have often been marked by a duality, of remaining faithful to the Marxist ideas as also to the artistic demands of a creative medium.

Having worked for a short while at apetty job for the Amrita Bazar Patrikaand later as a medical representative, he decided to give up his job. Left without income, he married his love and fellow traveller Gita, and a life of struggle and uncertainty followed. Meanwhile, he had beenreading books on cinema, watching movies, getting involved with the Indian People’s Theatre Association movement and meeting friends like SalilChowdhury, Ritwik Ghatak and others of his ilk. The first International Film Festival of India (IFFI)(1952) was an eye-opener for discerning artists and intellectuals, and changed Sen’s life forever. His first film, Raat Bhore(Night’s End/The Dawn, 1955), with Uttam Kumar in the lead role, was a big flop in every sense. His second, Neel Akasher Neechey(Underthe Blue Sky, 1958), however, did much better and was praised by Jawaharlal Nehru and others. His third film, Baishey Shravana(The Wedding Day,1960), was selected for international filmfestivals, but was a commercial failure. As Sen’s biographer, Deepankar Mukhopadhyay notices, this film

had all the tell-tale marks of a typical Sen film; … it dealt with poverty and complexities of human relationships; its back-drop was a sprawling dilapidated mansion …It also had Sen’s shock treatment style. (Mukhopadhyay 1995: 29)

After three more inconsequential films, Akash Kusum (Up in the Clouds, 1965) released, which stirred up a controversy drawing Satyajit Ray into the fray.

Ray, Sen and Ghatak

Though Satyajit Ray, Mrinal Sen and Ritwik Ghatak started making films around the same time, there was hardly anything in common in their preparedness and approach to film-making, artistic strength, the style and language of cinema they employed, as also in their creative vision. Taken as a whole, they belonged to different planes. Nevertheless, comparisons between the three, however jejune, formed a favourite topic of addas in the coffee houses of Calcutta. Evidently, Ghatak was not at all influenced by Ray, but Sen seemed to have consciously striven to be different from Ray.

Ray’s creative genius, manifesting from Pather Panchali (1955), was never questioned by Ghatak and Sen. Both were deeply appreciative of Ray’s work, especially of his early films. Ray, on his part, used to generally maintain his distance and remained truthful to himself and his vocation. But, when he decided to break his silence, often urged by the calling of what he perceived as truth, he could be very forthright. Based on a review of Sen’s Akash Kusum by a critic of The Statesman, arose this academic debate on the issue of topicality of the theme that continued for many weeks. The debate eventually turned somewhat acrimonious.

After Sen’s first Hindi film, Bhuvan Shome (1969), loosely credited to have marked the new wave for Hindi cinema, was released, Ray wrote in an article in 1971,

Among recent films, Bhuvan Shome is cited widely as an off-beat film which has succeeded with a minority audience. My own opinion is that whatever success it has had has not been because of, but in spite of its new aspects. It worked because it used some of the most popular conventions of cinema which helped soften the edges of its occasional spiky syntax. These conventions are: a delectable heroine, an ear-filling background score, and a simple, wholesome, wish-fulfilling screen story (summary in seven words: Big Bad Bureaucrat Reformed by Rustic Belle).

Ray also added that

Bhuvan Shome may well define the kind of off-beat most likely to succeed … the kind that looks a bit like its French counterpart, but is essentially old-fashioned and Indian beneath its trendy habit. (Ray 1976: 99)

This was a frank but not an unfair assessment, by any means.

Finally, a few months before his death in 1992, in a private communication that unfortunately got leaked, Ray’s comments were rather strong. In the context of Sen’s Ek Din Achanak (Suddenly One Day, 1989), Ray wrote,

Never before the maker showed ignorance about characters authored by him. I suspect Mrinal does not know why the professor disappeared in Ek Din Achanak.

In the same letter, criticising the tendency of some art film-makers who are more interested in festival circuits than in establishing a rapport with their audience, he said, “None of them even Mrinal, knows the art of story-telling. And Mrinal is a prime example of such shoddy film-making” (Mukhopadhyay 1995: 55). Sen was obviously hurt by such criticisms, but he always responded with sobriety and restraint. Ray had admiration for Ghatak’s work, but not so apparently for Sen’s. That may be owing to their difference in cinematic vision and methods used to articulate it. Nothing more should perhaps be read into these observations.

Sen’s Own Words

Sen’s perspective and style of storytelling made his films often difficult to appreciate. Being a born rebel, he continually questioned himself and his films were hardly reflective of emotions collected in tranquillity. An apparent absence of assuredness in the way he handled the characters and the story sometimes gave an impression of confusion. In certain cases, the film’s form and style overshadowed its content. With many ideas playing within his mind and his constant urge to experiment with the medium, a few of his films appeared to have lost their focus. Sen’s mind could perhaps be gauged from what he has called his favourite quote from the physicist Niels Bohr: “Confidence comes from not being always right, but from not fearing to be wrong” (Sen 2004: 99). This attitude, of not fearing to be wrong, perhaps, continued to ignite his lifelong creativity.

Most of his films succeeded with a small audience and he was unhappy that none of his films made it big at the box office. But, he stuck to his lights and never lost faith in cinema. His Calcutta trilogy in the 1970s—Interview (1970), Calcutta 71 (1972) and Padatik (Guerilla Fighter, 1973)—sought to capture the angst and spirit of that turbulent time. He said,

I have been thinking—what is behind this ferocious restlessness of Calcutta in 1971? It cannot come from the vacuum, it must have a history … (I realise) that ours is the history of continuing poverty and exploitation running through ages. (Mukhopadhyay 1995: 81)

In another context, Sen revealed his mind.

My crew and I had been undemonstratively trying to do a ruthless post-mortem of my own society—the society and the class, which I essentially belong to. A slap on my face, on the face of my class. (Sen 2004: 226)

Many of Sen’s films reflect this surgical dissection of his own class, the middle- and the lower-middle class. Therefore, his films could be very disturbing to many.

Mukhopadhyay, in his most authoritative work on Sen, sought to classify thelatter’s evolution as a film-maker in distinct phases, including one chapter titled “The Attempted Masterpiece” (1986). This was about the internationally produced film, Genesis(1986), which could hardly make any impact, critical or popular. But, just prior to this, Sen made some acclaimed ones, including Akaler Sandhaney(InSearch of Famine, 1980), Kharij(The Case Is Closed, 1982) and Khandahar (Ruins, 1983). Were his best creative years over? Was he feeling that his artistic prowess to convert his ideas into the language of cinema was on the decline?

It may be noted that from the mid-1980s, things started changing in many parts of the world. Parallel cinema in India seemed to be losing steam. Later, reunification of Germany, changes in Eastern Europe, and the collapse of Communism inUSSRshattered theleft ideologues everywhere. Sen observed

Policies, ideals, values and morals were changed overnight, revolutions of the past were ruthlessly denied, manifestos redrafted, and amidst such unprecedented tumult, the statue of Lenin was uprooted … Deep within, I now realise I am a bundle of confusions. (Mukhopadhyay 1995: 182)

In his last important work Mahaprithibi (World Within, World Without, 1991), this loss of mooring and a sense of helplessness were portrayed with sensitivity. The film begins with a middle-aged women committing suicide, and the film traces its link with a tragic incident 20 years ago when her Naxalite son had been shot dead by the police. She had accepted the tragic reality believing her son gave his life for a cause, but with the collapse of communism, did she feel her son’s sacrifice had gone in vain?

Sen’s Legacy

Since politics, in a real sense, is inseparable from life, serious works of all conscientious film-makers have political undertones. But, Sen is perhaps unique in the sense that many of his films—especially the Calcutta trilogy and Chorus (1974)—were palpably political. His ideology was clear and he decided to plough a lonely furrow. While the films had a narrow support base, especially among urban students, their critics were too many. Slow and jerky in style, accompanied sometimes with unnecessary close-ups and jump cuts, some of his films appeared even gimmicky. Perhaps, this made him once comment as to whether he should introduce in the credits a card titled “Screenplay, Direction & Gimmicks by Mrinal Sen” (Mukhopadhyay 1995: 243).

Having worked in four Indian languages, he had introduced many actors like Mithun Chakraborty, Mamata Shankar, Suhasini Mulay, Subhendu Chatterjee, Ranjit Mullick, Anjan Dutta, Prashanta Nanda, and others. Sen also discovered K K Mahajan for camera and Utpal Dutt for Hindi cinema.

Sen breathed cinema in and out, and was forever young, renewing himselfcontinually. Made with a shoestring budgetof about ₹ 1.5 lakh loaned from theFilm Finance Corporation (FFC), Bhuvan Shomeencouraged many young directors to make meaningful films with governmental support (FFC/National Film Development Corporation of India). Following the reasonable success of this film and its impact, Sen could have continued to make ones in that narrative pattern. Any lesser person would have done so, but Sen did not succumb to the lure of the obvious. He changed hiscourse again. In the process, he developed a personal style, distinctly his own.

As a “Private Marxist,” as he once described himself, he became part of the milieu he had depicted in his films. He had direct knowledge of the middle-class and lower-middle-class existence and never observed reality from a distance. He moved with the crowd, but was perhaps a lonely traveller in his journey towards discovering the meaning and potency of cinema. While the failure of communist countries and the steep decline of West Bengal during the long leftist rule might have added to his disillusionment, he remained genuinely committed, all his life, to the cause of the exploited and the underprivileged.

To conclude with a personal note, during the IFFIat Calcutta in 1990, I was asked to write a piece for the Filmotsav’s daily bulletin in which I remember having commented why Ray’s Ghare Baire(The Home and the World, 1984) should be treated as one of his majorworks. Sen did not like the comment and started arguing with me in the presence of others, and called me a freak for myopinion. Obviously, this discussion ended there. Years later, there was a chance meeting in Delhi. He recognised me, did not raise the old issue, and started chatting with me in a jovial mood, with his hand placed on my shoulder as if we had been long-time friends.

Sen had this remarkable trait of connecting with younger people and seeking to understand them. Never in his life did he boast of his achievements, and never exuded the air of having been a globally acknowledged master of his craft. He always doubted himself, admitted his failures, and understood the shortcomings of his work. His stature as a passionate film-maker, based on his oeuvre, was undoubtedly tall, but as a warm, accessible, sensitive and ever-young person, Mrinal Sen was perhaps equally remarkable. He will be remembered by posterity for a long time to come.


Mukhopadhyay, Deepankar (1995): The Maverick Maestro, Mrinal Sen, Indus.

Ray, Satyajit (1976): Our Films, Their Films, Orient Longman.

Sen, Mrinal (2004): Always Being Born: A Memoir, Stellar Publishers.

Updated On : 16th Jan, 2019


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