Mrinal Sen, the filmmaker for the ‘larger minority’ of the world
Mrinal Sen was the last of the three iconic Bengali filmmakers of the 20th century along with Satyajit Ray and Ritwik Ghatak. On his 96th birth anniversary, Sahapedia.org looks at Sen’s ideology, the politics in his films and why he chose to make movies for the ‘scattered minority audience around the world’.
“I (was born out of) an accident, long back, 90 years ago, on 14 May, my birthday. I am now waiting for another accident, a major accident, and I hope I can take it gracefully,” said a 90-year-old Mrinal Sen to this author, during a 2012 interview. This was soon to be followed by his plans regarding another film with Soumitra Chatterjee and and a bank offer for Rs 5 crore with which he could make six films, but did not materialise due to his failing health.
For an iconic filmmaker, who had made the path-breaking film Bhuvan Shome in 1969 with a loan of Rs 1.5 lakh from the then Film Finance Corporation (now National Film Development Corporation of India), the challenges of time and period remained as interesting and exciting as ever. Indeed, Sen took the second accident of his life gracefully on December 30, 2018, leaving a rich legacy of his films for generations.
At the time, Mrinal Sen was the only surviving iconic filmmaker from the three globally renowned auteurs from Bengal along with Satyajit Ray and Ritwik Kumar Ghatak. The triumvirate not only pioneered the ‘good film genre’ (parallel cinema) in India, but also placed Indian films firmly on the global map, influencing a generation of filmmakers. “I always valued Mrinal da’s opinion on my films,” wrote Adoor Gopalakrishan, the renowned Malayalam filmmaker, in an obituary for Sen in Mathrubhumi. “After seeing my film Rat Trap, Mrinal da asked me whether I had gone through a very difficult phase of my life. I was surprised and asked him how does he know about it. He said, it is there in the film.” Mrinal da—as he was fondly called by his admirers—also flagged off the ‘new wave’ in Hindi films with Bhuvan Shome. With the Pune Film Institute graduates and Bombay film society ‘Film Forum’ founded by Khwaja Ahmad Abbas in 1964, he also came out with a manifesto for a ‘new wave’ of films, which put Indian movies as a regular feature at international film festivals.
Born in 1923 in the small town of Faridpur in modern-day Bangladesh, Sen immigrated to Kolkata with his family—which included 12 siblings—in the 1940s. He was not only witness to the great Bengal famine during World War II but also to the funeral of Rabindranath Tagore—two incidents which impacted Sen’s creative vision. The politics of poverty and human relations remained his favourite subjects and were present in all his films. Sen’s directorial debut came with Raathbore (The Dawn) in 1955 and he went on to direct 31 feature films and documentaries. Winner of countless national and international awards, including the Dadasaheb Phalke award and Padma Bhushan, he was also nominated as a member of parliament.
Mrinal Sen was a proud product of the Indian film society movement—just like the others in the Bengali trio—and owed his existence to the ‘minority’ audience across the globe. “Parents are very important for a child to grow. Film societies have been very important for me to grow,” that was how he described the role of such societies in film creativity. He was not only president of the Federation of Film Societies of India (FFSI) after Satyajit Ray’s death, but later helmed several international film clubs too.
Sen’s vision for his work was always very clear and that it was not glamour but creativity that guided him as a filmmaker. He clearly segregated the box office and his kind of films, which gave him admirers not just in India but at all the major film centres of the world, including film festivals.
“You cannot expect large number of people to see your films. Any sensible film maker, when he makes films, his films are not that reachable to everyone… For instance, in fiction, if you read novels…Not all novels are very popular. Popular novels are very different… Even then I want to be popular… But I am a popular failure most of the time…in the box office. But then that is why my arithmetic is very simple…I make low budget films… If you make low costs films and…can get to the larger minority audience scattered across the world…who would be seeing your film…that way I keep going…That is in spite of the fact that I am a popular failure at the box office,” he said in an interview.
Mrinal Sen was unquestionably the pioneer of political films in India. His films were not necessarily for a political formation in its strict form, but he always took politically sensitive subjects rooted in the political upheavals of the city of Kolkata. “Films like literature and other media, has a certain role in our society. It creates certain climate. It may also provoke a certain kind of debate,” he said in an interview published in Mrinal Sen-er Filmyatra (2015).
Sen, however, expanded the definition of political films to films on ‘man-woman relations’. “I make films, I make films about situation around me…And what is political and not political that I do not know. You can make a relationship between a man and women politically. To make films politically and make political films are two different things.”
Mrinal Sen was undoubtedly an iconic director whose films evolved as he aged. Though he is considered a political filmmaker, he claimed to simply depict his surroundings. Later in life, Sen felt that each of his films was a dress rehearsal for a better film and believed in ‘correcting (his) own conclusions’. He kept saying that his first film was not a good one and out of the 27 feature films he made, he thought that only 15 were worth digitalising for a retrospective at the prestigious Cannes film festival. Clearly over the five decades of creativity, his bhuvan (world) kept expanding from films such as Bhuvan Shome to his last feature film, Amar Bhuvan (My World, 2002).
This article is a part of Saha Sutra, on http://www.sahapedia.org, an open online resource on the arts, cultures and heritage of India. V.K. Cherian is the author of ‘India’s Film Society Movement: The Journey and its Impact’, published by Sage in 2017. He is a senior media professional and film society activist.