The Late Mrinal Sen’s ‘Cinema of Resistance’ Is Still Relevant
Mrinal Sen, a pioneer of the Indian New Wave, made films that were overtly political & exposed realities of the day.
(This story was first published on 30 December 2019. It has been published from The Quint’s archives to mark the death anniversary of the filmmaker, Mrinal Sen.)
Reminiscing about the past is a dreadful tool that filmmakers often use to bring out a certain empathy for a character stuck in a specific time period. But it is also equally true for the filmmakers themselves, who are often stuck in the past, unresponsive to the present environment, reacting to it only through memories.
And then there are those filmmakers who receive an instant emotional blow from the socio-political situation of the present and hurl away the burden of the past to deliver a message for the present.
Mrinal Sen was one such filmmaker who has always reacted to his present, in terms of both form and content, churning out films rich in their contemporary aura.
His cinema can be divided into distinct periods, etching out the contemporary sensibilities of the times they were made in.
When Reality and Fiction Meet
My first experience of a Mrinal Sen film was of Kharij (The Case is Closed) (1982), which shows a young boy dying of suffocation on a winter night, in a middle-class Bengali household’s kitchen. I had seen that boy only too often — working in the houses of some of my friends, whom I would visit after school.
Too busy to read? Listen to it instead.
What plays out in the film is a question of responsibility, class imposition and a fear of a struggle between two classes arising out of the tragedy. After watching the film, I asked a friend where his young house help sleeps, and it was no different.
Mrinal Sen’s Akaler Sandhane (In Search of Famine) (1980), which shows a film crew attempting to make a film based on the Bengal famine (set in a village of the day), fuses the horrors of history with the struggles of contemporary life. The classical structure of a ‘film within a film’ has been used by Sen to show how fiction and reality often converge.
Durga, an ordinary village woman, who witnesses the film shoot, begins to empathise with a character portrayed in the film. The hardships faced by Durga in real life, and this character, are very similar.
The cinematic device of ‘cut’, a film transition, is allegorically used by Sen to constantly break the illusion of film and reality. This is enhanced by the chanting of the word ‘cut’ by the village children who are watching the shoot of the meta-film, whenever the director shouts out for a scene to be ‘cut’ on the sets.
Mrinal Sen also depicts the exploitation of the innocent, ignorant villagers at the hands of the privileged film personalities. Sen made this film at a time when he wanted to study characters through a socio-political lens — understanding their responses, moral dilemmas, self-corruption and exploitation, which can then provoke the spectator to start a discussion.
Birth of Indian New Wave
In dramas like Ekdin Pratidin (And Quiet Rolls Down Dawn) (1979) and Ek Din Achanak (Suddenly One Day) (1989), Sen sheds light on the moralities of the society of the day, especially exposing the so-called Bhadralok (gentleman) culture. In Ekdin Pratidin, a middle-class family’s fate hangs in the balance as their eldest daughter, the sole breadwinner, fails to come home one night. Similarly, in Ek Din Achanak, the father, the family’s patriarch, goes missing.
Sen neither focuses on the reason for their disappearance nor resolves the mystery of their whereabouts. What Sen masterfully depicts are the individual responses of each character in the respective films to their situation, which exposes the moralities of a society.
My understanding of Mrinal Sen completely changed once I went to college and got involved in the politics of the day. I had a lot to say, and I was ready to shout over the burst of other voices. Mrinal Sen started ‘shouting out his own politics’ with his cult-classic Bhuvan Shome (1969) at a time when the Naxalite movement was at its peak, and world cinema was highly influenced by the French New Wave and Czech New Wave.
The film is highly stylised with use of freeze frames and stop-motion animation. An animation sequence builds up the character of Shome (who is mostly engrossed in office work) through pens, books, files, sheets, but without actually showing him. Thus, Sen developed a new language for Indian filmmakers, giving birth to the Indian New Wave.
Breaking the Fourth Wall
This is when Sen’s association with ace cinematographer of the day KK Mahajan also took off. Mahajan’s frames have often reiterated this new cinematic narrative’s language which is almost as real as a documentary, but had never been seen before in visuals.
The period demanded that Sen shout out his views over ear-blasting bombings and cries of mothers of youths shot dead by police. Mrinal Sen’s Calcutta trilogy, a set of overly political films narrated in the new vocabulary of the day, also emerged around the same time. Sen breaks the fourth wall in Interview (1974), and directly speaks to the camera.
Through this style, Sen attempts to reveal the start contrast between the authorities and the voiceless. This was the cinema of the common man, the cinema of the oppressed, the cinema of resistance.
Padatik (The Foot Soldier) (1973) and Chorus (1974) – the other two films in the Interview trilogy – both deal with questions of leadership and exploitation by the higher-ups. Sen used ‘juxtaposition’ as an important cinematic tool to jar the spectators out of the illusion of cinema.
Mrinal Sen’s cinema has not only inspired other films, but also compelled other filmmakers to document his life and work. The creation of a new wave in Indian cinema, which was subsequently continued by the likes of Mani Kaul, Kumar Shahani, and Shyam Benegal, can be credited to Sen.
The most intriguing film on Sen is RV Ramani’s A Documentary Proposal (2016). In this documentary film, a team of administrators from the Films Division visit Mrinal Sen at his South Kolkata residence, with a proposal for a documentary on him, with Ramani’s camera following the team and Sen’s every move.
Sen completely distrusts Ramani’s presence and his sensibilities — Sen’s aura, comes out with an absolute honesty in the final documentary, which in the last sequence, cuts to Sen watching himself on screen as Ramani shows him the footage for approval. Mrinal Sen, the ‘master’ smiles at his ‘other self’, jarred out of illusion into realism through his most favourite cinematic device of all — the ‘cut’.
(The writer is a screenwriter and filmmaker based out of Mumbai. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)
(This article is from The Quint’s archives and was first published on 30 December 2018. It is being republished to mark Mrinal Sen’s death anniversary.)