In Memoriam

Mrinal Sen (1923-2018): Auteur Socialist

Mrinal Sen (1923-2018)
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The humanism of a private Marxist

THERE IS LITTLE doubt over how Satyajit Ray towered over Bengali and Indian cinema. Hailed as one of the greatest filmmakers of all time with effusive praise from some of cinema’s most well-known names (Akira Kurosawa once said not seeing his films was akin to ‘existing in a world without seeing the sun and the moon’), Ray’s influence stretched across the entire Indian cinemascape despite having worked primarily in Bengali. And yet, despite his long shadow, another auteur emerged just a few kilometres away from his house.

Mrinal Sen—the last surviving member of the famed troika of Bengali directors, Ray-Sen-Ghatak (Ritwik Ghatak), seen as the founders of India’s ‘New Wave Cinema’—passed away recently at his home in Kolkata. Sen, like Ghatak, may not have achieved the level of fame Ray did, but his work was equally admired the world over.

Some have argued that Ray’s films were sentimental (according to one story, François Truffaut walked out of a screening of Pather Panchali and declared, “I don’t want to see a film of peasants eating with their hands”), lacked polemics and stayed away from making political points; that he was really an international filmmaker beneath his Indian skin. Sen however was different. He was arguably the most experimental among the three directors, using techniques like jump-cuts, freeze-frame shots and stop-motion animation. In one film, Interview (1971), his protagonist breaks the fourth wall to speak with the audience directly. And unlike Ray, his films were always more political. This became most pronounced in their Calcutta trilogies. Ray through Pratidwandi (1970), Seemabaddha (1971) and Jana Aranya (1976) focused on the city’s middle class. Sen’s Interview, Calcutta 71 (1971) and Padatik (1973) were interested in exploring the social and political upheavals in the city during this period. “Ray would be seen as a person who would write a novel. Mrinal would write a tract. Ray never took sides. Indeed, he made political statements, but not in an obvious way. But Mrinal was very open about where he stood,” filmmaker Shyam Benegal told the film website

Sen was committed to the communist ideology throughout his life (according to him, he was a private Marxist). As a student he was involved in the Communist Party of India’s cultural wing, although he never became a member of any Leftist party. His interest in films began late and only after he began reading about them. According to an interview of his in the American film magazine Cineaste, occasionally he would get a few copies of foreign cinema journals where he would hear for the first time about the Italian neorealist movement. During this time, he did all sorts of odd jobs. He worked at a print shop, became a medical representative, an instructor at a private institution, and an audio technician in a Calcutta film studio.

Sen and his brother-in-law, the actor Anup Kumar, according to the Bengali film director Anjan Dutt, would share a single clean dhoti every time producers arrived at their Motilal Nehru Road home. ‘It was like a Chaplin movie,’ he wrote in The Telegraph. ‘I have never seen or heard Sen crib about or sentimentalise poverty...’

When Dutt’s films would be criticised for not being slick and perfect, Sen would apparently hug and tell him, “The rough edges work, Anjan. The sunlight comes through the cracks. Let the cracks be there.”