Mrinal Sen by Gopalan Mullik

Posted: January 7, 2013 in Mrinal Sen

MRINAL SEN
(May 14, 1923 – )

By Gopalan Mullik

27 Feature Films, 5 Documentary Films, and 1 TV Serial of Tele Films.

Mrinal Sen’s Cinema has clearly three phases in his filmmaking life, each change occurring after an intense phase of deep introspection. Each of these transformations involved distinct changes in the areas of film content, narrative patterns, and filmmaking techniques of his cinema.

First Phase (1955 – 1964): Mrinal Sen, the Humanist
His films during this period are:
1. 1955 – Raat Bhore
2. 1958 – Neel Aksher Niche
3. 1960 – Baishe Shravana
4. 1961 – Punascha
5. 1963 – Abasheshe
6. 1964 – Protinidhi
During this period, Sen wasn’t a rebel. He sought to work with established stars, following the Hollywood narrative and filmmaking tradition. It was, however, the social problems he highlighted – conjugal love during famine, problems of woman
(working woman, divorcee and widow remarriage etc) – which made him out to be a different kind of filmmaker. There was no trace of the fire-eating revolutionary of the Paradise Café. Although he looked at poverty, as in Baishe Shravana (1960), he didn’t project any overt Marxist angle. The underlying philosophy of his films during all these years was humanism in a broad and universal sense. Politically, his films were in line with the spirit of the time. With Nehru at the centre, at least till the ’60s those were some of the most stable years of the young Republic. Even the CPI didn’t criticise Nehru beyond a point because of his proximity to the Soviet Union.
(DM, 1995, p. 40-1.)
During this period the elements that kept occurring in his films are:
i) Liberal Humanist ideology
ii) Adoption of a settled Story Line
iii) Adoption of Hollywood Narrative Pattern
iv) Adoption of Hollywood Filmmaking Technique in Camera, Sound, and Editing
v) Working with established Star cast
His first film, Raat Bhore (1955), starring Uttam Kumar, Sabitri Chatterjee, et. al, was released almost simaltaneously with Ray’s Pather Panchali, Raj Kapoor’s Sree 420, Shantaram’s Jhanak Jhanak Payal Baje, Hemant Kumar’s Nagin, Debaki Kumar Bose’s Bhalobasa, etc. However, while some of the other films created history, his film disappeared without a trace from the cinema halls. Sen disowns this film.
While Neel Akasher Niche (1958) went well with the Hindi-Chini Bhai Bhai phase – it was immensely liked by Nehru – Baishey Shravana (1960) (Baishe Shravan is the day Tagore had died in 1942) has nothing to do with Tagore. It is the gruesome tale of a train salesman’s family gradually falling into poverty with the wife finally committing suicide. In the backdrop of famine, it is a relentless tragedy with no relief whatsoever. Sen’s main point of choosing the date apparently was to indicate that these big dates in the calendar of a country really mean nothing for the ordinary man. (It was inspired by his personally witnessing the incident of a dead child falling from his father’s hands and being lost in the jostling crowd at Nimtolla ghat during the cremation of the poet). Punascha (1961) is the story of tensions that develop in relationships when a woman has to go out for work for the first time. In Pratinidhi (1964), Rama, a widow with a 5 yr. old son Tutul, falls in love with Niren and marries him but Tutul refuses to accept him. Rama starts suffering from a middle class guilt complex towards her first husband and his child. Niren is also never comfortable with Tutul and grows increasingly impatient with Rama. All these tensions – bred by the deep rooted prejudices against widow remarriage – ultimately forces Rama to commit suicide. There is a scene after Rama’s suicide that Sen remembers fondly – which is a different take on a similar scene in Apur Sansar (1959) – where Rama’s first husband’s brother comes to Niren to give the news. As he knocks on the door and it is opened, Niren only utters a single monosyllable ”Kokhon?” (When?). As the brother starts replying, the camera focuses on Tutul who listens to the conversation. Later while editing, Sen found the piece too short for impact. It struck him that if he replayed the same shot again and again, he might get the desired effect. Thus was born the first freeze shot of Bengali cinema! (DM, 1995, p. 39-40.)
As can be seen during all these years, one of his main concerns was to take a humanistic look at the tragedies bred by deep-rooted mental prejudices of the society. During this phase of narrative story-telling, his filmmaking style, including camerawork, sound, and editing, generally followed the Hollywood pattern.

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Second Phase (1965 – 1978): Mrinal Sen, the Pamphleteer
His films during this period are:
7. 1965 – Akash Kusum
8. 1966 – Matir Manisha (Oriya)
9. 1969 – Bhuvan Shome (Hindi)
10. 1970 – Interview
11. 1971 – Ek Adhuri Kahani (Hindi)
12. 1972 – Calcutta ’71
13. 1973 – Padatik
14. 1974 – Chorus
15. 1976 – Mrigaya (Hindi)
16. 1977 – Oka Oori Katha (Telegu)
17. 1978 – Parashuram
Sen’s continuous failure at the box office convinced him that he was not cut out for commercial cinema. He tried all genres – from grim tragedy to sentimental melodrama to comedy – but nothing worked. He went into a deep introspection and found that he didn’t enjoy conventional story-telling at all, nor was he happy to handle too many characters on a large canvas. That was the weakness in his early films when he couldn’t sustain the interest of his audience during the second half of a film. He found that he excelled in episodes rather than narratives, with spotlights on a few characters in certain given situations. He was at his best when he compressed physical time to the minimum, exploring the ramifications of a single incident in the lives of a few characters. Some of his more successful films are entirely episodic in nature: Bhuvan Shome (1969) is a hunting episode of a few hours, Interview (1970) is the story of a day, all the 5 episodes of Calcutta ’71 (1972), etc., are of brief duration. He made another change. Instead of examining poverty and other social ills from a broad humanistic perspective, he now adopted Marxism as the mode of explanation of the society. His characters are no more individuals; they are representatives of their class. This necessitated a shift from delving deeper into individual psychology to that of exploring class conflict, the classes themselves being products of history and antagonistic to each other. (DM, 1995, p. 41.). His characters now become ‘types’ and his films more overt. This necessitated a shift in the narrative pattern as well as filmmaking techniques of his films. Without a doubt this was the most intense phase of political filmmaking of his life.

Sen thought he had found the required form for this phase when he saw Truffaut’s 400 Blows (1959) and Jules et Jim (1961) at a film society screening in Bombay in January ’65. New Wave’s open-ended, often non-linear narratives, together with their open defiance of Hollywood aesthetics suited his purpose of challenging the prevailing conventional and bourgeois aesthetics of Indian cinema. He also adopted the agit-prop mode of filmmaking prevalent in Soviet cinema that used whatever forms that suited their purpose – fantasy, pamphleteering, montage, etc – with the sole purpose of agitating the audiences against the bourgeoisie. The absence of psychological treatment of characters in Soviet cinema also suited his immediate purpose – characters not to be seen as being born with certain psychological and human qualities but as being pure constructions of history. Consequently Mrinal Sen’s films now essentially contained the following elements, the basic purpose for most of which was to practice a Brechtian alienation effect on the audiences:
a) Open-ended, Non-linear Narrative
b) Absence of conventional Story Line
c) Characters not as the centres of expressions and emotions but as ‘Models’
d) Soviet Agit-prop Mode of Narration
Using all forms of narration, including direct address, fantasy,
pamphleteering, slogans, montages, etc., to agitate the people
e) New Wave Mode of Filmmaking
Freezes, montages, jump cuts, discontinuities, artificially accelerating or
decelerating the frames, sound-visual disjunctions, hand-held camerawork,
documentary/news reel type of footage, improvisations, reflexivity, etc., all
intended to draw audiences’ attention to the filmmaking process itself and
thereby make them conscious of the main message of the film
During this phase, Mrinal Sen is looking for a mode of expression that would help him move away from the cliched story-telling techniques of Indian cinema and help him get space for more experimentation. Akash Kusum (1965) is essentially a film on class conflict, as despite Monica and Ajoy loving each other, their very class difference separates them. The whole film moves through light hearted banter, through freeze frames (‘truckloads of them’ according to Sen!), fast cuts, jump cuts, disjunction between the visual and the sound tracks as dialogue continues over frozen frames, acceleration or deceleration of sequences, only to end on a tragic note absolutely in the last sequence when Ajoy is exposed and Monica shuts the door on him.
His next film Bhuvan Shome (1969) is a landmark in Indian cinema. It As the controversy increasingly started becoming personal, the editor was forced to close the correspondence with Ray saying ”A crow-film is was the first film financed by the newly set-up Film Finance Corporation. It was made on a modest budget of only Rs.1,50,000/- and its commercial success opened the flood gates of state-funded films for all the young film aspirants coming out of FTII. They challenged the hackneyed story-telling techniques of Indian commercial cinema and its equally vice-like grip on distribution and exhibition chains for these films. In the end, these new films were like a breath of fresh air in the Indian film scenario. No wonder Shyam Benegal commens:
”As far as Hindi films are concerned, Bhuvan Shome occupies as important a place
as Pather Panchali does, vis-a-vis Indian cinema. Bhuvan Shome opened up a
new horizon.”
In Bhuvan Shome, Sen tried the following further innovations:
a) Documentary-style of film footage to establish the background
It has the look of a news-reel footage
b) Animation
c) Improvisations on location (DM, 1995, p. 72.).
While the film was being heralded as a proof of the maturity of Indian audiences to accept non-conventional forms, Ray thought otherwise in his book Our Films, Their Films:
”My own opinion is that whatever success it has had, has not been because of , but inspite 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).”
Despite the good storyline, Sen does introduce a twist in the tail. He makes Jadav Patel, the corrupt Ticket Collector, whom Bhuvan Shome pardons after meeting Gauri (Jadav Patel’s fiancé), write to her that transfer to a bigger junction means more income! This raised moral questions. Does it mean that humanisation of a bureaucrat invariably means a decrease in his moral stature? While Sen leaves the question open, it may be argued that Bhuvan Shome wasn’t really pardoning Jadav Patel but giving Gauri, whose innocense he trusted explicitly, a chance to reform him. Ultimately, however, this film is also about class war. As Sen says after enjoying a few days of liberation – as expressed in Shome’s ‘madness’ in office – he would have to put on his jacket and tie, sit solemnly in the chair and continue to disburse bourgeois justice! In this system, classes are condemned to remain where they are. (DM, 1995, p. 73.).

In 1969-70 itself, Sen together with Arun Kaul, issued a Manifesto of New Cinema Movement (later called the Indian New Cinema) which basically challenged the commercial establishment – the way it produced, distributed and exhibited films – for which any breaking away from conventions, any experimentation was sacriledgeous. For sometime, this Manifesto served as the beacon of light for the young aspiring filmmakers who wanted to break new grounds in Indian cinema.

During this period, the political instability in the country increased. In the air was a repressed anger of the people whose manifestation occurred in the Naxalite Movement in Bengal. Even though Sen is formally with the Communist Party of India (Marxist), his covert sympathies were with the rebels. His subsequent films – from Interview (1970) to Parasuram (1978) – all variously portrayed this anger. His Calcutta trilogy – Interview (1970), Calcutta ’71 (1972), and Padatik (1973) – while they speak of exploitation of one group by another and its resistance, they are also landmark films of experimentation in narrative and filmmaking styles. Even though he is a left sympathiser, he never shied away from raising questions against some of their modus-operandi. For instance, in Padatik (1963), the Naxalite protagonist raises a lot of questions of how the Naxalite parties were also exploiting the young rebels. The film finally ended in the reconciliation between the father and his estranged Naxalite son, apparently a throw back on his own estrangement from his father that had haunted Sen throughout. After this film, Sen was branded by the Left as a renegade who was ultimately harming the Communist line. But he wasn’t bothered; he reserved his right to speak. In Chorus (1974), a film fully financed by him and whose subsequent box office failure almost ruined him, he does away with any coherent narration altogether. It is a totally non-narrative film, which entirely depends on symbolism, allegory, and fantasy. On why he uses fantasy so much here, Sen quotes Lindsay Anderson:
”As I have seen, today’s fantasy turns out to be the reality tomorrow.”
(DM, 1995, p. 107.)
The fantasy portrayed in Chorus became a chilling reality when Emergency was declared in India in 1975. In Mrigaya (1976), he narrates at two levels – on the surface is a tale of a young tribal’s defiance of colonial authority while underneath there is a parallel narrative of Sidhu and Kanu’s rebellion against the local and foreign exploiters. Thus Sen stiches history with allegory here.

Third Phase (1979 – 2002): Mrinal Sen, the Introspector

ek din

His films during this period are:
18. 1979 – Ek Din Pratidin
19. 1980 – Akaler Sandhane
20. 1981 – Chaalchitra
21. 1982 – Kharij
22. 1983 – Khandahar (Hindi)
23. 1986 – Genesis (Hindi)
24. 1989 – Ek Din Achanak (Hindi)
25. 1991 – Mahaprithivi
26. 1993 – Antareen
27. 2002 – Amar Bhuvan
The more or less continued box office failure of his films made him once again go into another bout of intense soul-searching in 1979. Even though the Left was firmly in power in Bengal, yet things weren’t improving the way they should have been. This made Sen ponder that possibly they weren’t identifying the enemy correctly. A more meaningful search for truth was necessary. But often the die-hard Communist establishment was a hindrance rather than a help in such a search. During this period, the left intellectual Elio Vittorini’s letter to the Italian Communist Party chief, Palmiro Togliatti, became a gospel for Sen:
”The problem with fanatics among the members of the Communist party is that they feel they have pocketed the truth; but the point is not to pocket the truth but to chase the truth.” (DM, 1995, p. 132.)
During this phase, he asks the question ”Who is the real enemy?” He identified it as the enemy within. Because of our inherent prejudices and weaknesses, we are apt to turn even a paradise into hell. (DM, 1995, p. 131.). He finally identifies this enemy as the deep-rooted middle class prejudices. Why the middle class? Sen replies:
”I believe the middle class plays a vital role in our social and political
structure…they face a moral crisis because they aren’t insensitive.”
(DM, 1995, p. 129.)
To be able to reach out to this middle class milieu, he changed yet again both his narrative and filmmaking style. From his experience he knew that middle class as a class likes gradual change – too radical a film style alienates them. Consequently, he consciously adopted the following film style during this phase:
i) Adoption of a more settled narrative line
ii) Adoption of a limited storyline
iii) Expression of meanings and emotions through acting
iv) Only selective use of documentary/newsreel style
v) Almost no use of New Wave techniques
During this phase, he almost gave up such New Wave techniques as freeze frames, jump cuts, sound-visual disjunctions, etc. While in Ek Din Pratidin (1979), there is still a discernible villain in the landlord Dwarik Mullick, from Akaler Sandhane (1980) onwards there are no more villains in his films. The enemy is all within the main characters. In a way this was almost like going back to his early phase, only with the humanist part missing i.e. he no more has an universal humanist sympathy for the ‘victims’ of such prejudices, the main protagonists being their own enemies in the present context. In this phase, because he is delving deep into human psychology once again, his films have more of an introspective look. Both the number of characters and the overt agit-prop actions have visibly and progressively reduced in his films ushering in a phase of minimum cinema which many of his critics have blamed as having lapsed in a kind of personal cinema. But Mrinal Sen remains unperturbed. He is still learning.

References:
1. Mrinal Sen, 1977, Views on cinema, Calcutta: Ishan Publication.
2. Deepankar Mukhopadhyay, 1995, The maverick maestro,
New Delhi: HarperCollins India Pvt Ltd.
3. John W. Hood, 1993, Chasing the truth: The films of Mrinal Sen,
Calcutta: Seagull Books.

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