Mrinal Sen never considered himself a great filmmaker. He always shied away from publicity and hated page three. The simple down-to-earth nature he possessed was reflected in almost all his films. As he often said, he never wanted to lose connect with the grassroots. That is why, to a large extent, Sen’s films had a leftist angle. Even as a member of Rajya Sabha, the iconic filmmaker was vehement in his protests against imperialism. Sen, whose 96th birth anniversary was on Tuesday, was not the type to accept anything in the name of democracy.
Once he was asked why, as a left-oriented thinker, he opted to become a Member of Parliament. To this, he smiled and politely replied that being a parliamentarian does not mean that one is devoid of leftist leanings. In Lenin's words, Parliament was a pig sty; but, Indian leftists and socialists were more liberal in this aspect. Sen did take criticism from dogmatic socialists sportingly.
With an unimpressive debut through Raat Bhore, Sen rose to fame with Neel Akasher Niche. The film, with its haunting music by Hemanta Mukherjee, was praised by then prime minister Jawharlal Nehru. This made Sen conscious that the capitalist section of society was praising his work. He drifted away from that genre of cinema and went on to direct Baishe Srabon and Punascha. Akash Kusum and Bhuvan Shome granted him a position as one of the top three directors of India. The others were Satyajit Ray and Ritwik Ghatak.
The 70s and 80s witnessed Sen at his altruistic best. He had the courage to write and direct the legendary Calcutta trilogy—Interview, Calcutta 71 and Padatik. His experiments with both content and form were unique. If the freeze shots of Akash Kusum were meaningful, the jumpcuts of Calcutta 71 were unique. The use of dialectical montages in Padatik was the hallmark of a courageous filmmaker. Yes, Sen did possess the bravery to portray subjects on celluloid like no one else.
In his Telugu film Oka Uri Katha, Sen gave a new dimension to Indian cinema with close-up shots. Khandahar was sheer poetry on celluloid. Akaler Sandhane India’s best meta film, depicting the ravages of famine, which made the audience sit up. His collaboration with cinematographer K.K. Mahajan and editor Gangadhar Naskar produced a movie of international standards. He shared an excellent rapport with all his actors.
There were often differences between Satyajit Ray and Sen. The story of both exchanging strong letters of protest in a leading Kolkata-based English daily is legendary. Ray derided Akash Kusum. Sen also spoke against Satyajit Ray, but never did any of them insult each other. In fact, after Satyajit Ray passed away, Sen stood throughout the day beside the dead body. He considered Ray’s Aparajita the best Indian film.
Sen was especially fond of Cannes. As the saying goes, critics termed him an Indian version of Jean Luc Goddard. To this, Sen would laugh and say, “My goodness. I am really flattered. I have my originality and Goddard admitted it himself.” Very few know that Sen and Gregory Peck shared a series of conversations at the Tokyo Film Festival in the early 90s.
During the shooting of his documentary on Kolkata, Calcutta My El Dorado, he opted for natural sounds to bring in the effect of the City of Joy. The use of natural light in certain scenes of Ekdin Pratidin were really effective.
Sophia Loren came across Sen at Venice in 1969. She pointed out that, being an Indian, Sen’s knowledge of European and Hollywood cinema was brilliant. Sen spoke with all fond memories about the sumptuous lunch he shared with Carlo Ponti and Loren. With his demise the last great chapter of Indian cinema comes to an end. He may be deceased, but the eternal maverick’s works will remain immortal.