One Hundred Years of Mrinal Sen

This year marks the centennial of Mrinal Sen, one of India’s most brilliant Marxist filmmakers. His work combined a formal inventiveness that rivaled that of the French New Wave with an unflinching commitment to attacking the hypocrisies of India’s elite.

Indian filmmaker Mrinal Sen at the Munich Filmfest in Munich, Germany, in 1990. (kpa / United Archives via Getty Images)

A hundred years have passed since the birth of Mrinal Sen, one of India’s most brilliant and prolific postwar filmmakers. He was born in Faridpur, a city in what is now Bangladesh but was, at the time of Sen’s birth in 1923, part of the British-ruled Bengal Presidency, a subdivision of the empire in India. In the forty-seven years (1955–2002) in which he was active, Sen produced twenty-eight kaleidoscopic feature films. Each ran roughshod over barriers of time and geographical space. Poverty, hunger, class struggle, anger, revolution, and middle-class complacency haunted his films.

With these subjects, Sen developed and unleashed a kinetic, hypermodern aesthetic. This cinematographic language combined filmed fiction with documentary and newspaper headlines, creating new ways of storytelling that went beyond classical Hollywood-style narrative. Sen’s innovativeness explains why he became popular in Europe, where the experimental films of Jean-Luc Godard and the fairy-tale-like parables of Éric Rohmer were all the rage, but not in the United States. The great Hollywood films of the postwar era focused on stories of individual triumph and embraced an act-based structure that Sen eschewed. While his contemporary Satyajit Ray, author of classics such as The Apu Trilogy (1955–59), Jalsaghar (1958), and Mahanagar (1963), worked masterfully within the confines of traditional cinema, earning him praise from establishment figures such as Martin Scorsese, and, eventually, an honorary Oscar, Sen continued to work on the margins.

As evidence, look no further than a scene from Sen’s anthology film, Calcutta 71 (1972). In one scene, the director takes us to a party full of uptown liberals waxing eloquent about India’s burning political issues in the 1970s: poverty, corruption, unemployment, and so on. Leading the pack is a political figure who laments about the 1943 Bengal famine, widely attributed to Winston Churchill’s policies, which claimed millions of lives. But, we learn, it was the famine that helped this person grow his business as a black marketeer. Later, this same profiteer drunkenly argues for revolution. Meanwhile, striking workers have forced his factories to sit idle. What, the scene forces us to ask, does politics mean to a middle class that can throw around the word revolution so casually while exploiting workers?

All the while a rock band performs live. The music is intercut with images of the famine and on-screen text: “unemployment, degeneration, hunger, betrayal of our ancestors.” Finally, the charade is interrupted by an explosion. From the darkness emerges the disembodied head of a communist activist who was shot dead by the police. He announces that he is dead before adding:

Can you guess why I am here? I have come to tell you that I know who murdered me. But I won’t tell you their names. I want you to find out who they are. You might experience discomfort in the process, but you will not stay so comfortable, so indifferent.

The roots of such storytelling lie in Sen’s past. Unlike Ray, Scorsese, and most great filmmakers, Sen came to filmmaking later in life. He was first an activist, then an intellectual, followed by a short stint as a film critic, after which he eventually managed to find a gig as a director.

Sen’s father Dineshchandra was a lawyer closely associated with Indian freedom fighters. His son had his coming of age as a student in the teeming metropolis of Calcutta, now Kolkata. There he witnessed firsthand the savagery of the Bengal famine. While riots and World War II raged on, Sen associated with the Communist Party’s cultural wing and locked himself up in the library. During the war years he discovered Rudolf Arnheim’s influential Film as Art and turned his attention to aesthetics and film theory. In 1945, Sen published the article “The Cinema and the People” in a magazine rolled out by the Indo-Soviet Friendship Society. By the early 1950s, his first book on cinema, about Charlie Chaplin, was out.

It would take Sen almost a decade and a half to really find his groove as a director. Leftist ideas and a concern for the oppressed masses made it hard for him to translate his cinema into something that a primarily middle-class theatergoing Bengali audience were comfortable with. It was only after the political ferment of the 1970s hit India, creating by a massive distrust in the state, rampant corruption, and the rise of militant communism, that Sen’s career took off. The tumult of the world brought out the best in him.

Sen’s most notable films in his early period include Baishey Shravana (1960), Akash Kusum (1965), and Bhuvan Shome (1969). Baishey Shravana literally means the twenty-second day of the Shravana month in the Bengali calendar, August 7, 1941, according to the Gregorian calendar — the day Rabindranath Tagore died. Sen upends the meaning of this day in Bengali cultural life by making it the wedding date of a doomed rural couple. Plagued by famine and extreme poverty, the man and woman drift apart until the latter decides to take her own life on the anniversary of their wedding.

In Akash Kusum, Sen turns to the story of an urban couple. A young man wants to get rich quick and conveniently falls in love with a rich woman. But this romance comes at a cost: the man feels compelled to present himself as a successful entrepreneur and fabricate a whole life story. The lies compound and eventually their weight becomes too much for him to bear. The film is typical of Sen’s oeuvre insofar as it depicts individuals caught in dilemmas that are the product of their contradictory ambitions. In one scene, a friend tells the protagonist, “Don’t you see how big business is dominating? You cannot make it as a small businessman. Those days are gone.” The hero disagrees: “Don’t talk like a communist.”

Among the film’s highlights is Sen’s use of freeze frames and still photographs. These experiments get intense in Bhuvan Shome, which ended up being a commercial success. Made in Hindi, a decision that guaranteed a wider market in India, the film is a quirky drama about a hoity-toity bureaucrat who rethinks his life after meeting a young rural woman. Although a gentle film by Sen’s standards, his most well-known techniques were born here: use of documentary footage, documentary-like narration and commentary, and animation, all interspersed with freeze frames.

The film’s success gave Sen leeway to make cinema as he pleased, just when Naxalism, a Mao-inspired militant guerilla movement, had taken off in Bengal before spreading to the rest of India in the 1970s. Sen figured he could use the skill set he had developed so far to become a chronicler of the movement. This led to his second period that resulted in the critically acclaimed Calcutta trilogy, which includes Interview (1971), Calcutta 71 (1972) and Padatik (1973).

In these films, Sen is at his most aesthetically footloose and politically blunt. Interview follows a young Bengali man’s daylong ordeal to find the right suit to wear for a job interview with a British company. When his traditional Bengali kurta and dhoti doesn’t impress his prospective employers, a kernel of revolutionary animosity develops in the hero. He hurls stones at a clothes shop and strips a mannequin of its suit.

Like Brecht, Sen insists on the theatricality of the whole performance and never lets the audience forget that they are watching something staged. When lead actor Ranjit Mallick, called Ranjit in the film, is confronted with a film magazine carrying a photo of himself, he turns to the camera and explains that he is in Mrinal Sen’s new film and points to the cinematographer K. K. Mahajan, who has his camera pointed back at Ranjit. Near the end of the film, an agitated Ranjit has to debate an unseen audience in the darkness about his attitude about the whole day. The effect is to prevent the viewer from falling into a passive consumerist relation to cinema and instead maintain a critical attention on what is happening before them.

Calcutta 71 is perhaps Sen’s most ambitious film. In it, he connects three stories about poverty and its dehumanizing effects on oppressed and oppressor alike. The first is set in an unspecified time, possibly in preindependence India, the second during the Bengal famine, and the third shows the postindependence generation’s simmering anger. All three stories collide in the fantastic aforementioned party sequence.

Sen was as much a brilliant humorist as his was a social critic. A wonderful sequence in Calcutta 71 involves a group of business owners revolting against the Communists, carrying banners reading “Rulers of the World Unite,” and play-acting armed violence while the audio track plays the sound of gunfire and bombing.

It is in the third film in the series, Padatik, that Sen starts to question the methods and achievements, if any, of the Naxalites. A young revolutionary finds shelter in the house of an affluent woman who secretly sympathizes with his politics. During his stay, he questions the dogmatic nature of the Naxalite leadership and wonders if there is any point to his revolution.

By the late ’70s, something in Sen had shifted. A melancholy mood, born out of the pyrrhic victories of radical politics, characterizes his films of this period. After the left government won the 1977 state elections in West Bengal, he turned his gaze inward to investigate the responsibility and complacency of the middle class, of which Sen had become a part. The Left ruled West Bengal for the next thirty-four years. During this time, Sen’s work became sparse and quiet, aesthetically stripped down but thematically intense.

Kharij (1982) involves a middle-class family reconsidering their values after their domestic help, a little boy, dies accidentally from carbon-monoxide poisoning. Sen’s 1991 film, Mahaprithibi, is his reaction to the fall of the Berlin Wall and the reunification of Germany: a family in Calcutta is broken when an elderly woman kills herself. Why? She wonders what was the purpose of her Naxalite son’s death. What did her other son achieve by escaping to Germany? What was the point of it all?

For almost a decade, Sen stayed away from cinema, emerging finally in 2002 to produce his final film, Aamar Bhuvan. Its mood, gentle and optimistic, breaks with that of many of his previous works. Had two decades of global neoliberalism, terrorism, the rise of the Hindu right-wing in India, and old age softened Sen? Aamar Bhuvan, which translates to “my world,” deals entirely with an all-Muslim community in a village. Despite the world burning and breaking, as on-screen text announces in the beginning, people continue to live with love, compassion, and empathy. The film is remarkably kind and full of good-natured people despite all darkness. Rather than a withdrawal from reality, the film is an attack on the prejudice meted out against India’s Muslim minority, made more radical by the Hindu nationalism of Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party .

One hundred years on, Sen still stands as one of the most inventive filmmakers of his generation. His work provides a model of how politics and formal inventiveness can be fused in art without kowtowing to didactic simplifications.