Known for his hard-hitting films exploring the dark alleys of Indian society, Mrinal Sen was a stalwart in the New Cinema Movement alongside his contemporaries Satyajit Ray and Ritwik Ghatak. Together they brought a new dimension of aesthetic to Indian films. Mrinal Sen was also seen as one of the greatest makers of parallel films – an alternative to mainstream commercial cinema. After fighting a prolonged battle with age-related ailments, he breathed his last in Kolkata on December 30, 2018 at 95. Here we take a look at some of his elite Bengali films that are relevant even today as Mrinal Sen used to explore Indian politics beyond our mundane existence.
Bhuvan Shome (1969)
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The legendary Uttpal Dutt essayed out the role of a westernized railway officer who discovers there is life in offer beyond the bureaucracy he follows during his duck hunting trip to Gujarat. Suhasini Mulay was seen as a young tribal woman who helps Dutt to rediscover the simple joys of life. This Mrinal Sen classic’s other notable highlight was the exceptional cinematography by KK Mahajan which captured the wide-open vistas superbly. Mrinal Sen won two National Film Awards for Best Director and Best Film for ‘Bhuvan Shome’.
Mrigaaya featured Mithun Chakraborty as a tribal man who is known to be one of the best hunters around, even by the British rulers. But he was thrown to gallows after being found guilty of murdering the moneylender who kidnapped his wife. His trial and death later ignite a series of revolt among the tribal people. They stand their ground and confront both the British and their zamindar oppressors. Mithun single-handedly made the film a cult classic by his brilliant acting and won the National Award for Best Actor for ‘Mrigayaa’. The film also won Mrinal Sen a National Award for Best Film.
Akash Kusum (1965)
A young man played by Soumitra Chatterjee, dreams of moving up in life and gets involved in a dangerous business deal. In order to maintain his image of a wealthy person, he decides to borrow a car and apartment from his rich friend played by Subhendu Chatterjee. Life goes on and he falls in love with a lady from a wealthy family portrayed by Aparna Sen. He doesn’t have the courage to tell her the truth and eventually suffers for his own deception in the long run.
This 1984 Bengali classic weaves around a group of friends who goes for a picnic in some rural ruins and finds a mother-daughter duo lives there. The blind and bedridden mother suffers from a delusion that one of the visitors is a young man engaged to the daughter, but in reality, it isn’t so. The photographer in the group (played by Naseeruddin Shah) suddenly takes pity on the girl (played by Shabana Azmi) and chooses to play along. However, it throws the group into some dramatic situations and they spend a few dark, brooding days in that ruins. ‘Khandahar’ also won Mrinal Sen a National Film Award for Best Director.
Ek Din Pratidin (1979)
This Mrinal Sen directorial became a groundbreaking one in the history of Bengali cinema. It raised some vital questions on gender norms. The story showed how the eldest daughter of the family earns and the male family members including her jobless elder brother depend on her for day-to-day expenses. One night the eldest daughter doesn’t return home from work and that sends her family into a cycle of grief and anxiety amid chaos. Is it a reaction out of love, affection or is it out of a fear of losing their only means of livelihood? Mrinal Sen raised an open question for society. ‘Ek Din Pratidin’ deservedly won the iconic filmmaker a National Award for Best Direction.
‘Interview’ is believed to be the first installment of Mrinal Sen’s ‘Calcutta Trilogy’, the others being ‘Calcutta 71’ and ‘Padatik’. Ranjit Mullick plays a smart young man in this film. A friend of the family, working in a foreign firm, assures him of a job in his firm. All he has to do is to appear for the interview, dressed in a western-style suit. Unfortunately, on the day of the interview, a strike by a labour union leaves him without the suit as it was in laundry. The young man borrows a suit but loses it in a fracas. He then attends the interview dressed in the traditional Bengali Dhuti-Panjabi.
Calcutta 71 (1972)
‘Calcutta 71’ narrates the violence and corruption throughout the ages. The film is based on 4 short stories by reputed writers. All the stories are connected or interlinked to give a powerful statement. A straightforward study of the political turmoil of the seventies, ‘Calcutta 71’ documented the agony of the common people. It served moments of high intensity that have been rarely reached in Indian cinema. Mrinal Sen collected the raw footage for this film since 1966. It took five years to make it and the film was released in 1972.
In ‘Padatik’ we see Kolkata as in the early 1970s, a place filled with chaos and history. All of it lurches into a dark future portrayed in scattered fragments. This film finds Mrinal Sen taking up salient issues amid a period of political turmoil. He begins with and occasionally goes back to, rolling the newspaper headlines that throughout the film create an essence of the tidal wave of nearing crises and invite either panic or hopelessness. The narrative follows a young political activist (Dhritiman Chatterjee) who escapes a prison van and takes shelter in a posh apartment owned by a sensitive young woman (Simi Garewal).