Mrinal Sen’s demise at the ripe age of 95 marks the end of an era for Indian cinema. At one time – specifically the 1970s – Sen was seen as the natural rival to Satyajit Ray since he was ‘politically committed’ while Ray was only humanistic, and his films drew enthusiastic young crowds of ardent radicals. This was the same time when directors like Shyam Benegal who have subsequently not shown themselves to be particularly political also undertook radical exercises as in Ankur (1974). But it was natural that with the collapse of the Eastern Bloc around 1990 the ideology that Sen had espoused became universally suspect; artists of his ilk hence found themselves without philosophical support, leading to political disillusionment that shows itself in Sen’s Mahaprithibi (1991) in which there is an anguished reference to the fall of the Berlin Wall, people taking away pieces as ‘souvenirs’.  

Marxism attracted many filmmakers – from Gillo Pontecorvo to Jean-Luc Godard but Marxist films have generally not stood the test of time because they tend to preach a political philosophy that has few takers anymore; the same holds true for Mrinal Sen’s films – once powerful indictments of the system but now often seem like pamphleteering. Bengali cinema has produced three giants – Ray, Ritwik Ghatak and Sen and but Sen’s work has been less durable than Ray and Ghatak’s largely because it is more doctrinaire, concentrates on political messages and lacks the nuances of the work of Ray and Ghatak. 

Mrinal Sen did not begin with a bang like Satyajit Ray, although his first film Raat Bhore (1955) was made only a year after Pather Panchali (1954), but worked in the popular idiom for his first two films, for which he did not receive much acclaim. It was only with his third film Baishey Shravan (1960) that he got widely noticed. When seen today this film seems is too reminiscent of Pather Panchali with comparable sequences and characters and one wonders how this did not get noticed immediately, which might have worked to its detriment. The film that brought Sen to national attention was Bhuvan Shome (1969), perhaps the first success of Mrs Gandhi’s film policy, which tried to intervene in the film space and create a national cinema dealing with everyday issues and exhibitable to international audiences. Bhuvan Shome, when seen today, still looks amateurish – especially when it tries for humour in the interminable segment where the protagonist is chased by a buffalo. Still, it had an unusual comical protagonist in Utpal Dutt (as a bureaucrat on vacation), a charming heroine in Suhasini Mulay and several lyrical passages, like the duck hunting episode in the marshes.   

The political space had been highly radicalised by the early 1970s because of the winds of revolution sweeping the globe, the highpoint in Paris in 1968. Where ‘Third World’ filmmakers had been ‘auteurs’ in the 1950s, marking their personal stamp on cinema and being broadly humanist like Ray and the Italian neo-realists before him, those that came out in the 1970s were more radical and constituted a body that called itself ‘Third Cinema’.  This band of radical talents of the ‘Third Cinema’ included filmmakers like Glauber Rocha from Brazil, Yilmaz Guney from Turkey, Ousmane Sembene from Senegal, Miguel Littin from Chile, Jorge Sanjines from Bolivia, Fernando Solanas and Ottavio Gettino from Argentina. The experiments of the group were radical; Sembene made his Mandabi in the African language Wolof and Jorge Sangines consciously employed an Indian dialect rather than the Spanish of the educated classes for some of his films. Their advocating radical change however proved eventually costly and many filmmakers of the group suffered censorship, imprisonment and exile. 

Mrinal Sen naturally belonged to his group and his radical period began with Interview (1971) in which a young man who is denied employment because he has no suit to wear flings a stone at a tailor’s dummy in a shop window. The film abandons the linear narrative of his earlier films and uses agitprop devices like those by directors like Glauber Rocha and Godard, sometimes directly addressing his audiences with radical statements. In Calcutta ’71 (1972) he weaves four stories set in different times together, to show that man’s exploitation of man has always been, with a linking piece set among the Calcutta bourgeoisie – about a public servant being entertained by an upper-class host – who keeps pictures of starving people in his living room as a gesture towards the great famine of 1943.   

Much of the radical cinema of the 1970s – including films by stalwarts like Godard – is unwatchable today and this is also true of Sen’s films of the period. The best segment in Calcutta ’71 (based on a story by Samaresh Basu) is about two boys trying to smuggle rice on a train and set in 1953 because it is not overly didactic and shows Sen at the top of his abilities in handling dramatic action. The third film of this early trilogy was Chorus (1975), even more ‘experimental’ than the others because of its use of so many disparate devices but its success as an enduring piece of cinema is doubtful. The problem with its experimentation is that Sen is too sure of what he is saying and experimentation does not include trying to say more complex things. What he is saying are basically Marxist truisms of various kinds, and one knows that he is only addressing those already converted to his cause, rather than persuade others.   

Indian popular cinema has drawn from the epics and puranas and has delivered pre-existent messages from them instead of observing life acutely. The Marxist filmmaker in India, although he or she will deny this, similarly delivers pre-existent messages but from political texts; instead of messages like the sanctity of family dictate (HAHK) or the need to pursue one’s passions (3 Idiots), its favoured messages are those like the solidarity of the working class or the deceitfulness of the rich. Such abstractions were acceptable when Marxist/Leninist truisms were current, but after 1990 they lost ground even among those most affiliated to the ideologies, and Sen’s early films are among the casualties. Sen’s 1986 film Genesis, for instance, still treats famers, traders and workers as classical Marxist abstractions – Naseeruddin Shah as ‘Farmer’, Om Puri as ‘Weaver’, MK Raina as ‘Trader’ – and Shabana Azmi as the woman who tries to make them understand the socio-political-economic relationships between them.       

But Genesis was an exception because Sen had changed his filmmaking style for Ek Din Prati Din (1979) when he reverted back to conventional storytelling. This film is about an unmarried working woman who comes home very late and the turmoil it sets off in her household, when everyone imagines the worst. This film is well made and acted and merits comparison with some of Satyajit Ray’s later (but less regarded) films like Mahanagar (1963). It could also be compared thematically to Ghatak’s Meghe Dhaka Tara (1956) although Sen comes across worse here and his film has none of the density of Ghatak’s classic. There are other films of this period by Sen which stand alongside Ek Din Prati Din as explorations of middle-class living, among which my own personal favourite is Kharij (1982), about a servant boy found dead in winter from the carbon monoxide emitted by the stove that kept him warm.  

These later films grounded in the middle-class are immensely respectable works, well above most of what Indian art cinema produces today, but one still finds them lacking in complexity. It is as though Sen already has a viewpoint to put across about a class rather than explore its own concerns. The drama in each film is sometimes needlessly heightened, without the situation itself justifying it. The air of deep melancholy in Khandahar (1984) around an unmarried woman living alone does not seem merited.  

Although Mrinal Sen’s films are of historical value because of the key role they played in the radicalized India of the 1970s and are valuable only in that context, he has been a revered figure in Bengal, partly for being mentor and patron to a host of young people who have known him as accessible and generous. At the time Prakash Jha’s Damul (1985) appeared Sen was quoted as saying that he wished he had made the film. Now, that is high praise indeed coming from one filmmaker to another and hardly routine. Sen was a major figure in Indian cinema, representing an aspect of great historical value but he will probably be most missed for what he was – a person who was almost legendary for his graciousness in a milieu where filmmakers and personalities are competing ruthlessly for honours and opportunities. 

————————————————————————————————————————————– MK Raghavendra is a film scholar and author of seven books including The Oxford India Short Introduction to Bollywood (2016).