Where to begin with Mrinal Sen

A hundred years after his birth, we plot a beginner’s path through the politically charged and formally experimental films of Mrinal Sen, one of the leading lights of the Indian New Wave.

And Quiet Rolls the Dawn (1979)

Why this might not seem so easy

Along with his contemporaries Satyajit Ray and Ritwik Ghatak, Mrinal Sen was part of a trio of filmmakers from Bengal who put Indian cinema on the global stage. While Ray’s cinema is marked by lyrical humanism and Ghatak’s theatrical background informs his melodramatic films, Sen’s filmography combines political fervour with personal reflection. With 27 features, 14 shorts and four documentaries to his credit in an almost 50-year long career, Sen revolutionised Indian cinema by not just infusing it with socio-political realism but also through unprecedented formal experimentation.

Sen called himself a private Marxist, and his leftist ideals shaped his initial films through the late 1950s and 60s, in which class hierarchies and socio-economic conditions of the protagonists affect their fate. The turbulent political climate of the 70s in India stirred major social unrest, and the common man’s revolutionary spirit seeps into Sen’s protagonists, who revolt against the system. This revolution in content is complemented by disruptive camerawork and innovations in edit patterns. 

After a string of politically charged films and subsequent disillusionment with the failed Naxalite movement, the radical communist insurgency which resulted in an uprising in Bengal in 1967, Sen turned from the collective to the individual towards the latter part of his career. His recurring interest in socially unjust systems was replaced by a concern with the working class’s moral hypocrisy and how interpersonal dynamics are impacted by repressed thoughts and feelings. His filmmaking sensibilities also became more understated.

The best place to start – Bhuvan Shome

In 1969, Sen applied for a loan to the newly formed Film Finance Corporation, the predecessor to the National Film Development Corporation, and managed to get funds from them for his next film. The result was Bhuvan Shome (1969), a radical departure from Sen’s earlier films and the usual Indian cinema of the period. This film finally launched him as a major filmmaker and initiated the ‘New Cinema’ or Indian New Wave.

Bhuvan Shome (1969)Preserved by the BFI National Archive

Bhuvan Shome charts the encounters between the eponymous middle-aged bureaucrat and a frolicking village girl, whom he meets during a birding trip in the hinterlands of Gujarat. She helps him discover the simple joys of human relationships and rural life. The most striking aspect of the film is that it is minimalistic without being devoid of style. In addition to some impressive montage sequences, the movie uses a lot of jump cuts and freeze-frames. 

Apparently, it didn’t go down well with Ray who summed up Bhuvan Shome as “Big Bad Bureaucrat Reformed by Rustic Belle”. Although Ray may not have approved of Bhuvan Shome at the time, the film’s influence on him is quite evident in Ray’s The Chess Players (1977), which not only uses animation but also employs a playfully sardonic voiceover narration by Amitabh Bachchan, who also narrates Bhuvan Shome.

What to watch next

Being a conscientious person, Sen couldn’t help but react to his social environment. The early 70s was a period of turmoil in Bengal, and Sen snapshotted the social and political upheavals in his acclaimed ‘Calcutta trilogy’, comprising Interview (1971), Calcutta 71 (1971) and The Guerrilla Fighter (1973). The influence of European film movements, including the French New Wave, German expressionism, Italian neorealism and surrealism, on Sen becomes evident in these films as he employs a host of Godardian and Brechtian techniques. Shaky hand-held camera shots, jump cuts, freeze-frames, characters breaking the fourth-wall, chiaroscuro imagery and real-world footage of protests and rallies are concocted to amplify the ruptured inner and outer worlds of the protagonists. 

Poster for The Kaleidoscope (1981)Preserved by the BFI National Archive

The revolutionary anger of the trilogy is given a satirical spin in Chorus (1975), where unemployment triggers anarchy, leading to a horde of disgruntled men ransacking offices. Sen’s 1981 film Kaleidoscope is another semi-comical attempt at capturing a menace (air pollution) plaguing Calcutta’s middle-class milieu, who have no option but to live amid the toxic fumes of coal ovens used by them. A masterfully staged dream sequence sees thousands of women carrying coal ovens protesting the wealthy class cocooned in their buildings.

Sen was acutely aware of the self-serving nature of the middle-class. His critique of their hypocrisy and superficial morality is best on display in the following three films: Ek Din Pratidin (And Quiet Rolls the Dawn, 1979), Kharij (The Case Is Closed, 1982) and Ek Din Achanak (Suddenly, One Day, 1989). In And Quiet Rolls the Dawn the eldest daughter, the sole breadwinner of a middle-class family, doesn’t return home one night. Sen takes us through a wide gamut of emotions experienced by the family members: fear (possibility of death or suicide), guilt (over neglecting her feelings), social shame (in case of her eloping with someone). 

These emotions are revisited in Ek Din Achanak, where the patriarch of a family goes missing, leading the remaining family members to envisage various possibilities. The Case Is Closed sees Sen questioning the privileged class, as a servant boy dies in the kitchen of a middle-class household, due to inhaling poisonous gas overnight. As guilt reigns over the married couple for not giving the servant an empty room to sleep in, they escape culpability and the dead boy’s father returns without creating a fuss. In stark contrast, Sen’s colonial-era period drama Mrigayaa (The Royal Hunt, 1977) exposes how the rules are different for those at the lowest rungs of the social ladder, who end up being victimised by the system.

The decadence of society, erosion of values, opportunism and exploitation were motifs Sen couldn’t stay away from in his films. In Matira Manisha (Man of the Soil, 1966) and Oka Oori Katha (The Outsiders, 1978), he reveals how selfishness creates discord among family members. Although Sen’s compassionate lens evoked pity for the downtrodden, he was wise enough to understand how abject poverty and desperate circumstances could bring out the worst in human beings. His third film, Baishey Shravana (1960), situated in the time of the 1943 Bengal famine induced by the Second World War, throws light on a happily married couple and how starvation eventually kills the husband’s humanity, who manages some food for himself, leaving nothing for his wife. Sen would revisit the exploitation of man by man triggered by the Bengal famine in one of the four segments of Calcutta 71 and later in Akaler Sandhane (In Search of Famine, 1981), in which a film crew from Calcutta visits a village to recreate the famine period of the early 40s. The self-reflexive film shows how famished lives are the reality of rural areas even in post-independence India. The 1986 film Genesis is yet another representation of the dog-eat-dog world.

Chorus (1975)Preserved by the BFI National Archive

Unspoken words, unexpressed feelings and unfulfilled relationships connect the sensitive dramas: Khandhar (Ruins, 1984), Antareen (The Confined, 1993) and Sen’s final film, Aamar Bhuvan (2002). The brimming rage of his earlier retaliatory films is replaced with internalisation of discontent and emotional restraint in these films and also in the tragic drama Mahaprithibhi (World Within, World Without, 1991), where the matriarch of a family commits suicide. During 1986 and 1987, Sen made 12 short films for Indian television, Kabhi Door Kabhi Paas, that looked at lives in urban households, exploring relationships, ideas of morality and celebrating daily existence. These nuanced explorations of ordinary beings showcase Sen’s ability to make the mundane profound. 

Where not to start

Sen wasn’t proud of his first two films: Raat Bhore (The Dawn, 1956) and Neel Akasher Neechey (Under the Blue Sky, 1959). An indictment of socio-economic disparity escalated by the rural-urban divide, Raat Bhore remained an embarrassment for Sen all his life, calling it, “the biggest of all big disasters” in his book, Montage: Life, Politics, Cinema. 

Neel Akasher Neechey portrays the friendship between a Chinese street vendor in 1930s Calcutta and an affluent housewife who supports the national movement. She influences him to go back home and join the imminent revolution in China. Sen thought of it as over sentimental, technically poor and visually unsatisfying.

It’s difficult to source Sen’s films of the early 60s as the prints seem to be untraceable. His 1965 work Akash Kusum (Up in the Clouds) is accessible and, though a minor work in his filmography, it is nevertheless a watchable movie, despite Ray’s scathing remark: “A crow-film is a crow-film is a crow-film.”

And Quiet Rolls the Dawn screens on 35mm as part of the BFI Film on Film Festival.

Interview and Calcutta ‘71 are both available to watch on Prime Video.

Further reading


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