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A birth centenary tribute to Mrinal Sen

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A strong tendency could be detected among the younger film makers in both Dhaka and Kolkata in the recent years. These new-generation directors prefer Mrinal Sen to Satyajit Ray. Their bypassing of Ray stems from the great classical director's being confined to a 'safe and innocent' art-dominant world. It's the domain, where the artist doesn't have to be accountable to society for his skirting complicated and uncomfortable social issues. These allegations levelled against the great Bengalee director have later proved to be phony and distortion of truth. The over-enthusiastic Mrinal Sen followers, however, continue to glorify the left-leaning director's social message, which remains focused on the common people's struggle to come free of the system of all kinds of repression. However, the lovers of pure cinema consider both the directors gifted and committed to the movie medium. They also admit to the fact that the two directors belong to two distinctive creative worlds.

While Mrinal Sen loved to call himself a 'private Marxist', Ray would maintain a safe distance from over-radicalism. He didn't hesitate to show the hypocrisy of the urban bureaucrats; but a sense of aesthetic balance would distinguish him. Ray preferred to show life as it is, instead of imposing any iconoclastic views.  The difference can be compared to that which exists between the French New Wave directors and those like the Swedish Ingmar Bergman and the German Wim Wenders and the others.

The debate over the film making excellence mastered by the two great Bengalee film makers, Ray and Sen, came to the fore on last 14 May. The day marked the birth centenary of Mrinal Sen (May 14, 1923-December 30, 2018). Satyajit Ray was born on May 2, 1921, and died on April 23, 1992. Comparing between creative geniuses has been on since long. What's distressing in the debate over the creative geniuses of Ray and Sen is its decline to a level not related to artistic achievements. A section of people belonging to the Sen camp doesn't hesitate to call Satyajit Ray a 'conformist'. At the same time, the Ray school gave Mrinal Sen the sobriquet of a 'radical' or a 'Marxist'. In reality, the outspoken director dealt with the self-contradictions characterising the middle class. His sharp observations haven't escaped the opportunism of many a middle class person. In fact, he loved to dissect the middle-class individuals. In the end, what the viewers find is a large number of bruised and devastated males. Alongside them, the ever-oppressed class manages to raise their voice of protest. Unfortunately, they remain leaderless and without a guide whom they can bank on. As a corollary, what creeps in insidiously is disillusionment and despair. These spells of suppressed anger and discontent hardly end in outbursts. Like a seasoned social observer, Mrinal Sen shows the audiences how the large sections of society remain entangled in a web of imperceptible complications. Sen's Calcutta Trilogy --- Interview (1970), Calcutta `71 (1972), and Padatik (1973) --- and Chorus (1974), bear testimony to this truth.

Earlier, Satyajit Ray, the maker of Opu Trilogy --- Pother Pachali (1955), Aporajito (1956) and Opur Sangsar (1959) brought to the screen a different style of struggle engaged in by an insolvent rural family. The struggle here is family-based, and also individual. The broader society is not directly involved in this day-to-day struggle for survival. Ray, however, turned to the Calcutta-based urban segment of life a few years later.

The rise of Mrinal Sen was different from that of Satyajit Ray. Ray had been preparing himself to become a film maker from his youth. While in his twenties, the young Satyajit, a native of Calcutta, founded the Calcutta Film Society along with some movie lovers. The concept of the film society movement was alien even for many educated people back then. The simple idea that the film society's mission was to enable movie fans to watch foreign classical films at special screenings took time for the general people to grasp. Thus Ray eventually took the initiative to make his maiden movie 'Pother Pachali' as a film society activist. Mrinal Sen, a student of Physics, migrated from Faridpur in East Bengal, when he was 17. He had little involvement with movies or movie making. Sen's passion was books, especially those which deal with aesthetics. But he had been destined to become a film director. Years later, he developed friendship with young Writtik Ghatak and Salil Chowdhury, then a budding music composer. Perhaps at the dictates of destiny, the three youths began toying with the idea of picking film direction as career. Thus it all started --- the movie career of Mrinal Sen; and it continued without any break. In his long career, beginning with 'Neel Akasher Neeche' and 'Baishey Sravana' and others, Sen made 28 full-length feature films. Most of these movies carry a clear socio-political message. In short, in these films the talented director picked the exploitation of the urban poor and the underprivileged at the hands of the social bigwigs. The deprived people also include the educated urban youths. As a natural corollary, a large number of these repressed people do not accept the injustices done to them in silence. Many stand up in protest. The style of these protests is expressed in different forms ranging from threats of confrontation to allegorical attacks and satire. The audience finds these forms of attack in the movies like 'Interview'.

The socio-political content is a recurring theme in Sen's movies. However, Sen has made a few apolitical movies as well. Those include 'Bhubon Shome', 'Ontoreen', 'Ekdin Achanak' (Hindi) etc. The last movie deals with an author who disappears from his Calcutta home one afternoon without trace. In 'Ekdin Protidin' we see the scathing portrayal of a young woman from the urban middle class who cannot return home at her normal time one night. This leads to dozens of speculations among the close neighbours. The parents feel distressed. 'Ekdin Protidin' is considered a major non-Mrinalesque but realism-dominated movie.   'Ontoreen' depicts the lonely life of a young lady in a deserted palatial house. 'Bhubon Shome' deals with an outwardly comical character, a Bengalee bureaucrat. He is shown on a hunting mission in a barren landscape. The interesting point is, in spite of his fun-laced hunting exploits, the gentleman is highly dutiful and kind-hearted. The typically political Sen starts coming alive in 'Baishey Sravana'. In this film the director shows the terrible face of the Great Bengal Famine alongside the fall in the economic status of a petty rural vendor. According to critics, this movie shows the signs of social awareness Sen is going to make his leitmotif in his coming works. In spite of a few cliché spectacles of the marching masses, this left-leaning director doesn't impose his conviction. He leaves space for the viewers to arrive at their own conclusions. As the blind Mrinal admirers believe, mostly the 'pro-people' group, this is what a socially committed director should do.

A section of the new-generation movie makers and activists believe it was Mrinal Sen who founded the parallel cinema movement in the sub-continent. Many, however, call the movement the New-Wave cinema. The Satyajit Ray School throws its weight behind the maker of 'Pother Pachali' or Opu Trilogy. In fact, both the directors and their individual commitments to cinema are equally important to the rational movie lovers. Ray is great for his unalloyed love for the principle of 'art for art's sake'. Yet he hasn't failed to accommodate social contents in a lot his movies. Mrinal Sen expressed his disenchantment with the existing social order from the very beginning of his movie career. But he has never been a party member. He interpreted Marxism in his own way.


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