Social realism in Mrinal Sen's cinema

Shihab Sarkar | Published: January 03, 2019 21:08:50

Mrinal Sen (May 14, 1923 - December 30, 2018)

The last of the legendary South Asian film makers' trio --- Mrinal Sen (b 1923) passed away on December 30, 2018. The two others, Satyajit Ray (b 1921) and Ritwik Ghatak (b 1925) died in 1992 and 1976 respectively. With Ray eventually becoming a global cinema icon, Mrinal Sen and Ritwik Ghatak had carved out their distinctive places in the greater Asian and Third World filmdom.

The early phase of Mrinal Sen's film career smacked of a brief bout of indecisiveness. His first film 'Raat Bhore'(1956), and the following one 'Neel Akasher Niche (1959)' had little elements in their plots and the making style that could make one predict his future leaning to the left. But it did not take much time for him to follow that track. Mrinal Sen's very third film 'Baishey Sravan' (1960) clearly demonstrated the signs of the course his cinema career was going to take in the future. With this movie, Mrinal had made his mark of entry in the Indian cinema's 'left' school. However, the film also drew on human traumas during unexpected crises and a few semi-dramatic moments and emotional deadlocks. As he progressed from film to film, with little pause, the director deftly came free of his emotional baggage. By the time he made his Calcutta Trilogy comprising 'Interview' (1971), 'Kolkata 71' (1971) and 'Padatik' (1973), Mrinal Sen had been critically acclaimed as one of the few left-leaning, but aesthetically non-compromising, movie directors. From that period on, the director had rarely attempted to make movies in a lighter vein or by using satire like 'Akash Kushum' (1965) or 'Bhubon Shome' (1969).

Unlike that of the committed left directors in other parts of the world, Mrinal's themes were mainly based on the concept of the broader social realism. In fact, a strong but subtly applied thrust on the socio-political message eventually started shaping his artistic self. Following the Calcutta Trilogy, the full-time director continued to focus on varieties of social realities, especially the flaws and discrepancies affecting the lower middle class people. 'Mrigaya' (1976), 'Ekdin Protidin' (1980), 'Akaler Sandhaney' (1981) are the films that take the audience on a topsy-turvy trip beginning from the British colonial India to the social realities in the 1980s. 'Mrigaya' deals with the exploitation of Bengal villagers by the colonial rulers. 'Akaler Sandhaney' employs the Brechtian style of plot development. As its story progresses, it is seen trying to recreate a past famine only to face hiccups and hindrances cropping up on location. A middle-class young woman goes out of her city residence to her workplace in 'Ekdin Protidin'. In the face of an eager wait by the family members, the young lady, the only bread winner of the family, doesn't return home. The family members' patience and empathy for each other adds to their collective strength.

A prolific director gifted with a trait for engaging in ventures into newer territories, Mrinal Sen made about 30 full-length films. Apart from Bangla, he directed movies also in Hindi, Uria and Telegu. His Hindi films, notably 'Ek Adhuri Kahani' (1972), 'Khandahar' (1984) and 'Ekdin Achanak' (1989), won wide and spontaneous audience response and rave critical reviews.  Unlike Satyajit Ray, Mrinal Sen appeared to have been in a state of hesitation in choosing his 'film plots and film making school'. Ray began with a Bangla novel of modern classical genre --- 'Pather Pachali' by Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay. Later in his career, he turned to fictions by modernist Bengalee writers. When it comes to film story-lines, Sen looked into assorted sources that included short stories by famous authors as well as combinations of different stories by different writers. This style of culling plots from varied sources impacted greatly on the style of his film making. Ray had all along been fond of the narrative, and wide angle photography. He would put a great emphasis on the composition of shots. He was hardly seen shooting a scene without arduous preparations.

Mrinal Sen, owing to his being passionately focused on the subjects, would employ improvisations while taking shots.   By nature a dissident and 'outsider', Ritwik Ghatak could not take his genius to the level of the viewers' expectation. At times, his films give the impression of having been made without a written screenplay. When it comes to photography and editing, Ghatak disappoints many discerning critics thanks to the wild experiments he made with them. He was more eager to get his message across than to maintaining technical perfection. Mrinal Sen was equally eager to pass on his social messages to his audience. But he never compromised on his directorial perfection. What makes Mrinal Sen a major film maker is the fact that he left behind the legacy of his distinctive style of direction.

Satyajit Ray's art all along bore the stamp of a genuine artist --- i.e. following the rules of rigorous discipline and developing a classical style from one work to another. His had been on a steady graduation process. It began from a narrative style rich with exposing the charm of human virtues and the bounties of nature to complications of urban life. The director, in fact, delved into the complications as they affected the middle and upper-middle class milieu in Kolkata. Ray loved to confine himself to the Kolkata metropolitan area, with his camera occasionally panning over areas in the woods and the rugged terrains far from the city.

Satyajit Ray made his debut with the pastorally idyllic 'Pather Pachali' set in an East Bengal village. After a couple of movies, Ray chose the city as his preferred centre of work. But like a continually maturing artist, he also ventured out into the distant locations in the wild and the semi-wild. These are found especially in 'Oronnyer Dinratri', 'Kanchanjangha' and 'Obhijan'. At one point of life, he tried his hand at making a period film, set at the concluding era of the Mughal Empire. Called 'Satranj Ki Khilarhi', the epic film was shot in Hindi.

A debate has long been raging as to who is a greater film maker: Satyajit Ray or Mrinal Sen. Sensible film buffs avoid it altogether. Both of them are major directors in their unique ways. Ray followed the classical temperament of film making employing a poetically balanced form. Essentially a painter, he proved to be a master of shot compositions. He, too, had social and human messages to convey. Those were subtle, and, at times would elude the average viewers. Moreover, Ray did not have any penchant for dramatic turns in plots. Mrinal sen could not always avoid it. He had grown a weakness for climactic conclusions since his mid-career. However, this was done quite masterfully. In one film a middle-aged man leaves his home one morning and remains traceless for days. He keeps the family members and the audience eagerly waiting for him. But he never returns. The agonising wait for the man comes up as one of the basic elements of the movie. Entertaining directors would have brought the man home in the last scene. Sen used the moments of suspense to help a universal message become sharper. The message is focused on the truth that none is indispensible to any human group, even if it is a family. The day-to-day chores of the family eventually return to normal, with the missing man slowly being consigned to oblivion. Just a few characters suffer in silence.      

Satyajit Ray enjoyed a global exposure. His genius could prompt internationally acclaimed critics like Marie Seton to write on him. Mrinal Sen also did not lag much behind. He was honoured with dozens of international and prestigious Indian awards. A notable aspect of Sen's career was his warm link with the avant-garde young film makers in Kolkata and Dhaka. Many term it one of his greatest awards.

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