14 May 1923: Mrinal Sen, Indian director and screenwriter, was born

“The essence of Mrinal-da is the combination of uncertainty and conviction that keeps you young.”

~ Dhritiman Chatterjee, Indian actor, quoted in an article for the Harmony – Celebrate Age Magazine, March 2005.

Mrinal Sen, a Kolkata-based Indian filmmaker, is one of the greatest personalities in the world of parallel cinema. Mrinal Sen was born on 14 May 1923. His name is taken with great respect, along with contemporaries like Satyajit Ray and Ritwick Ghatak. He is best known for making movies that dealt with socio-political issues, and capturing the “magic in living” despite the difficulties in life. Internationally renowned, most of Mrinal Sen’s movies are in the Bengali language.

Early Years

Born before India’s independence (14 May 1923), Mrinal Sen hails from a Hindu family from Faridpur, a town which is now in Bangladesh. His tryst with Calcutta (Kolkata) began, after he came to the city to pursue his college degree. After completing his graduation in Physics from Scottish Church College, he further got a post graduate degree from the University of Calcutta. During his college days, Sen showed interest in theatre. He joined the Indian People’s Theatre Association, which was run by the Communist Party of India. This is where his socialist ideologies were formed. Most of his movies are believed to be influenced by the communist principles he was exposed to during his college days.

Mrinal Sen’s career started, not with films, but as a medical representative. In those days, he didn't even have the time to watch films. The first time his thoughts went in the direction of the world of cinema was in the National Library, while reading a book written by Rudolf Arnheim, called Film. Eventually, he decided to take the plunge and took up a job as a studio technician in Calcutta.

Beginning of Sen’s Film Career

Mrinal Sen’s first stint as a film maker came in the year 1953, when he directed and did the screenwriting for Raat Bhore (The Dawn), which was released in 1955. The movie did not do well, and consequently, by his own admission, Sen went into “self-exile.” He admits that the movies he made thereafter, were “the logical extension of what [he] was then.” Sen’s next project, Neel Akasher Niche(Under the Blue Sky), two years later was well received. So was his third one, Baishey Shravan (1960), which was inspired by an incident concerning the death of a child amidst a jostling crowd, that he witnessed at the river side, the same day Rabindranath Tagore died and was cremated. Baishey Shravan brought him the recognition, and his fourth movie, Punashcha (Over Again, 1961), got him his first award.

Second Phase of Sen’s Film Career

In the beginning of his career, Mrinal Sen’s movies dealt with the human aspect of tragedies, due to social prejudices. His narrative and style of film-making was inspired from Hollywood. However, his later movies, between 1965 and 1978 were more experimental. He used elements like non-linear narratives, “news reel type montages,” discontinuities, and even slogans to get across his message, which were some of the methods of film-making by the Soviet. During this time, he made a movie in Hindi, named Bhuvan Shome (1969), a satire about bureaucracy, which became a significant milestone in Indian cinema. Made with a low budget, Bhuvan Shome garnered praise from renowned filmmakers like Shyam Benegal, who described it as having “opened up a new horizon” in cinema. This film got him his first Best Director National Award.

The period between 1965 and 1978 is also known for the country’s political instability and the Naxalite Movement in Bengal. Even though, Sen was known for sympathising with the political left wing, he showed a shift in his stance with his movies like Padatik (The Guerilla Fighter; 1973) and Parashuram (1978). These movies raised issues regarding the exploitation of young rebels by political parties. Chorus (1974) and Mrigaya (1976) showed the gritting reality of life during the Emergency in India. Some of his movies during this time, won Sen multiple awards at home (National and Filmfare Awards) and abroad, in film festivals like those in Berlin (for Chorus and Parashuram), and Moscow (for Chorus).

Last and On-going Phase of Sen’s Film Career

Mrinal Sen again turned a new leaf in his movie career after 1979. His movies now became more introspective and identified the ‘enemy within’ a person. They dealt mostly with middle class prejudices. The narrative now was less experimental and settled, although he did continue using news reel style montages in certain situations. Significant and award-winning movies during this time included Kharij (Case Closed; 1982; won in film festivals of Cannes and Valladolid), Khandhar(1983; won in film festivals of Chicago and Montreal), Akaler Sandhane(In Search of Famine; 1980; won in Berlin Film Festival), and Ek Din Achanak (Suddenly One Day; 1988; got an Honourable Mention in the Venice Film festival). The last film he directed was Amar Bhuvan (My Land), in 2002.

In total, Mrinal Sen has done 27 feature films, five documentaries and one television show. Apart from the many awards he received for his movies, he has also been recognised with institutional and national honours, like the Commandeur de Ordre des Arts et des Lettres by the President of France (1985), the Order of Friendship by the Russian Federation (2000), and the Dadasaheb Phalke Award by the Government of India (2005).

The title "Maverick Maestro," describes Mrinal Sen almost perfectly. This name was given by Deepankar Mukhopadhyay, former head of the National Film Development Corporation, and his biographer (1995). Sen also published his autobiography, named Always Being Born in 2004. Even today, his friends and colleagues consider him to be a person with a young heart.

Also on this day:

1657 – Sambhaji, Indian emperor of the Maratha Empire, was born

1981 – Pranav Mistry, Indian inventor and computer scientist, was born

References :

  • Mrinal Sen Official website
  • Encyclopædia Britannica article on Mrinal Sen

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