Mrinal Sen put India’s new wave cinema on the world map. If Satyajit Ray is one of my bibles of filmmaking, I draw inspiration from Mrinal Sen’s presentation of realism. His films are not at all poetic; they are harsh and unforgiving. Ritwik Ghatak also presented realism, but Sen’s realism was rougher, more jagged. You can smell the stench of death and disease in his scenes of hospitals and morgues.
I grew up in Delhi, and amidst the onslaught of Bollywood productions and Bengali potboilers, Mrinal Sen’s stark images and characters completely transformed me. Sen never made any attempt to hide his politics. The uninhibited display of his politics in his movies made it impossible to walk away. It was so in your face that you could not escape from it. Sen is up there with the greatest.
I always wanted to meet him, but I was scared of him. I watched his films with fear too. He presented society in that neo-realist style that can really shake you; that kind of intensity can be terrifying. But it also compelled me to keep going back to his movies. I remember I could not sleep after watching Ek Din Pratidin (1979). It was the first Sen movie I saw, and then I made it a point to watch everything he made. The stark reality in Pink was inspired by Ek Din Pratidin.
Films like Khandhar (1984), Ek Din Achanak (1989) Ek Din Pratidin, Interview (1971), Calcutta ’71 (1972), were all so revolutionary for their times. They spoke of a certain kind of politics and at the same time presented us with the director’s personality and political upbringing. To me, Sen’s personality was as important as his films. His strong belief in socialism, his Marxist leanings were reflected in his films and in his lifestyle. Yet, when we see the films today, they seem as modern now as they were 40-50 years ago. One thing I learnt from both Mrinal Sen and Satyajit Ray was to try and not repeat myself in my films. While Sen remained socially relevant, he never repeated himself.
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I believe it is very important for every generation to be aware of the works of the great masters; to see them, study them, discuss them, learn from them. As filmmakers, we need to constantly evaluate their work and personalities.
Today, we are under so much external pressure and box office demands, but Sen never allowed those factors to influence him. He held to his beliefs and principles and kept making films according to them. I see his films as a kind of debate—a dialogue he had with himself that he brought to the screen.
Next to someone like Mrinal Sen, I am a mediocre filmmaker at best. I work very well with a lot of compromises, but next to these masters, I am nobody. I see myself as their student, taking lessons from their films. If he were alive today, I would love to have just sat and listened to him. I can only compare it with the experience of listening to Pandit Ravi Shankar playing the sitar—I would just sit and absorb. We should study them and go back to our drawing board and re-examine what we are doing.
We are fortunate to have had these filmmakers in our culture and as our “fathers”.
As told to Suhrid Sankar Chattopadhyay.