His films defied party allegiance and national cinema norms, identifying sectarianism as the true adversary.
It all started in Paradise Café in south Calcutta. Mrinal Sen was a frequent visitor with friends Ritwik Ghatak, Salil Chowdhury, Hrishikesh Mukherjee, and Tapas Sen. Sometimes Bansi Chandragupta or Bijan Bhattacharya would join. Many of them have written about the addas at this café, but Mrinal Sen has remembered it more than anyone else, as several essays and interviews testify. The run-down Paradise did not have the aura of Indian Coffee House. Sen and his friends, perennially in need of money, found it hard to pay for the cups of tea and cigarettes they consumed. “In that tiny room,” writes Sen, “… stuffed with an assortment of broken furniture, we were only too ready to build a new front. A front which would consist of cinema and revolution walking hand in hand (“Paradise Café”, Montage, Life, Politics, Cinema, 2018).” Unable to realise that dream, they joined the trade union movement in the Tollygunge studios, where Ghatak used to hold forth against the habit of alcohol consumption among technicians.
It was the time of the Telangana and Tebhaga peasant movements. News arrived from Kakdwip, a village in southern Bengal, of the killing of Ahalya, a peasant woman, by the police. Sen wrote up a script, Salil Chowdhury gave it the title “Struggle for Land”, Ghatak got hold of an old 16 mm camera. The “front” was about to make its debut. It was not to happen though. Armed struggle was soon abandoned by the communists as was a “leftwing deviation”. In an essay he wrote in the middle of the 1970s, when he had made four films chronicling another moment of radical turmoil, Sen remembered the Paradise Café days, especially Salil Chowdhury’s memorable poem about Kakdwip:
Kakdwip was on strike that night.
Clouds filled with water
Held back the pain of rain,
And stood silent…
Butterflies stayed back in cocoons
For one more day.
Kakdwip was on strike that night.
(From Shapath, my translation)
Sen’s films from the 1970s, Interview (1971), Calcutta 71 (1972), Padatik (Foot Soldier, 1973) and Chorus (1974), recorded the pulse of those radical times more than any other body of films one can think of. He is credited with kicking off the Indian “new wave” with his 1969 film Bhuvan Shome, which was made with assistance from the Film Finance Corporation (FFC). The FFC turned a new page with the film and went on to sponsor a host of art cinema landmarks. Made in Hindi with a budget of less than two lakh rupees, Bhuvan Shome was a critical and commercial success. Producers sought out Sen, asking for more films. But it was already 1970, militant politics had changed the tenor of life. And 1970, Sen wrote, demanded something else (Chalachitra Bhut-bartaman-bhabishyat, 1977).
“The predilection for internationalism must have come to him from his formative experience, the IPTA movement, which brought regional folk traditions into contact with each other, and inspired modern artistic practices.”
Sen had drafted a “Manifesto of the New Cinema Movement” with Arun Kaul in 1968 where they wrote: “New Cinema seeks the clues to mankind’s riddles in men’s personal relationships and private worlds. New cinema encourages film-makers to bring to their work improvisation, spontaneity and youthful enthusiasm.” Youthfulness and improvisation, and what Sen later called the “madness” of Bhuvan Shome, continued to inform the four 1970s films, but they were no longer confined to “personal relationships and private worlds.”
Film society publications of the time show Sen at the centre of the debate on political cinema. He was to be found at the theatres where his films were shown, meeting the audience, answering questions, engaging in arguments. The films themselves were made in the form of arguments. But it was not possible to satisfy the demand of political commitment in those times of extremities. The same film society magazines often criticised the films for falling short of engagement: Why doesn’t Calcutta ’71 tell us who killed the young man who appears at the end and speaks? Why is the revolutionary protagonist hiding in such a posh apartment in Padatik? Why does this character question the party line at a time when the party is under brutal attack from the state? More damaging criticism came from Samar Sen, the famous poet and editor of the political weekly, Frontier. He found Padatik tantamount to a police report on naxal politics. The viewer will remember spotting copies of Frontier on the hero’s bed.
When faced with such questions, Sen would often cite an article by Mao Zedong where the Chinese leader pointed out the need to correctly assess friends and enemies (“Analysis of the Classes in Chinese Society”, 1926). Sen connected the unfolding present to past experiences of suffering and protest. In Calcutta 71, three episodes tell stories of three decades in Bengal before the 1971 moment arrives. Hunger is the theme that connects the decades. The revolutionary in Padatik, alienated from a party that does not brook criticism, finds a new connection with his father at the end. The elderly man, an activist from another generation, is played by the iconic playwright of the Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA), Bijan Bhattacharya. Sen writes that such connections are acts of solidarity, of finding true friends.
“His films traced a kinship with past episodes in history while the revolutionaries were calling for a sharp break with the past.”
The “upper class” woman who provides shelter to the hero is Punjabi by birth, and she is fighting to sustain an independent life in a male-dominated world. Sen in his replies to his interlocutors said she could be another new ally, speaking another language, fighting another battle. The real enemy was sectarianism (interviews in Chalachitra Bhut-bartaman-bhabishyat, 1977).
His task, Sen believed, was to trace the line that leads from starvation to anger so that representation of poverty does not stay within the limits of the bearable. But the filmmaker is not obliged to endorse a party line. As their “Manifesto” had said: “New Cinema lays stress on the right questions and bothers less about the right answers.” But it was not easy for him to convince his radical critics. In an essay from the early 1970s, “The Chicken-Hearted Intellectual”, Sen took to task intellectuals who were moved to great emotions by the 1971 genocide in Bangladesh but remained silent about the crimes of the state taking place next door, right then. For the artist, commitment meant inhabiting a painfully undefined zone where the older generation failed to react to a burning reality, and the young demanded the impossible.
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Kinship with history
Mrinal Sen was close to the Communist Party and the IPTA in the 1940s, but was not a member of either. He recalls in an interview the experience of carrying a copy of Sartre’s Intimacy to 46, Dharamtala Street, the office of several leftist cultural organisations. He was greeted with all-round admonition, “Oh! Jean-Paul Sartre! You have traces of petty bourgeois vices in you!” (“Interview, 2001”, in Montage). There were other encounters of a similar nature that made him wary of party allegiance.
His films traced a kinship with past episodes in history while the revolutionaries were calling for a sharp break with the past. Sen forged connections with international cinema as well. On several occasions, he expressed his deep distrust of the idea of national cinema (interviews in Montage and Chalachitra). Cinema, according to him, cannot be national either in content or form. Being a technological practice, it crossed the confines of nations, and “cross-fertilisation” was a source of strength for it.
- Sen’s films from the 1970s, Interview (1971), Calcutta 71 (1972), Padatik (Foot Soldier, 1973), and Chorus (1974), recorded the pulse of those radical times more than any other body of films one can think of.
- His task, Sen believed, was to trace the line that leads from starvation to anger so that representation of poverty does not stay within the limits of the bearable.
- His films traced a kinship with past episodes in history while the revolutionaries were calling for a sharp break with the past. Sen forged connections with international cinema as well.
- Mixing documentary footage with fiction and using elements of theatre were the hallmarks of the new wave styles of the time, and Sen made generous use of both.
The signs of what were known as new wave techniques of narration in European and Latin American cinema started appearing in his films from the time of Akash Kusum (1965), made shortly after he watched Francois Truffaut’s 400 Blows (1959) and Jules et Jim (1962) at a screening in Mumbai.
It was partly because of its contemporary “European” flavour that the film provoked that unprecedented exchange of 38 letters between Satyajit Ray, Sen, and others in the pages of the English daily Statesman in 1965. The documentary filmmaker Shanti Chowdhury wrote in his review of Akash Kusum that the film showed a salutary exposure to international cinema. Such exposure, let us remember, was quite limited for Indians at the time.
The infusion of self-reflexive techniques and elliptical narration was widely noticed in Bhuvan Shome. Sen began to make frequent visits to international film festivals around that time, winning awards, serving on juries, keeping up with international trends, making friends with prominent global directors and critics.
“As the revolutionary son discovers a comrade in his father in Padatik, Sen’s cinema acknowledges its secret alliance with the tradition of radical theatre of the 1940s.”
His memoir, Always Being Born (2004), has several anecdotes about those travels. A symbolic moment arrived as he took Bhuvan Shome to the Venice Film Festival in 1969. He received a phone call from the legendary Henri Langlois, who groomed Truffaut, Godard, and the French New Wave circle in his Cinémathèque Française. Langlois wanted Sen to bring Bhuvan Shome to the Cinémathèque!
The predilection for internationalism must have come to him from his formative experience, the IPTA movement. Formed in the phase of anti-imperialist nationalism and international anti-fascist mobilisation, the IPTA brought regional folk traditions into contact with each other on one hand, and inspired modern artistic practices on the other. Perhaps Sen had that project in mind when, asked about the necessity of authenticity, he defended what he called cross-fertilisation.
He narrated his experience at the Berlin Film Festival in 1973 where he met filmmakers from Latin America, all with leftist sympathies. When Sen told them about Padatik, which he had just finished shooting, they said it was exactly how they would approach their own situations. A director from Argentina told him he was making a film along the same lines (“Interview 3”, Chalachitra).
Cross-fertilisation also meant heterogeneity of elements in the body of the films. He insisted on de-emphasising the “specificity” or purity of cinematic language. The first element of hybridisation came through the infusion of non-fiction into his stories. Bhuvan Shome takes the first steps in the direction through the narrator’s voice (Amitabh Bachchan’s first film narration) and the collage of shots of Calcutta.
From Interview on, he started interrupting the narrative with shots from Calcutta streets: processions, political meetings, assembly of starving people. He had started shooting that footage from 1968. Calcutta ’71, Padatik and Chorus incorporate the same material from the street. It lends the films an indelible sense of urgency and an enhanced weight of reality. Sen had sensed that, captured at certain moments, reality can seem more real than usual.
Use of theatre
Mixing documentary footage with fiction was, of course, one of the hallmarks of the new wave styles of the time, as was another element that Sen often used in his films: theatre. Interview switches to a mock performance of protest at the end. Calcutta 71 starts off from that point and presents a mock theatrical trial. Utpal Dutt, foremost dramatist active in political theatre, plays a major role in the episode. Three Bengali short stories are adapted for three decades, marked “1933”, “1943” and “1953” in Calcutta ’71. But as the moment of 1971 arrives, the film abandons the realism of the preceding episodes to resort to a burlesque of sorts. A major theatre artist, Ajitesh Banerjee, wrote that segment. At the end, as the young man killed by the police appears on the screen, an image that essentially belongs to news reports (a radio voice announces his death early on) turns into a figure of performance. Masked, puppet-like killers shoot him down in a pantomime.
It was not an accident that Bijan Bhattacharya was cast as the father in Padatik. As the revolutionary son discovers a comrade in him, Sen’s cinema acknowledges its secret alliance with the tradition of radical theatre of the 1940s. Chorus walks all the way into theatrical allegory. Sen wrote about his admiration for Calcutta group theatre, which flourished in the 1970s (“The Expanded Theatre”, in Views on Cinema, 1977), and kept borrowing from it. If Mrigayaa (1976) employed elements of IPTA drama, Oka Oori Katha (1977) and Parashuram (1978) drew from contemporary group theatre productions, Dansagar (1976) and Jagannath (1977).
This was a globally shared aspect of political cinema. One remembers the use of theatre in the Latin American films of Glauber Rocha, Fernando Solanas, and others. One should also remember that filmmakers in other parts of India were using similar ingredients. John Abraham’s Donkey in a Brahmin Village (1977) and Amma Ariyan (1986), and Yukt Film Cooperative’s Ghashiram Kotwal (1976) are among memorable examples of the use of theatre in cinema.
Moinak Biswas is Professor of Film Studies at Jadavpur University, and a filmmaker.