When we reached out to long-time associates of Mrinal Sen for a special issue to commemorate his 95th birthday, a lot of them talked about him being “shy and inward looking”. After all, Sen, who passed away in Kolkata today, was celebrated as the firebrand “anarchist” of Indian cinema, the man who chose to redefine the boundaries through films like Bhuvan Shome (1968), Calcutta 71 (1971), Interview (1971), Padatik (1973) and Akaler Sandhane (1980).
Shabana Azmi, who has collaborated with Sen in films like Khandhar (1984), Genesis (1986) and Ek Din Achanak (1989), told Indian Express, “The world might know him as an iconoclast, as an effusive confident man, more often than not with his foot in his mouth, but during the making of Khandhar, I discovered that he was also capable of great emotional depth, a facet he liked to keep hidden from the world. Jamini, the character he had written for me, was also drawn from the recesses of Mrinalda’s being. In these contradictions, lie the strength of Mrinal Sen the filmmaker.”
Indeed, Azmi’s Mrinal Da, whose body of work is definitively more political than the other two stalwarts of Bengali cinema’s triumvirate, Satyajit Ray and Ritwik Ghatak, was a man who had the distinctly Bengali middle-class quality of mixing the personal with the political. A facet brought forward beautifully in the 1984 film Khandhar.
“Indian cinema had never seen a filmmaker with such compassion, such single-minded drive. All his films, like Khandhar, made their point very strongly. That was always the mark of a Mrinal Sen film. It almost always drove its point home. If (Satyajit) Ray was the great humanist of Indian cinema, Sen was the anarchist, in the nicest sense of the term,” says filmmaker Shyam Benegal, a family friend of the Sens for about four decades.
It goes without saying that in the 1960s, along with Ray and Ritwik Ghatak, Sen laid the foundation for a parallel cinema movement in India. “Sen has always been the most daring and experimental in his work and was never afraid of failures. He was the reason why many like us dared to make the kind of films we made,” says National Award-winning filmmaker Adoor Gopalakrishnan.
Yet, contemporary filmmakers owe a lot to the stalwart too. “Today, we need to take stock of the way this man consistently went against the tide to pave way for future storytellers. Kharij and Akaler Sandhaney are just as valid today. They speak of our hypocrisies and fears, but also about the emotions that redeem us. These emotions are timeless, as are the storytellers who have the ability to capture them honestly,” sums up National Award-winning Bengali filmmaker Kaushik Ganguly.