Mrinal Sen, who passed away in Kolkata at 95, formed a trio of new wave directors in Bengali cinema along with Satyajit Ray and Ritwik Ghatak. Sen, who made his last film, Amar Bhuban in 2002, was less celebrated than his two contemporaries, but was in many ways a more radical filmmaker. Like Ray and Ghatak, Sen too learned the art of cinema on the job. Beginning with Raat Bhore in 1955, he made a total of 27 feature films in half a century. In these years, India transited from the euphoria and idealism of Independence and the Nehruvian era to the disillusionment of the 1960s, the onset of left-wing extremism and the Emergency, the rise of the urban middle-class and the collapse of Communism. Sen, the auteur, journeyed through these years, and his films mark this passage of history.
Sen’s films were cinema of the moment. Unlike Ray and Ghatak, he was focussed on the contemporary and had little time for nostalgia in any form. The city was his El Dorado. He would dig deep into its recesses, explore social and political crises in urban life, record its many moods. Even when shot in rural settings, his films reflected an unabashedly urban spirit. When Calcutta simmered, with its restive youth reflecting a similar sentiment that found expression elsewhere in the world, Sen made films like Interview, Calcutta 71, Chorus and Padatik. These were angry films that spoke of a global sentiment and reflected the fury in Bengal of that time. The urban guerilla in the making, raging against unemployment, corruption, the death of dreams, found a passionate story-teller in Sen. His critics called them loud, polemical and gimmicky, but in retrospect the Calcutta trilogy and other such films captured the fervour of the angry youth of the 1970s. His later work, Ek Din Pratidin, Khandar, for instance, were more reflective films on the middle class, its hypocrisies and predicaments. With strong and well-rounded women characters, they questioned certainties and morals and raised questions about the agency of women in the family and at work; in their themes and nuances, these films were ahead of the times.
All through his life, Sen stood with the Left though he never joined a communist party. Marxism provided him an ethical framework to understand his present, the people around him and the political and economic forces at work. In life and art, he stayed true to his commitment to his moment.