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Mrinal Sen and the chronicles of dissent

By January 8, 2019No Comments

Source : The Hindu – MAGAZINE    –    Omar Ahmed


The director ushered in a style of political filmmaking that India had never seen before

Director Mrinal Sen was constantly evolving, adapting and absorbing the divergent film styles he came in contact with. Yet Sen’s intellectual approach to filmmaking remained resolutely left-wing, defying the establishment and using his films to chronicle political dissent. Interview (1970), Calcutta ’71 (1972) and Padatik (1973) are linked thematically by the politics of The Naxalite Movement.

There are four films in this period including Chorus (1974) that defiantly forge a Leftist trajectory through the tumultuous politics of this era of West Bengal and India.

Although Film Finance Corporation (FFC) had been around since 1960, the financing offered to Bhuvan Shome in 1969 did not necessarily mean that it was easier to get offbeat or alternative films made. In fact, it was still rather difficult for filmmakers to pursue political filmmaking. It is unsurprising, thus, thatInterview , Calcutta ’71 and Chorus were financed privately. It was only Padatikthat received partial backing from FFC. Indeed, Sen admitted that no producer wanted to go anywhere near Chorus, so he financed the film himself.

At its creative peak

The period between 1968 and 1975 constitutes the first phase of Indian Parallel Cinema, possibly at its most creative and polarising. But what exactly did Mrinal Sen set out to accomplish aesthetically and politically in this experimental period that lasted between 1969 and 1974?

Events in the wider historical and political context of this time mapped an uncertain terrain. It included the Cultural Revolution unfolding in West Bengal through the 60s, the anti-establishment protests by youth who felt the neo-colonial system needed dismantling, an influx of refugees from the 1971 Bangladesh genocide and The Naxalite Movement (1967) that took hold of the political imagination of a generation of disillusioned and unemployed students. Sen was never a card-carrying member but was still close to the Communist Party of India and took a vested interest in the ideological divisions that fragmented the party.

All this discord and unrest in Calcutta of the late 60s and early 70s was dually framed by Sen in a much broader international context, whereby Parallel Cinema became aligned both aesthetically and politically with the emergence of a radical global cinema that included the political modernism of Godard in France and the Third Cinema imperative of Latin America. In a 2001 interview with Samik Bandyopadhyay, Sen said: “I was very conscious of the realisation that we were progressing towards a hybrid culture” (2001).

The influence of international cinema on Mrinal Sen led to a style that was constantly evolving, a mixed media aesthetic that gradually rejected traditional narrative storytelling for an elliptical, agitprop style of political filmmaking that India had never seen before; arguably the first concerted attempt to forge a new type of political cinema since the short-lived cultural intervention of the Indian People’s Theatre Association of the 40s.

There was a terrifying and violent anger on Calcutta’s streets that Sen documented, transposing the anti-imperialist and pro-Naxal fervour into arresting images of iconoclasm. Interview (1971) opens with a startling montage of colonial statues in Calcutta being dismantled, symbolic of decolonisation. Later, the main protagonist of Interview , the hapless Ranjit Mallick, smashes a shop window, unleashing an impotent rage. Sen would continually return to scenes of revolutionary iconoclasm. Calcutta ’71 and Padatik expressed an international solidarity for political change, which connected Parallel Cinema in a broader cine-geography of radical filmmaking often overlooked in film history.

Seeking a new syntax

Along with iconoclasm, Sen’s work in this period chronicled the brutal state repression unleashed against Naxal students in Calcutta, chronicling it in the haunting image of the young nameless man shot dead at the end of Calcutta ’71 . And when he made Padatik in 1973, it was a chance to take stock of the demise of the Naxalite movement, questioning the political choices of the young revolutionary Marxist yet wisely choosing to frame Naxalism as a continuum of a greater, historical class struggle.

As early as 1965 ( Akash Kusum) Sen was searching for a new syntax with which to speak to audiences. Albeit Bhuvan Shome is recognised as the turning point in consolidating alternative cinema, eventually leading to the emergence of Parallel Cinema, it was Interview that demonstrated a new hybridised syntax. The aesthetic rupture, augmented by Sen’s avant-garde approach, is perfectly encapsulated in the tram sequence from Interview where the main protagonist turns and begins to address the camera, a reflexive move that completely breaks down the illusion of film.

One could argue that with his Calcutta Trilogy Sen attempted to introduce a new political modernism. One cannot overestimate the significance of this; Sen was rejecting a realist tradition and style of filmmaking that had become synonymous with the work of Ray and many other Bengali filmmakers.

But importantly, Sen was also having fun; he was playing jazz with the creative possibilities of lighting, editing, sound and narrative, living up to the naïve ideals outlined in his 1968 manifesto co-written with Arun Kaul. Sen threw everything into the mix — planimetric framing, freeze frames, flashbacks, Brechtian devices, handheld camerawork, actuality and montage.

Collaborating with K.K. Mahajan, Sen took the camera out to the streets, filming protests and situating his disaffected protagonists in an urban Calcutta milieu that was restless and strange. He admitted to watching a lot of Latin American films in this period, so it’s not without reason that The Hour of the Furnaces (1968, Argentina) by Octavio Getino and Fernando Solanas, the quintessential marker of Third Cinema, finds its way into Padatik as an expression of political solidarity with the New Left and counter-culture movement. Sen was determined to get a response from the spectator, agitate and shake them out of their stupor and make them react.

Beyond agitprop

Predictably, a chorus of voices besieged Sen. Satyajit Ray said Sen’s experiments were merely theatrics. The Communist Party of India pointed to the revisionist capitulations of Padatik, where Sen questions the ethics of revolt, while the right-wing accused him of hijacking cinema for communist propaganda.

His contemporaries, notably the avant-garde Mani Kaul and Kumar Shahani, felt Sen’s type of didactic filmmaking was a reductive platform for polemicising and had no place in Parallel Cinema. Arguably, by the time Sen finished Chorus , he had exhausted the creative possibilities of the hybridised agitprop style he had cultivated and, like some on the Left, had grown disillusioned with the inherent failings of the Naxalite movement.

In coming years, his style did change. But his Marxist commitments remained steadfast. Sen’s audacious capacity to turn the lens on himself, interrogating his own ethical position as a filmmaker, would become an abiding and militant theme in his work.

It is a militancy that seems altogether absent from today’s largely acquiescent cinema, at a time when dissent has become an altogether perilous act.

Writing in 1981, film critic Derek Malcolm reasoned why Sen had remained a hero for the young: “All Sen’s films, even his most lightweight, have attacked with undisguised horror and anger the poverty, exploitation and inherent hypocrisy of Indian society.” If anything, Sen’s career demonstrates that engaging in cultural activism and disrupting the dominant narrative is essential for political cinema to remain relevant.

The teacher and UK-based film scholar is researching Parallel Cinema at the University of Manchester.


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