Mrinal Sen would be 100 had he lived today. The great auteur director, despite having experiences worth thousand years lived only 95. One would say he deserved to be a centenarian but his recognition, unfortunately, is way short of what he deserved.
Mrinal in public imagination was under the shadow of Satyajit Ray and Ritwik Ghatak, two stalwarts of his time. He somehow outlived both of them and his legacy among the connoisseur also has ever lived but he fell behind in terms of popularity comparing to Satyajit’s elegance and Ritwik’s passion.
But, if judged with the technical nuances the man who was born in Faridpur was a giant in terms of directorial prowess and inculcation of politics.
Mrinal was a huge fan of Berthold Brecht and like the German revolutionary he believed, “Art is not a mirror held up to reality but a hammer with which to shape it.”
Just think about the movie interview where Mrinal brilliantly utilised the concept of Brecht’s fourth wall breaking. Here we see the young actor Ranjit Mallick talking to us, the spectators through lens to shatter the demarcation between real and virtual world behind the camera.
It was more incredible in the context of India, where cinemas were used to divert people from reality by indulging them in dream land of music and dance, and Mrinal used the art like a hammer.
He was definitely aware of the fact of this treatment which would repel the spectators. Mrinal’s brazen action was not accepted by most of the lay people and often he was criticised for such approach.
But again, we saw another incredible auteur approach in his film Kharij. Here the actions were never loud but somehow, we, the middle class felt the less noisy yet profound pain scything through our hearts. Unlike most Indian movies there was no clear antagonist or protagonist. Mrinal, however, exposed the reality and burst our bubbles of being ‘good people’.
We saw a teenage boy, who worked as a house help, died due to the negligence of the house owner who apparently are very kind and gentle people. Those middle class people are not killer in wildest of imaginations but Mrinal showed the sea of class gap. Middle class with its illusion could never fathom that. Some of the incredible scenes like flame of pyre seen through shadow in the cremation ground. The lower class, which is grudged and dumbfounded, sparks momentarily but in reality seldom gets united. Mrinal’s Marxist approach was clear but not as loud as that of Ritwik. Perhaps that proves the extra nuance as auteur.
I intentionally discussed about two less discussed films of Mrinal, who is mostly hailed for his ground breaking movies like Bhuvan Shome, Akaaler Sondhane or Chorus. In Chorus he showed incredible ability of using imagination to portray surrealistic presentation without much technical help.
Indeed his greatest legacy was to change the landscape of Indian film to commence a documentary style real life approach and injects the humanitarian, leftist politics. Mrinal was out and out politician like Brecht and unlike Ray he believed film is a weapon of changing society.
Yet, his subtleness was incredible and measured. Charlie Chaplin, another idol of Mrinal, used to say one of the greatest ability of a good filmmaker is to portray things so easily that they may look simple.
Perhaps the lack of popularity of Mrinal was that. He was so subtle, often people takes it as too simple. As Rabindranath said, that is the toughest thing to achieve as an artist.
Bangalis are known for exact opposite. They are known to shout too much and speak less. Mrinal, the epoch changing Bangali spoke a lot without much ado.
His legacy will live with a subtle sophistication with brutal beauty of reality.