Mrinal Sen and the chronicles of dissent

by OMAR AHMED


Mrinal Sen (left) took the camera out to the streets, to film an urban milieu that was restless and strange.
PHOTO/The Hindu archives  

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, that Interview, Calcutta ’71 and Chorus were financed privately. It was only Padatik that 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.

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