Last of the legends


Mrinal Sen (1923-2018) was an unorthodox icon who broke rules and pushed boundaries, carving out his own path to immortality.

For Mrinal Sen, the switch from a regular nine-to-five existence to the rocky path leading to immortality in the world of cinema happened in the unlikeliest of places—in front of a full-length mirror in a tiny hotel room in Jhansi. Working as a medical representative in Kanpur for a pharmaceutical firm, he had a moment of epiphany one fine day when he was on tour. Years later, recalling that moment when he stared deep into the eyes of the man in the mirror and told him what he truly felt, Sen wrote: “I remember the talk I had with him. I said, hugely intrigued: ‘There you are, Mr Mrinal Sen, one who read a lot on cinema, wrote substantially on its aesthetics…. Now, here you are Mr Sen, a dawai-wallah who once wanted to be a film-maker!’… I cried. Cried like a child. All alone in a hotel room in Jhansi! After three days, I sent a long telegram to the management in Bombay and resigned.”

Thus began the career of one of the most fascinating, trail-blazing film-makers of Indian cinema history, though for Mrinal Sen film-making could hardly be considered a career; it was more like an all-consuming passion that was an end in itself. Deeply political, triumphantly iconoclastic, stubbornly unapologetic, radical, uncompromising and totally fearless, he charted out his own course, often stumbling, sometimes crashing in failure, but forever rising phoenix-like to stun the audience with another masterpiece.

In a career spanning six decades, with such classics as Baishey Shravana (The Wedding Day), Bhuvan Shome (Mr Shome), Interview, Calcutta 71, Padatik (Urban Guerilla), Chorus, Mrigaya (The Royal Hunt), Ekdin Pratidin (A Day Like Any Other), Aakaler Sandhane (In Search of Famine), and Khandhar (The Ruins), he shattered old traditions and dogmas and introduced a new wave of film-making in India. On December 30, 2018, the man who along with Satyajit Ray and Ritwik Ghatak formed the great triumvirate of Indian cinema on the global stage breathed his last. He was 95.

Interestingly, unlike his intellectual sparring partner and friend, the great Satyajit Ray, whose very first film, Pather Panchali, won him immediate international recognition, Sen’s first venture was a disaster. Raat Bhore (The Dawn) was released in 1955, the same year as Pather Panchali, but even a star cast including the legendary Uttam Kumar, Chhabi Biswas, Chhaya Devi and Sabitri Chatterjee could not rescue the film. Sen himself called it the biggest of all disasters and, years later, wrote: “Having made such a lousy film, I reckoned I had humiliated myself.” Down, but never out, he bounced back three years later with Neel Akasher Neechey (Under the Blue Sky), a sad-sweet story of an impoverished Chinese immigrant living in Kolkata (then Calcutta) during the last days of British rule in India. Although Jawaharlal Nehru apparently enjoyed the film, it was nevertheless banned for a few months during the escalation of tension between India and China. The film was well-received by the public, but Sen’s own attitude towards it remained tepid. It was with Baishey Shravana (1960) that Mrinal Sen the director came into his own. It depicted the tragedy of a middle-aged, once-affluent man and his teenage bride unfolding under the looming spectre of the terrible famine of 1943. The film, which was screened in international film festivals, introduced a new force in parallel cinema to the global stage. Although life was a struggle for Sen even after its success, the films kept coming throughout the 1960s, the most notable among them being Akash Kusum (Up in the Clouds, 1965), Matira Manisha (Man of the Soil, 1966) and, arguably, his most popular masterpiece Bhuvan Shome (1969).

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