There is nothing quite as appropriate as presenting Mrinal Sen to the new generation that will be attending the Kolkata Film Festival. The anger that he depicted with great effect not only in India but in major festivals where he was a great favourite for many years was different from the protests expressed in films made later. The social context has changed and with it come ideas that are handled more smartly but have a limited timeframe. Only rarely does one get a film like Shankhacheel that reminds one of the days when the narrative combined simplicity and subtlety with lasting effect.
The veteran belonged to an era when protest had a language of its own in films like Chorus Padatik and Calcutta 71. One does hope that some of these films can make their way to the festival. The fear is that some of the negatives may be in such miserable shape that they cannot be shown on the big screen. That would be a great loss to a generation that is not acquainted with the style that he had chopped and changed but had left a strong impression over a period of more than 40 years.
Even if one cannot get a comprehensive idea of the phases that marked Mrinal Sen’s work till he retired after making Aamar Bhuban in 2002 one would be looking forward to the high points. Not all his experiences were happy. In fact there was an early phase when he made Punascha Abasheshey Pratinidhi and Neel Akasher Neechey which he is inclined to describe as being inconsequential. But it was during that phase that he made Baishey Sravan and Akash Kusum that had pointed to a conscious effort to discover a cinematic idiom of his own. The number of freeze shots he used in Akash Kusum may have been seen as being overdone but there was clearly evidence of a style that broke away from normal narrative patterns and focused on harsh realities that one could never ignore.
Even in a film like Neel Akasher Neechey which was produced by Hemanta Mukherjee and was a resounding hit on account of its soul-stirring songs the social and human elements were far removed from the mainstream. The real impact that he made on Indian cinema as a whole was the success of Bhuban Shome. Strictly speaking it marked the beginning of what came to be known as the New Indian Cinema. It was supported by the Film Finance Corporation which spearheaded parallel cinema with several young directors many of whom had graduated from the Pune film institute making their first appearances. In many cases the films were inspired by literary content in the regional context and dealt with real issues honestly and with the presence of new actors. All this couldnrsquo;t have found support from the mainstream sector.
Mrinal Sen’s film also had a charming new face — that of Suhasini Mulay — that matched the character of the rustic beauty who tamed a powerful government officer. Sadly the success of Bhuban Shome didn’t produce the expected results in the movement as a whole partly on account of the lack of suitable outlets. But Mrinal persisted with protests that became his signature till he realised there was a limit to which he could depict situations in terms of black and white.
But whatever the nature of the debates his films generated — and the debates became quite intense — there was no doubt about the energy that he brought to his work. There were happy accidents like the discovery of Mithun Chakraborty in Mrigaya and Ranjit Mullick in Interview — a performance that fetched the newcomer an international award — and also the commercial success of Bhuban Shome which was based on a story by Ramapada Chowdhury. In most cases he was not so lucky with Calcutta 71 being a remarkable exception.
What mattered after those fiery protests was a more suppressed form of anger that was conveyed in Ekdin Pratidin Aakaler Sandhane and Kharij. Here it was an uncaring middle class looking at itself in the mirror. The tone of the films during that phase seemed to have changed quite noticeably bringing him accolades from festivals across the world.
Mrinal Sen has confessed in several interviews and also in a documentary made on him by a German director that in retrospect he was not always happy with the work that he had done. Given another chance he may have handled the same ideas differently. There are few directors who are so honest. But the fact remains that all through his work he remained true to his convictions whatever the results.
While Satyajit Ray was a contemporary whose influence spread far and wide Mrinal made a conscious effort to remain outside that sphere of influence with a vocabulary that he could claim to be his own. That vocabulary may have passed into history but the films as a whole sustain relevance in terms of powerful dissent. Whether they have found other forms of expression in the contemporary context may become clear if the festival offers the right selection.