The Films And Filmmaking Style Of Mrinal Sen, Explained

Ordinary people, who love to watch films, think of the cinema as a medium of entertainment. Through cinema, they can escape reality for a moment and find shelter in a fictional story with their characters. But when those imaginary characters suddenly unmask to become the same ordinary people to talk about the same reality, then cinema will no longer be just a medium of entertainment. Many directors in Bengal and India have made movies as a tool of amusement. They made films for most of the audience to give them pleasure and a temporary distraction from the current situation. But very few filmmakers crossed all the boundaries and made movies as a yardstick of entertainment and a means of showing reality. These extraordinary filmmakers brought a renaissance to Indian films, and Mrinal Sen was one of them.

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Younger Mrinal Became An ‘Accidental Filmmaker’

Mrinal Sen was born and raised in Faridpur, now in Bangladesh. He came to Kolkata at a very young age and studied physics at Calcutta University. From a young age, he wasn’t even a movie buff. He started his career as a journalist, then a medical representative, and later as a film sound technician. But his interaction with cinematic beauty was pretty accidental. He came across a book called “The Aesthetics of Cinema,” and since then, he has found his way.

He started his journey with his first film, ‘RaatBhor’ (1955), which, according to him, was ‘a big disaster’. Raat Bhor (The Nightdawn) was not only a flop, but the star cast of this film, Uttam Kumar, refused to sign his next film, “Neel Akasher Niche” (Under the Blue Sky). The fall of Mrinal Sen’s first film made him believe that filmmaking was not his cup of tea, but intellect and talent never stop. He evolved gradually in his following films, extending his reputation from a national to an international level.

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Mrinal Got The Name As A “Radical Marxist Filmmaker.”

When talking about Mrinal Sen’s filmmaking style, we must speak of the content of his films. Mrinal Sen is usually called a socio-political filmmaker. He was greatly influenced by Marxism and the various leftist movements in India. He has expressed his political point of view in almost every one of his films. The most remarkable among them is Calcutta Trinity. In “Calcutta 71” (1972), the socio-political nuances of the time, such as poverty, exploitation, famine, and various political insurgencies, with their awful consequences, were shown. In “Interview” (1971), starring Ranjit Mallik, Sen represented unemployment in a strangely beautiful way through a whole new style of filming. In 1973’s “Padatik” (The Infantry), starring Dhritiman Chatterjee, Sen also portrayed the tension of a fugitive political activist.

But not all of Sen’s films can be judged politically. He also highlighted human relationships through his cinema. He didn’t just make a movie like “Baishe Shravana” (1960) to show 1943’s dreadful famine and the statistics of dead and hungry people. Instead, in this film, he depicted how hunger and deprivation distort humanity.

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According to Sen, ordinary people are afraid to see the harsh reality on the big screen. In 1982, in his film ‘Kharij’ (The Rejection), he cleverly showed how the influence of the class system affects the relationship between an owner and a servant. Mrinal Sen strangely threw a lot of questions at the audience through this movie. Notably, “Kharij” created a disturbing situation among the upper-class people when it was released.

The main reason for Sen’s films being cult classics was that he never went out of society to write content. The struggling masses of our country and their battle for life were the primary concern of his cinema.

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Mrinal Sen And The ‘New Wave’ in Indian Cinema

Mrinal Sen brought some unique and innovative structures to Indian cinema from the theaters of Europe and the “New Wave” films of France. Some were the Brechtian effect, cinema-verite style, and non-narrative films.

In “Calcutta 71” (1972) and “Interview” (1971), the protagonist breaks the fourth wall to talk to the audience. The protagonist’s narrative and the unpredictable events keep the audience hooked up with it. Sen brought the ‘Film Truth’ style, where he shot his cinema like a documentary film, so the viewers get confused about whether it is accurate or fiction. We can see that technique in his film “Interview.”

Furthermore, we get glimpses of his non-narrative style in many of his films. Amitabh Bachchan gave the voiceover in his movie “Bhuvan Som” (1969), starring another legendary actor, Utpal Dutta. There were many strange non-narrative visuals throughout the movie where Sen used animations and background scores that were aesthetic and far ahead of their time. Also, in “Bhuvan Som” and his other films, Sen used unusual camera movements like jump cuts and freeze frames. This new way of editing and filming brought a whole new dimension to the history of Indian parallel cinema. 

In his films like ‘Akaler Sondhaney’ (In Search of Famine) (1980) and movies like ‘Ekdin Pratidin’ (One Day Everyday) (1980), he made the audience focus on the conversation through his efficient film blocking. As time has changed and Bengali cinema has evolved from black and white to color, Mrinal Sen’s camera technique and cinematography have also improved dynamically. Sen used surrealism and symbolism as significant elements in his film. Often, he used to focus the protagonist’s face in the center of a darker background. He used these kinds of visuals as a symbol to depict the protagonist’s inner conflict and domestic deficiencies.

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Thus, during Mrinal Sen’s sixty years of relentless filmmaking, he not only made films, but he lived them. He may not have made a movie like an old-fashioned matinee show that went from house to house or hit the box office, but the films he created have become a mirror in front of society. However, he made ‘Akaler Sondhaney’ (1980); he honestly said that only making films could not change the nation’s economic situation. Also, after “Kharij,” he was honest with his audience that this film was a clear slap to ‘us,’ meaning the upper-class people.

In this way, Mrinal Sen’s great intellect and his brilliant craft have been revealed from time to time through his cinema. He achieved enormous national and international awards. Even famous film festivals like Cannes and Venice appreciated his films and made him a jury member several times. He believed Cannes was his “second home.” Sen’s influence on today’s filmmakers is immense. Some well-established film directors of this period thought Sen was a visionary storyteller who loved to take risks. He experimented with new ideas and techniques in the film world and revolutionized the history of cinema. Whether it was the socio-political opinions or the stories of ordinary men, he was never afraid, to be honest and to show that in his cinema. 

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See More: The Films And Filmmaking Of P. Padmarajan, Explained


Poulami Nanda
Poulami Nanda
Poulami Nanda hails from a medical background, yet her journey is to cross the boundaries of medicine and survive in the cinematic world. The surrealistic beauty of cinema and art has attracted her from a very young age. She loves to write poems, songs, and stories, but her dream is to write films someday. She has also worked as a painter, but nothing attracts her more than cinema. Through her writings, she wants to explore the world of cinema more and more and take her readers on the same ride.

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