The Legacy Of Mrinal Sen: A Pioneer Of Political Indian Cinema

Mrinal Sen

One of the trailblazers of political cinema in India, Mrinal Sen has created an inimitable legacy with his candid visions of a newly independent country in search of its post-colonial identity. Many film critics have labeled his film craft as 'preachy' but Sen was determined to use his film as a canvas of cinematic truth to portray the realities of India. What makes filmmakers such as Sen or Ritwik Ghatak so unique is their cinematic gaze. The viewer does not feel that they are watching a film on the themes of poverty or the struggles of the middle and lower class but instead feels one with the hopes, aspirations, and toil of the on-screen characters. Rather than observing reality from a distance, Sen embodies it.

Kabhi Door Kabhi Paas (1986-67)
Kabhi Door Kabhi Paas (1986-67)

Sen’s debut film was released in 1955 and his last work was in 2002. His creativity peaked in the 1970s and early 1980s. He has made 28 feature films of which 21 are in Bengali, one each in Odia (Matira Manisha) and Telugu (Oka Oori Katha), and five in Hindi (Bhuvan Shome, Ek Adhuri Kahani, Mrigaya, Genesis, and Ek Din Achanak). He also made a 12-episode Hindi teleserial (Kabhi Door Kabhi Paas), four documentaries, and one children's film (Ichhapuran).

Sen’s career earned him national and international fame making him one of India’s most prominent filmmakers. His national recognition which included the Dadasaheb Phalke Award, Padma Bhushan, nominated membership of RajyaSabha, Honorary DLitt by four universities, four national awards for best feature film, four national awards for best direction, three for best feature film in Bengali, and several other awards—can only be matched by his recognition at the international level, at film festivals in Cannes, Berlin, Venice, Moscow, Montreal, Chicago, and Karlovy Vary. The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) also honoured him with the Soviet Land Nehru Award while France awarded him with the Commandeur de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres. The infamous Vladimir Putin even feted him with the Order of Friendship of the Russian Federation (not that it's worth much in light of recent events) and, in 2017, Sen was made a member of the Oscar Academy.

Sen was a deeply introspective filmmaker, who questioned his own political alignment, as much as he questioned the inequalities of the world. This is most evident in his film Padatik (1973) in which his hero, a political activist, challenges the ideologies of his own party. In Akaler Sandhane (1981), Sen not only reflects on social injustices but also explores the role of cinema in addressing them.

Uttara Baokar and Manohar Singh in Aparajit
Uttara Baokar and Manohar Singh in

Alongside his contemporaries Satyajit Ray and Ritwik Ghatak, Sen ushered in a new movement in Indian filmmaking called Parallel Cinema. He was always a lonely man in search of cinematic poetry and rejected populist notions of Indian filmmaking. Instead, he found inspiration in the French New Wave and the Third Cinema movement of Latin America. Sen’s career spanning almost five decades has been akin to holding a mirror to the country reflecting its true colors of social inequality.

The genius may have left his mortal body in 2018 but his legacy lives on through his cinema. During the lockdown in 2021, Kunal Sen, the filmmaker’s son, did tall cinephiles a great service by uploading on Youtube ten of the twelve short films his father had made. Sen had made those 12 episodes (Kabhi Door Kabhi Paas) for the Doordarshan channel in 1986-87. Kunal Sen converted those films from a low-resolution VHS copy his father had couriered to him abroad as the original tapes at Doordarshan had been reused to record other programs.

Mrinal Sen has been forever known to the world as a political filmmaker, crafting films centered around social inequalities. However, his short films are far different thematically. These films situate themselves within the spaces of the home and the family, exploring relationships, and ideas of morality, and celebrating daily existence. Sen turns his high-powered powers of observation from society to individual lives. However, that is no reason to view them as ‘less political films’ but rather to see them as a shift in the perspective of the director. Except for two stories, which Sen had written himself, all the other stories are adaptations of short stories from Bengali literature. The simple yet elegant storytelling will keep you captivated throughout, despite the somewhat poor audio and video quality.

Watch Kabhi Door Kabhi Paas below: