In 1969 came a film called Bhuvan Shome. It was directed by Mrinal Sen, who had till then made films only in Bengali. The film’s budget was shoestring (below Rs 2 lakh, Sen was known to gleefully recount). It featured a dour, stout sarkari babu played by Utpal Dutt, fat cigar clenched between teeth, eyes hidden by dark glasses, who arrives in a tiny Rajasthan town in search of name and game.
Bhuvan Shome was a breakthrough. It was the film which started the parallel movement in Hindi cinema. It brought to our notice the genius of cinematographer K K Mahajan, the baritone of Amitabh Bachchan (he was persuaded, for a pittance, to provide a voiceover), and the startlingly original style of Sen, as we were introduced to Shome babu and his ajeeb-o-gareeb ways, and how a pretty village belle and her full-throated laughter unlocked something in this man, and set him free.
Sen had made a handful of films in Bengali before this. But it was Bhuvan Shome which fetched him the National Award for Best Film and Director, and led him on to his series of pathbreaking films, deeply political, deeply personal, which borrowed from such diverse influences as Marxism and German expressionism to the mad burlesqueries of the French Nouvelle Vague and the clear-eyedness of the Italian Neo Realists.
Sen was always mentioned in the same breath as his two world-famous contemporaries, Ritwik Ghatak and Satyajit Ray, but he was almost always brought up as the third of the troika. All three showed a deep engagement with the world around them, and the events that were happening, in their films. In that they were similar. But their styles were very different: Ghatak was earthy and could be very dramatic, Ray laced his upper-class bhadralok genteelness with sharpness, and the leftist, egalitarian Sen was a dab hand at creating drama around everyday events.
Two of his films, Ek Din Achanak, and Ek Din Pratidin focus on this very quotidian everydayness, and how lives can be shaken by one small incident. A young woman played by Mamata Shankar, the only earning member of a middle-class family, doesn’t return at her usual time in the 1979 Ek Din Pratidin. The insecurities of the jobless brother, the anxieties of the mother, the lurid concern of the neighbours, all coalesce into a strong statement on gender norms: how free is a woman to keep to her own time? Or to play to her own beat? Is she even allowed one?
The ties that bind us, and how tenuous they can be, is a theme Sen revisited often. In the 1989 Ek Din Achanak, the missing person is the father, played by Shreeram Lagoo, and how the family — Uttara Baokar, Shabana Azmi, Roopa Ganguly — deals with his disappearance on a stormy night, gives us a classic simmering family set-up with its miseries and fears, where no one speaks their mind, or opens their heart.
Can the human heart ever be fully excavated? In Khandahar, the ruins of a haveli mirror the pain of an old woman, and how three young men and a woman try joining the broken joints. Large tracts of the film are spent in cob-webbed, dark corners of the crumbling house, and the characters played by Naseeruddin Shah, Pankaj Kapur and Annu Kapoor join Shabana Azmi in discovering their foibles and strengths.
The political uprisings in the 70s in Calcutta showed up in Sen’s trilogy, Interview, Calcutta 71, and Padatik. But Sen’s bent towards telling real stories was evident right from the start. In Mrigaya which was set in the 1920s, a firebrand tribal youth played by the wiry Mithun Chakraborty, demands justice from the British overlord.
Sen lived long enough for him to stop making films, to retreat to the shadows of old age, and ill-health. But while he was his robust self, his appearances at film festivals, sometimes along with his film, other times without, was usually marked by a gentle, acerbic, knowing wit. It was almost as if he knew that well known globally though he was, richly awarded though he was, his work was destined to remain underrated in his lifetime.
Farewell, Mrinalda. Your films will live on.