Mrinal Sen, in life as in his art, embodied indefatigable humanism.
It is often that Mrinal Sen, who passed away on Sunday, is spoken of along with Ritwik Ghatak and Satyajit Ray, as part of the New Wave triumvirate that gave Indian cinema some of its finest films. To be fair, that is hard to avoid since the three were contemporaries and chose to work on similar themes even though their treatment varied sharply. That each of the three used his craft to comment on the socio-political realities of their time also makes it easy to club them together. Yet, the differences between them couldn’t have been starker in terms of how they articulated themselves in cinema vis-a-vis the political paradigms of their time and the ideologies that compelled these. While Ghatak remained an avowed communist, even an affiliate of the CPI early in his life, his independent thinking had him thrown out of the party. Though Ray has been pleaded as a classic liberal, his early writings reveal a Marxist leaning. But, some deem his cinematic voice as restrained, and label him ‘apolitical’, even a political ‘fence-sitter’. Sen, on the other hand, never formally aligned with a political party. But, he was never apologetic about the Marxist subtext of his films.
Some of Sen’s best works are based on books and stories that were searing analyses of the political, social and economic mores of their times. Mrigayaa—adapated from Odia writer Bhagabati Charan Panigrahi’s, short story, Shikar—is as much about the exploitation of tribal folk at the hands of non-tribals and a government that primarily serves the latter’s interest as it is about how oppressive state-power can be—to a point that what the state deems legitimate and justified may seem idiosyncratic, indeed, despotic, to subjects. Coming as it did during the Emergency, Mrigayaa was perhaps Sen’s take on India of the time. Bhuvan Shome, which showcases the tensions between the unfeeling rigidity of the bureaucracy and a bureaucrat’s own living, responsive humaneness, is another stellar film adaptation of a story by Sen. But, Sen’s legacy also burns bright elsewhere, in what he did as a honorary member of Rajya Sabha for tribal hamlets near Shantiniketan. Residents of Ballabhpurdanga and Sarkardanga, The Telegraph reports, may not be familiar with Mrigayaa, but even those who were born long after Sen’ stint in Parliament know that he used his MP local area development funds to bring electricity to these hamlets in 2002.