Filmmaker by Accident

Subhash Nandy
Mrinal Sen, Calcutta, 1978

Over almost a century, the Bengali film director Mrinal Sen has witnessed mass famine, the partition of his homeland and the ceding of his birthplace to another country, deadly street battles between Maoist guerrillas and the police, and the rise to power of right-wing nationalists in his traditionally leftist state. Sen responded to historical calamity by cultivating what he called “rough edges,” a rejection of the formal refinement and tonal subtleties of his Calcuttan compatriot and inspiration Satyajit Ray, with whom he frequently sparred in the press. Extending the humanism of Ray’s celebrated Apu Trilogy in more experimental directions, Sen became a seminal figure of India’s “parallel cinema,” which was less the counterpart that its name suggests than an utter refusal of the predominant model of filmmaking in the subcontinent, now colloquially known as Bollywood. Humane, intellectual (but, he claims, not at all erudite), religiously agnostic and politically radical, contradictorily inclined to blunt appraisal and cunning ambiguity, Sen gradually transformed from a polemicist to a poet committed to incertitude. “Life itself is uncertain and inconclusive,” he has said. “Then why should I make a creation conclusive? Thus, all my films are open-ended.”

Now ninety-four, Sen grew up during the era of Gandhi’s protest against colonial rule, in rural Faridpur, “an unknown little town belonging to the ancient landmass of undivided India,” as the director describes it in a rambling but ultimately moving memoir—included in the recently republished collection of his essays and interviews, Montage—that depicts his reluctant return to his birthplace after many decades away. Located in East Bengal at the time of his birth, after the 1947 Partition Faridpur was apportioned to East Pakistan.

Born into a Hindu household teeming with siblings—there were a dozen children in all—Sen imbibed the progressive anti-British nationalism of his father, a lawyer who, risking his own arrest, fearlessly defended patriots, political militants, and others who could not afford legal representation. The capacious though crowded Sen home, which frequently also accommodated relatives of inmates awaiting the death penalty, may well have provided the young Mrinal with the fraught sense of domestic space that he would masterfully employ half a century later in the family dramas of his greatest period of filmmaking.

Following his father’s politics, Sen was first arrested at the age of eight for participating in a protest march—a policeman threatened to beat him to jelly because he was the youngest participant—and remained a Marxist, associated with, though never a card-carrying member of, the powerful Communist Party.* Two years ago, the ailing director, a vehement critic of the right-wing Trinamool Congress recently elected in Bengal, witnessed the cancellation of a retrospective of his films scheduled for the 2016 Kolkata International Film Festival, reportedly due to his ongoing conflict with conservative state officials. This local affront adds to the disregard that Sen’s cinema has suffered…

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