Introducing Mrinal Sen

by Udayan Gupta

from Jump Cut, no. 12-13, 1976, pp. 9-10
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1976, 2004

To many Indian filmgoers today, Mrinal Sen is a cult hero. In the last five years, he has managed to transform a very commonplace film style into a socially relevant, politically committed cinema. For a long time, the Bengali cinema has been quite removed from social realism and relevance. Even Satyajit Ray, Bengal’s internationally famed director, has seemed content to portray India from the artist’s viewpoint—painting beautiful canvases devoid of any real analysis of India’s condition today. Ray has ignored the problems that are predominant in Indian society—poverty, economic exploitation and political repression. It is Mrinal Sen who has begun discussing these problems in a non­romantic manner, in a manner that is making Indian audiences sit up and take notice. He has faced obstacles: difficult producers, reluctant distributors, and, of course, a disapproving Censor Board. But he has managed to bypass them and is today the only Indian director who has been discussing contemporary political situations and analyzing them—in CALCUTTA-71, PADATIK, and in CHORUS.

Not everyone thinks highly of Mrinal Sen. To a lot of his critics, he is an opportunist, a filmmaker who is making films about politics and not political films. They feel that his commitment is not to a revolutionary cinema or to radical film, but to his continued existence as a filmmaker. How does he explain the contradiction between making films critical of the government and the establishment and being financed by that same government and the establishment?

The controversy will continue. In the meanwhile Mrinal Sen goes ahead with his films against heavy odds. Undeniably he will remain a commercial filmmaker, a filmmaker who has not been able to set up a viable alternative to what exists today, but his cinema is innovative. It is trying very hard to rid itself of commercial trappings and commerce-oriented formulas. For that matter, not all of Mrinal Sen’s films are Mrinal Sen per se. He owes a lot to Italian Neorealism and the New Wave French in his attempt to create a new cinema. He is trying to transform film from the purely mindless entertainment that it is in India into a medium that provokes and raises the level of audience consciousness.

It all started with BHUVAN SHOME, many films after he had made his first film, RAAT BHOR. BHUVAN SHOME is the story of an “honest” Indian bureaucrat, brought up in the best British tradition, who lives by a very strict code, a code that allows for no deviation. And yet by the end of the film, he has been corrupted. He accepts things as they are and is willing to let them be. He has decided to take a holiday and ends up in a railway station where there is a corrupt ticket collector whom he will have to discipline (he himself is a high railway official). But after partaking of the collector’s hospitality by staying at that man’s house, he suddenly realizes that he should let things stand as they are. Eventually, in the end, he seems to condone the actions of the collector by promoting him to a collector’s job in a bigger station, a station where there are more passengers and, consequently, more bribes. BHUVAN SHOME is one of the first times that an Indian filmmaker has tried to satirize the bureaucracy and Sen has done so extremely well.

After BHUVAN SHOME, Sen directed three films as part of what is now termed as the Calcutta trilogy: INTERVIEW, CALCUTTA-11, and PADATIK. INTERVIEW is a stylized film built around a very simple incident. A young unemployed Bengali manages to get a job interview in a mercantile firm through the help of an uncle who reminds him to wear a suit for the interview, something the man doesn't have. With great difficulty, he borrows one and takes it in for cleaning. There is a cleaner’s strike but he manages to retrieve his suit. Unfortunately, as he is taking it home, he gets caught in a massive street demonstration, and in the commotion he loses the suit. He does go to the interview, but, without a suit, he doesn't get the job. Sen’s film slowly but pointedly describes the colonial attitudes and norms that still exist in India and which are a major impediment to growth and development.

CALCUTTA-71 is a film in a completely different vein. It is a set of different stories on poverty and exploitation, set apart by time. The link is a young man, ageless and timeless, who observes quite passively, until the last episode when he himself is killed. The film begins with a family caught in their hut in the monsoon and trying to live through it with as much dignity as possible. Their reaction is passive without protest. But as the film develops, the characters’ reaction to their condition changes. And, in the last episode of the film, the young man who is the silent observer throughout reacts and is killed. CALCUTTA-71 is a jarring story, jarring becaus, it removes the veil of romanticism from India’s poverty. Satyajit Ray’s version of poverty is that it is a tragic human condition. Mrinal Sen’s is a little more stark and realistic—poverty is a product of exploitation and people’s inhumanity to people.

From CALCUTTA-71 to PADATIK (The Foot-Soldier): A young extremist escapes from police custody and is directed to a shelter by the party. He questions the leadership. Though he remains loyal to the spirit of the movement, he realizes that there were many situations where the leadership could have been faulted. This re-examination of the left extremist movement is an exciting effort to make the film more controversial, especially in times when other media refuse to deal with these subjects.

PADATIK created quite a stir in political circles. The right wing groups felt that undue importance and recognition was being given to an “anti-social” extremist group. Those on the left tried to ignore the film or criticize it as indicative of right reaction and revisionism. All said and done, the film stands out as an important effort at making film a forum for discussion and documentation.

For a long time after its brutal repression by the government and its paramilitary units, the extremist movement had lain low. And during that silence, there was little restructuring of the movement’s ills. PADATIK, even if it is eventually a product of establishment capital, points out that this does not have to be. Self-criticism can help and can be very constructive. The leadership should not be placed above criticism or reproach.

After PADATIK came CHORUS, a political fantasy set in the future where a small group of industry heads and political leaders get together to fend off what they think is a potential revolution. The film deals with the fear that the system’s leaders have of people they oppress. What Mrinal Sen is trying to say is that these leaders, after creating a structure they can exploit and after designing their own system of survival, always fear that this structure will self-destruct and drag them down with it. Ultimately nothing really happens. But the unresolved threat continues to haunt the so-called military-industrial complex.

I talked to Mrinal Sen over several days while he was completing CHORUS in 1974. I tried to deal more with his political films rather than his early films. That is why the dialogue begins with BHUVAN SHOME (1969).


UG: BHUVAN SHOME is perhaps the first Indian film that departs from the tradition of conventional slapstick and canned laughter cinema and moves in the direction of sophisticated political satire. What made you decide you wanted to make such a movie?

MS: I read the story of BHUVAN SHOME in 1959 and have wanted to make it since then. I approached many Bengali producers, but all of them found that this could be only an interesting sequence in a longer film. And frankly, I was not sure how the film would turn out. After MATIRA MANISHA and its commercial failure, when I was sitting idle, I finally applied to the Film Finance Corporation for a loan. I got the loan and, with it, made this film. BHUVAN SHOME was made in 1969 and I have a feeling that it was a radical departure from my earlier films and also the usual kind of Indian films.

I took it up as a kind of comedy which pokes fun at the morality which dominates our society, determines it, and continues to build on it. Our intention was never to tame a tough bureaucrat. On the contrary, our intention was to “corrupt” a bureaucrat suffering from Victorian morality. Towards the end of the film, the bureaucrat allows his corrupt subordinate to go back to work. The subordinate writes to his wife that he has been transferred to a station where there are more passengers and, consequently, more bribes. When this happens, we know that the tough bureaucrat has been defeated, has been corrupted.

This defeat, this corruption of a bureaucrat was our intention, but we seem to have been misunderstood by many. They consider this film an attempt to humanize an essentially tradition-bound and corruptible bureaucrat. That was not our intention.

UG: Your next film, INTERVIEW, seems to continue in this vein and seems less of an angry political comment and more of a stylized satirical description of our Victorian morals and the colonial tradition. But CALCUTTA-71 is a remarkable jump from BHUVAN SHOME and INTERVIEW. From satire and stylized storytelling, you suddenly move into stark realism and a very angry depiction of India’s poverty. How did you get to make CALCUTTA-71?

MS: I made CALCUTTA-71 when Calcutta was passing through a terrible time. People were getting killed every day. The most militant faction of the Communist Party—the Naxalites—had rejected all forms of parliamentary politics. At the same time they had a host of differences with the other two Communist Party factions. These, in turn, led to many interparty clashes. Invariably all of the factions ignored the main issue of mobilizing forces against the vested interests—the establishment.

This was the time when I felt I should spell out the basic ills of the country, the fundamental diseases we are suffering from and the humiliations we have been subject to. This was the time to talk of poverty—the most vital reality of our country, the basic factor in the indignity of our people. I wanted to interpret the restlessness, the turbulence of the period that is 1971 and what it is due to. I wanted to have a genesis. The anger has not suddenly fallen out of anywhere. It must have a beginning and an end. I wanted to try to find this genesis and in the process redefine our history. And in my mind this is extremely political. I found a continuing link in the film—a young man of 20, uncorrupted. He has lived this age of 20 for the last 1000 years or more. He has been passing through death and squalor and poverty. And for the past 1000 years or more he has bridged despair and frustration. For him the history of India is a continuous history not of synthesis but of poverty and exploitation.

UG: But doesn't the nature of exploitation change with the industrial revolution?

MS: I know, so what I've focused on is not exploitation but poverty: how poverty debases human beings, disintegrates the whole pattern, the whole system. That is why I picked out five days spread out over 40 years. I took three or four stories of poverty: grinding, ruthless, unrelenting poverty, poverty that is not glamorous. We have always been trying to make poverty respectable, and dignified. This has been a tradition which has been handed down to us from generation to generation. You can find plenty of this in Bengali literature. As long as you present poverty as something dignified, the establishment will not be disturbed. The establishment will not act adversely as long as you describe poverty as something holy, something divine. What we wanted to do in CALCUTTA-71 was to define history, put it in its right perspective. We picked out the most vital aspect of our history and tried to show the physical side of hunger is the same. Over time, the physical look of hunger is the same.

But there is a marked change in the people—their perception changes. In a way I call this the dialectics of hunger, the dialectics of poverty. How people move from resignation and from callousness to cynicism and being beaten-down, and anger and self-destruction and poverty, and finally to anger and violence which can become very creative in the process.

This is what we wanted to say. Then like a Greek chorus this young man appears and tries to explain the situation and how at the end hungry people become violent and the process creates something new.

UG: Your next film, PADATIK, is probably the first overtly political film made in India. It is also probably the first time that a filmmaker has engaged in political discussion and analysis through the film medium. However, many of the politically committed felt that the registration of the political message could have been firmer, stronger. Could it have been? Or are you happy with the first effort?

MS: PADATIK has something to do with the contemporary political scene. You don't have a free hand here. It is not possible for many reasons to be very candid about many things. But that doesn't mean you'll tell half-truths. Half-truths are perhaps more dangerous than lies. To my mind, I tried to analyze the political situation the way I felt it would be done. It could have been clearer but I felt that even this should be done. We had arrived at a point when the Left movement was lying low and the leftist parties were in disarray, losing perspective, and isolated, at a time when there was a need for unceasing self-criticism.

That is why the protagonist in PADATIK has unshaken faith in the party, even though he has suffered reverses due to faulty direction. Yet he does question the leadership bitterly and uncompromisingly. Nonetheless, the fact remains that in our country, as elsewhere, you do have the leadership and to a certain extent even the cadres go the established way in order to fight the establishment. As the party fights the establishment, it falls victim to it. The party soon adopts the very mores and manners it has been fighting. This is what is happening to our party. This is why a lot of criticism is being taken up these days and there are so many factions even in the most extremist left party—in each of the Marxist variety there are a lot of factions. So any situation dealing with this is liable to be criticized and contradicted by some faction or other. But to my mind, it is important to raise these issues. It is detrimental, ruinous, and suicidal not to discuss these issues at all when you know there is something wrong somewhere, maybe in the cadres, maybe in the leadership, maybe somewhere else.

UG: How much do you think people listen to this kind of message, especially when you consider that even a so-called political film is being made very much within the confines of the established system—with finances from it and, consequently, implied collaboration, both sympathy and support. A lot of people will therefore impute certain motives into the establishment’s allowing you to make such a political film. How effective can you be as a political filmaker making films within the system? How much do you think people listen and can that listening produce any results?

MS: You have raised two very important points:

(1) How is it and why does the establishment help you in making films which contain certain elements of criticism of the establishment and also a loving and sympathetic portrayal of anti-establishment practices, and (2) to what extent do such films help to build a radical political climate in the country among the people?

Have I been able to go into the masses and an I credible? I have seen one thing from my experience. If you don't like a film, you say it is a lousy film or that you don't like it, and the matter ends there. In my films, I have found that people who have not liked them are still quite shaken up by them. I have found them to get angry and disturbed and walk out of my movies saying, “It’s an anti-social film.” I could see that the film has disturbed them to a certain extent, even annoyed them. This kind of reaction could not have been evoked by the standard Indian film. Even the critics who criticize mw more than my films ... they write that stuff and I feel that possibly I've made a point somewhere, somewhat differently and effectively perhaps. Otherwise, how is it that these people are provoked in such a manner? And this goes to prove that this kind of film—if we can create conditions whereby this genre of film continues to pour in one after the other—will be able to create a climate which will help the movement to grow and help develop a radical cultural climate. This is what I feel about it. After one or two films on this ... it certainly helps. But to what extent a filmmaker is credible is difficult to answer. The fact remains that this has some effect. This is what I have gathered from even my most uncharitable critics.

Why does the establishment come out to help me make such films? This is part of the bourgeois makeup. Take for example the International Forum of Cinema at Berlin, which is an overtly political film festival. You know this festival is run by some politically dedicated young filmmakers, film critics, and film aesthetes, but the money comes primarily from government sources. The organizers don't mind. There is a kind of repressive tolerance among the bourgeois countries, which is a new kind of sophistication appearing within the system. I can assure you that it would have been extremely difficult, perhaps impossible, to make the kind of film we are making previously because of censorship. These days censorship has become wiser—they allow you to make such films and I believe they will continue to allow you to do so.

UG: This brings into question the total aspect of political filmmaking. A number of critics of the establishment will argue that the establishment allows you to make political films so that you can expend your radical energy in political films and are thus deterred from any further effective political action. They are, in effect, contending that political filmmaking is divorced from effective political action. Do you agree?

MS: These are cynical attitudes—talking about spending political passion. You can spend political passion in art but not everything goes to waste. Talk about a particular movement to obtain more food and to bring down the prices of essential food items. Say there is a very big manifestation and the matter is closed. For two years, nothing else happens. Do you think everything goes to waste? I don't think so. The same applies to political theater and film.

UG: In India today, we have a very strong censorship system, direct and indirect. Do you agree that it prevents a great deal of criticism and analysis of our society?

MS: Can you suggest any other alternative? The fact remains, the reality is, there is censorship which checks and double checks your inspiration at every moment. The reality is also that unless this country is openly fascistic you are also allowed a certain amount of freedom. You have no other choice. You cannot make clandestine films and go on showing them to people. You can't do that. Filmmaking and the showing of film are capital-intensive operations which cannot be done secretly.

UG: Do you think films can go underground in India? One way out of establishment control is perhaps making films in 16mm or Super-8.

MS: With 16 mm and Super-8 you can have greater circulation and it is a wonderful medium because it is inexpensive and within your reach. Film no longer becomes an expensive proposition. The establishment which works within film tells you that film is a capital-intensive operation and therefore only they can finance it, and that is why they have to be concerned about a subject that will help return their investment. But you can attack this establishment by making films in 16mm and Super-8, and by doing so you can circulate more widely than in 35mm. But this will not help you go underground. You have to undergo the rigors of censorship. It is a must, you cannot escape it.

UG: What you're saying is that, regardless of the format of your filmmaking, you have to face censorship....

MS: The manner in which filmmaking is organized in India makes it impossible to avoid censorship. But that is no reason why you should sit tight and not try to challenge the system. Filmmaking is a very active fight against the system, something that you have to remember. And in that unceasing war, censorship will continue to play a very active and repressive role.