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Mrinal Sen: Centenary Tribute

Sen’s heroines, especially in his later films are everyday workers who could well be typists and saleswomen who came out in droves after partition, gradually
Mrinal Sen
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Mrinal Sen reflected the scars of partition and the famine during World War II in a city like Calcutta, which after the partition became flooded with refugees from East Pakistan. Sen depicted the woes of a middle class society in Calcutta which soon after 1947 took the appearance of a predominantly lower middle class society. It became equated with a metropolis that bred poverty and hopelessness. Nonetheless Sen called Calcutta his El Dorado and his muse. There was squalor, political strife, student unrest and definitely a chaos for which he tried to find some political solution, naturally left oriented. When it came to women, however, Sen was always on their side irrespective of anything else. 

Sen started as a filmmaker with films like Neel Akasher Niche, Baishe Sravan and Bhuvan Shome; each of these films had strong female protagonists. If Neeta of Ritwik Ghatak’s Meghe Dhaka Tara and Aarti of Satyajit Ray’s Mahanagar are compelled to venture out of the domestic space to earn money, their trajectories are slightly different. But Sen’s heroines, especially in his later films are everyday workers who could well be typists and saleswomen who came out in droves after partition, gradually replacing the fast dwindling Anglo-Indian secretaries. These were the bulk of anonymous women workers who faced the daily grind and therefore the films had titles like Ek Din Pratidin, Ek Din Achanak. 

At the back of these was his depiction of a society that was indeed full of double standards. Even in his earlier political films, for instance Padatik, the urban women are not viewed as sexual beings. They lend support and are instrumental in running households struggling with meagre rations and complex familial bonds. Love and morality go hand in hand even among the staunchest Marxists who otherwise wish to change and transform society he felt. 

If we were to seriously analyse Sen’s women-centric films (and most of them were) there was this looking at women as either a Madonna or a whore not by him personally but by society at large as he depicted it in his cinema.   

Mamata Shankar and Sreela Majumdar in Ekdin Pratidin by Mrinal Sen
Mamata Shankar and Sreela Majumdar in Ekdin Pratidin by Mrinal Sen

Chinu in Ek Din Pratidin fails to return home one night. The eldest daughter Chinu played by Mamata Shankar whom everyone takes for granted is the breadwinner of the family. Sen correctly depicts the anxiety of the middle-class family. Should they go to the police? But then who wants a scandal? If the police come, the neighbours will know. The night brings out the dark scenes and the evil in us as scenes inter cut by the director shows a man caught with his mistress or news headlines of a dead woman’s body floating on a pond.  

It is easy to point fingers at the woman. This is typical Doll’s House syndrome whereby the woman is penalized for not doing anything wrong. However, in this case, Chinu finally returns home and when she does, the family does not investigate the cause of her absence. It is apparent that the family does not dare to rock the boat and plunge into financial insecurities. 

Also read: Mrinal Sen: The Man Who Never Stopped Questioning

Perhaps in today’s world with emancipated women all around us, Sen may have had to adjust his lens a little differently but not radically. The mother figure also makes frequent appearances in his films like Khandahar, Baishe  Sravan, Akaler Sandhane. Sen worked with some of the best actresses of her time. Mamata Shankar, Sreela Majumdar, Shabana Azmi, Suhasini Mulay, Smita Patil all gave some of the best performances of their career under Sen’s direction. His wife and collaborator Geeta Sen who started her career in theatre also appeared in several of his films. Shortly after the release of Kharij, critic Chidananda Dasgupta wrote, “The women in Mrinal Sen ’s life make a world of difference to his films. Foremost among them is his wife, Geeta, who has lent to his recent films a gentle humanity and grace that his socially committed but somewhat meritorious work seemed to lack. In his latest Kharij (Rejected), her appearance is brief; yet she provides a leavening that softens some of the film’s austerity.”  

Mrinal and Geeta Sen
Mrinal and Geeta Sen

Judhajit Sarkar of FTII who knew Mrinal Sen well, “At the Institute Ray was revered but distant; Ghatak was a rebel and definitely an inspiration but Sen was never an icon in that sense. He was friendly, chatty and very accessible. He was a good listener and gave you his full attention and had a wicked sense of humour.” 

In the final analysis Mrinal Sen, an affectionate and warm person may have differed from Ray who was more of a refined observer of society and Ghatak who played with our raw emotions. But Mrinal Sen looked at life from the inside and reflected the doubts and confusion of a politically minded yet conservative Bengali middle class society. 

Images courtesy: Sanjeet Chowdhury,

A masters’ in Comparative Literature from Jadavpur University, Manjira Majumdar has dabbled in journalism, teaching and gender activism. She shares her love for cinema, books, art and four-legged creatures with her family consisting of a husband and two daughters.

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