Mrinal Sen’s oeuvre spans seven decades, but the overriding mood of his films remains constant. Unlike his more illustrious counterpart Satyajit Ray, Sen wasn’t one for sentimentality. Cinema was a conduit for agitation, to open the eyes of audiences far and wide to the excesses and ills of history, both past and present.  

In his little known early work ‘Baishey Shraban’, a familial tumult is interwoven with the horrors of the Bengal Famine. Similarly, themes of poverty, hunger and widespread deprivation are mobilized across his work, not for poetic ends but for political purposes. Throughout the 70s, Sen crafted some of his finest films, all yoked within the angriest traditions of agitprop. From the deeply unsettling ‘Calcutta 71’, through the fire and grit of Interview to the despair of ‘Padatik’, the filmmaker probed important questions while giving flesh to the revolutionary spirit of the times. 

Looking back on his cinema, especially in moments of crisis such as ours, is cathartic. If nothing else, it brings characters into our lives who are more than relatable, primarily because their struggles are rooted in ordinary existence. While our lives are wholly different from those who came before us, there is a certain timelessness to bourgeois society: the more things change, the more they get worse. Within its depravity and many sufferings, Sen finds space precisely because he holds a mirror to us and the turmoil we live through or choose to ignore. In effect, one doesn’t seek out cinematic brilliance in the conventional sense. The essence of his films isn’t metaphysical per se but is rooted in the materiality of society’s conflicts and contradictions. In his own words: 

Calcutta 71 too did not really prove a success because of cinematic excellence but more because of the time in which it was made and released. It was released at Metro…I remember, once, I was standing upstairs. Suddenly a lady let out a piercing scream. I immediately asked my assistant to rush to her aid. She had fainted. She had seen her son on the screen. Who had later been shot by the police. So you see, the times mattered a lot.” 

Remembering the great master on his 99th birthday.