Review English

Mrinal Sen: Self & Cinema review — A striking portrait of a rebellious filmmaker

Release Date: 01 Jan 1970 / 52min

Cinestaan Rating

  • Direction:
  • Music:

Shriram Iyengar

Nripen Ganguli's short documentary uses the auteur's own poetic voice to shed light on his humanity and artistry.

In Nripen Ganguli's Mrinal Sen: Self and Cinema, the titular filmmaker comes across as a deeply introspective humanist who has a touch of surreal abstraction about him. This facet could only be revealed by the auteur himself. 

The documentary focuses on Sen, his cinema, style and substance. Ganguli's documentary tracks the genesis of his ideas about cinema and visual storytelling. These include the iconic Bhuvan Shome (1969), often credited with being the origin of Indian 'parallel cinema'. It is interesting to hear Sen, who is always compared with his contemporary Satyajit Ray, speak of Latin American and Cuban cinema as an influence. Ray, on the other hand, was more influenced by the European styles and Vittorio De Sica in particular. 

Ganguli uses the voices of the late Soumitra Chatterjee, PK Nair, Gautam Ghose, film critic Samik Bandyopadhyay and filmmaker Jabbar Patel to shed light on Sen's artistry. When the late PK Nair remarks, "Baishey Shravan (1960) was when we noticed him and he had arrived as a filmmaker" or Patel says, "The strong Marxism in his cinema was fascinating for young people like us at the time", it feels like opening a time capsule.

Despite the detailed analyses, the most poignant moments are the ones narrated by the late filmmaker himself. At one point while describing the genesis of Baishey Shravan's title, Sen describes a captivating anecdote about the last rites of Rabindranath Tagore. "I saw in the cemetery, a young man, wrapped in a towel, holding in his hands a little child, also wrapped in a towel. The child had passed away, and he was there to cremate him," he says. Sen goes on to describe how the tumultuous crowd stampeding to watch the ceremony drowned both the young father and the little boy, leaving no sign of them. Even in this poignant recollection, he describes the event as a filmmaker — with political context and human subtext. In hindsight, it reflects more than Sen's cinematic ideals. It reflects his personal ideals. 

Describing a moment where he enters a Buddhist cave during his stint as a medical representative, to Sarnath, Uttar Pradesh, he reflects, "At that moment, as I entered, I bowed my head. For that split moment, I travelled in time and became a monk. I felt that time." This imaginative reflective ability is something that flows through his cinema. To have the filmmaker articulate it verbally is a rare privilege. 

Another brilliantly evocative moment is when the filmmaker describes his efforts to constantly maintain 'contemporaneity'. "To connect is what I aim at. Always connecting the past with the present," he says. 

In addition to the brilliant analysis of his cinema, the documentary also delves into personal traits. Sen does not shy away from describing his films, ideas, thoughts and philosophies. These are far better insights than any critic or scholar can provide. 

Ganguli's documentary imbues Sen with the touch of gentleness. In the end, we see him in the silhouetted lights of his home, in the foreground of his library reading and saying, "In my life, I have drawn sustenance from reading books." It is the touching moment to leave the last of the member of the triumvirate from the East, who shaped a new cinematic grammar for India. 

 Mrinal Sen: Self and Cinema was part of an online festival created by the Films Division of India, titled Master's Constellation held from 9-11 July. 

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