Mrinal Sen is not just a name. He is a legend. He is a cult figure. He represents an era which survives and reflects itself through him – the lone ranger in a track that is now filled with other people, other cinemas. But he holds on to his own principles.

Shoma A. Chatterji

Mrinal Sen is not just a name. He is a legend. He is a cult figure. He represents an era which survives and reflects itself through him – the lone ranger in a track that is now filled with other people, other cinemas. But he holds on to his own principles. And does not seem to direct films any more. He is always prominently visible at book exhibitions, play premieres, film festivals, special screenings and diplomatic parties. The anger of yesteryear has given way to a strange cynicism, a sort of biting satire that is charismatic enough to attract you, and scaring enough to pull yourself away from him. Age invests a person of his status with the reverence that prevents you from attacking him with questions he may not like to answer. But at 86, his alacrity and his nervous energy surprise you. He is too happy to allay your fears and set your intrigue to rest. Spiking his answers with the right dose of barbed smiles and caustic one-liners, Mrinal Sen, the doyen of India’s parallel cinema, faces every question with the brashness and courage of a young soldier.

Mrinal Sen-Bengali Filmmaker
Mrinal Sen-Bengali Filmmaker

A glimpse of Mrinal Sen’s filmography reveals a deep obsession with the basic survival needs of people, some of who adhere to their native simplicity and innocence (Bhuvan Shome, Mrigaya) through the tragedy of politics and poverty in an environment rid with every kind of inequality between human beings, (Calcutta ’71, Ek Din Pratidin, Parasuram, Padatik). Finally, having wearied of socio-political causes, he has gravitated inwards, into the minds of people and by his own admission, into his own mind.

Few Indian filmmakers can boast of several books written on them in several languages. Mrinal Sen is one of them while the other two are Satyajit Ray and Hritwik Ghatak. They laid the foundations of scholastic work on Indian films and filmmakers. Both his contemporaries are no longer around but Sen makes his presence strongly felt at every serious seminar or festival of films, never mind whether the festival includes his films or not. What appears to sustain him is his ever-youthful approach to life and people. He is a very good conversationalist, holding forth for hours on end on every topic under the sun, peppering them with his bubbly sense of intelligent humour. With the making of Ek Din Pratidin in 1979, Sen marked a turning point in his career as a film-maker. “I have been trying consistently to pull my characters by the hair and then make them confront reality. This is a ruthless experience. But once you survive this confrontation, you come out of it a stronger person. This helps you to sustain a life of decency and dignity.”

Over the years, consciously or not so consciously, Sen has acquired the physical manifestations of a public image that has now become an integral part of his total persona. He sports longish sideburns which are now generously dotted with a lot of salt and less of pepper. He always wears spotlessly white churidar kurtas. His spectacles are black-framed with angular corners that can hardly veil that glint in his bright eyes. Thanks to a serious gall bladder surgery not long ago, his cigarette has been neatly replaced with the ultimate insignia of the Bengali intellectual, the pipe which also he had to give up in course of time. Born in Faridpur district in 1923, (now in Bangladesh), Sen came to Calcutta in 1940 to do his graduation. But the experience was very depressing and he missed the intimacy of a smalltown neighbourhood where everyone knew everyone else. But he did not remain an outsider for long because “I underwent a metamorphosis. Through increasing interactions of diverse kinds, with people around me, close to me and not very close, through continuous exposure to world events and domestic chaos piling up at an incredible pace, I was beginning to change” says Sen. Around this time, he read the last manifesto of Tagore – The Crisis of Civilization. This made him see wisdom. At the end of it all, Sen discovered that Calcutta had become an inseparable part of his entire existence. He had grown to love it. Over the years, his growing love-hate relationship with the city “till today, acts both as my stimulant and an irritant. I am both touched and shaken by its vibrancy and youthfulness, its humour and flippancy, and indeed, by its tragic dimension, by its greatness and its meanness.”

Sen is one director who made films in languages he does not know, like Oriya and Hindi at a time when Bengali directors seemed to be fiercely parochial about making films in Bengali only. But Sen never believed in defining for himself, an exclusive linguistic identity as a film-maker. “I am against this Bengali chauvinism of making films in Bengali alone. This narrowness closes us to the rest of the world. Besides, it is not as difficult to make a film in an unknown Indian language as people generally make out. Regional peculiarities are always there, in the shape of physiognomy, food habits, dress styles, dialects, words, etc. If one can grasp these properly, which is not difficult for any Indian, one can easily make a film in the language of any Indian region. Granted that it is easier for me to make a film in Bengalai than in another language. But that in itself evolves into a challenge which I love to meet” says this very articulate man.

Sen picks awards left, right and centre and they don’t really matter to him any more. Most of his archival clippings, posters, press coverages and photographs are in France which bestowed on him the honour of Commander de L’orde des Arts des Letters and also held a retrospective of his films, a rare honour for an Indian film-maker. USSR gave him the Soviet Land Nehru Award and he has won numerous awards for his films at International film festivals like Cannes, Berlin, Moscow, Karlovy Vary, Chicago, Montreal and Carthage. The Government of India bestowed on him the Padma Bhushan in 1980 while the West Bengal Government gave him the Satyajit Ray Memorial Award in 1994. Over the years, his films have won several  Golden Lotuses and has himself won several Silver Lotuses as Best Director at the National Film Awards topped by the Dadsaheb Phalke Award. He represented India at the UNESCO Commission to celebrate the centenary of cinema and is the current president of the International Federation of Film Societies.

Sen met and fell in love with Geeta, a theatre actress in the days when most of the Bengali cultural intelligentsia were active with the Indian People’s Theatre Association. Geeta Sen remains to this day, the deepest influence on him after his mother. Geeta earlier would put in an appearance in almost every film her husband directed. Her performance in Sen’s Khandhar, Akaaler Sandhane and Ek Din Pratidin were memorable. The Sens have a son, Kunal, a computer professional, settled in the United States. Commenting on the director-heroine liason which is a typical of the world of cinema all over the world, Sen laughs and says “sorry, but I am truly innocent in this scheme of affairs. I personally think that this happens because the young debutante star the director picks up and hones into shape, begins to look up to him as an ideal, as a role-model, and having spent a lot of time with him before, during and after shootings of several films, begins to depend emotionally on him too. It is just too easy for the director to return the emotional dependance after a period of time. Examples of director-star liasons are just too many to mention. The Guru Dutt-Waheeda Rehman story comes at once to mind. But it never happened in my case” and with a laugh, adds, “my wife will vouch for this.” Mrinal Sen introduced two stellar performers who made history in Indian cinema. One is Amitabh Bachchan “whose voice I used for the first time in my film” and Madhabi Mukherjee “whose teeth needed a lot of fixing before she could make her debut in my film.” Sen saw Bachchan at K.A.Abbas’ house when he was screening actors for his Saat Hindusthani. “Somehow, the lanky young boy’s eyes and voice fascinated me” he says. The rest, as the cliched saying goes, is history.

Amitabha Chattopadhyay, an eminent critic of Calcutta, credits Sen with the following :
*    Sen is the first Bengali film maker who became a pan-Indian director
*    Bhuvan Shome introduced a new genre in film-making
*    Sen is the first film-maker who broke the narrative structure in Indian cinema
*    He is the pioneer of political cinema in India.

On the other hand, film historian Ashish Rajadhyaksha has said that Sen “has consistently and unambiguously downgraded notions of artistic ‘originality’ and deployed a wide array of influences from Rocke’s early work to Truffaut (Akash Kusum) and from Auguste Boal’s Theatre of the Oppressed to Solanas and Getino (The Calcutta Trilogy).” How does Sen himself react to these extremely polarised responses to his work? “Writers and journalists are very good at inventing why’s and how’s of a creative agent’s mind. You better ask those who find such traces in me. I choose to refrain from commenting on subjective viewpoints about my work,” he says.

Topicality is a strong point with Sen ever since he made the controversial film Akash Kusum which led to a historic press debate between Sen and Ray. But he is equally fond of literature, both classic (he made a Telugu film based on Premchand’s famous short story Kafan) and contemporary. His Ek Din Achanak is based on a novelette by Ramapada Choudhury. He adds however that he likes to “redefine or reinterpret a story in the context of the present-day situation. To do this, I do not traverse the physical aspects of the story. For example, if I were to make a film on the character of Rama from the Ramayana, I will treat him like an imbecile who made his wife prove her chastity so that he could wear the crown and become king. Allegiance to the time I live and work in is very important to me. When I make a film based on a literary piece of work, I know that I have to serve three mistresses at the same time – the story written at a particular point of time, its placing within the medium of cinema which has its own artistic conventions depending on the two physical properties of light and sound, and of course, my own time. While serving these three mistresses, I also feel that it is perfectly within my rights to be critical of the story I am making into a film.”

“The greatest crisis filmmakers’ today face is based on four important elements – ideology, subject, medium and time. I sincerely believe that as creative artists, it is necessary for us to remain loyal to the time and the medium in which we are making a film and also, to the subject we are dealing with. But then, this loyalty to the time factor would differ from person to person. The way I have understood the time we live in may not be the same as your understanding of time. My understanding of reality may differ from yours. Objectivity ceases after a point while you are discussing reality and you become subjective in your understanding and your experience. It is this crisis of ideology, and this sense of loyalty to the time I live in where the twin towers were bombed on 09/11, the pervasive violation of human rights in Afghanistan, the deaths in Kargil, compelled me to make my last f.ilm, Amar Bhubon. These brutal events were haunting me for quite some time. But I faced a crisis of choice about the subject of my film. There has not been enough experimentation in cinema. I have tried to de-emphasise the narrative in this film,” says Sen whose lucid memory and clear articulation would embarrass anyone even half his age.

German filmmaker Reinhard Hauff made an 82-minute documentary on Mrinal Sen on 16 mm in 1986. It was called Ten Days in Calcutta A Portrait of Mrinal Sen. Hauff did not make an objective, biographical documentary on the director. Instead, he chose to divide his attention between Calcutta and Mrinal Sen. The film strikes a balance between Hauff’s impression of the social reality of a metropolis and as it is portrayed in Sen’s films; Calcutta as seen through the eyes of a foreigner; through the eyes of a filmmaker who has been deeply rooted to the city, a city that evokes intense love and hatred in Sen’s mind and in the minds of many others as well. Hauff sought to identify Sen’s approach to the city, its inner and outer realities, an approach that Hauff chose to describe as ‘critical realism.’ The intense feeling the film generates at certain moments gives the impression of a docu-fiction rather than a hard-boiled documentary.

Like their maker, Sen’s films have journeyed thematically from contemporary social and political crises to an examination of the inner journeys of individuals. Moving from formal dramaturgy to non-narrative searing statements to some searching self-analysis, the filmmaker tries to sustain a balance among his commitment to (a) the story placed in a particular time setting, (b) his medium, cinema, to which he owes his ideological obligations and (c) his time, which “sits on my neck.” These are, in his words, the ‘three mistresses’ he has been serving.

“With age and experience” philosophises Sen, “I have started feeling more bitter than ever before. Earlier, I couldn’t afford to be a cynic. I was always trying to be very optimistic; at the end, there would always be a silver lining, I used to hope. That was due to my political training. Gradually, I realised the importance of looking within oneself, of introspection. I take off from a point of crisis and from there I delve into the interior world, not the details of the physical world. This is how a film like Antareen took shape. It is the product of introspection. I take the help of physical detail to enter inwards. That is why I am now against films stocked with plenty of events which are made uncomfortably and unnecessarily dramatic. Why don’t we make films on non-events?” he asks.

His creative juices can start flowing with just anything. Something happens in the house. Or, he reads a newspaper report about something that sounds relevant and that could be the starting point of a script. “It usually begins from an image not from an idea. Then I write a sort of loose script and don’t sketch out my scenes like Ray did. When I see the location, the story flows and I begin to improvise. About 40 per cent of the scenes in my films are improvised. The script is finally written only after the editing is complete!”

When asked what he would like to be in his next birth, Sen responded by saying : “I made this film called Ek Din Achanak. It unfolded the story of an ageing man who walks out of his house on a rainy night and never comes back. When his wife and three adult children try to find out why, they discover among the debris of his scribblings a single sentence : the saddest part of life is that you only live once. I wish I could start my life from scratch so that I can correct the mistakes I made in this life and re-live a better life. But is this possible?”

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