Sen had two distinct approaches while dealing with literary sources. Someswar Bhowmick explores how the maestro played with the characters and wove his films according to his own understanding of society and politics.
“The road is the only path,” uttered Subhas Mukhopadhyay, the iconic minstrel poet of Bengal, who made his debut with the book of poems titled ‘Padatik’ (1940). Mrinal Sen, the late director of the film Padatik (1973) believed, “The only alternative to cinema is cinema itself.” He took a break from the world of filmmaking for a long time, after making Antareen (1993), only to come back in 2002 to make Amar Bhuvan. But in spite of this self-imposed hiatus, Sen kept abreast of everything in the realm that he so energetically straddled for four decades. Time and again he had expressed his displeasure with the technological opulence of modern cinema. This sentence is the expression of that realization.
Sen was a filmmaker of an era in which his peers would be concerned with engaging with the audience intellectually rather than overwhelming them with technological means. That is how each of them had developed his/her own style. So, it is no surprise that Sen’s films are different from the films made by his contemporaries or successors. Not for him was the gravity or sombreness of Satyajit Ray or Ritwik Ghatak. Not for him was critical realism or poetic surrealism of Goutam Ghosh or Buddhadeb Dasgupta. What truly defines Sen’s works is the exuberance of his cinematic approach, which often defied prevalent conventions. Sen’s main idea was to complicate the diegesis rather than tell a story. He would hardly portray full-fledged events, and allowed the characters play their assigned roles according to the demands of the situation portrayed. He delved deep into his diegesis and created very irregular dramatic patterns that sometimes exasperated his viewers. In these endeavours he would seem to be unconcerned about their tastes and preferences. He would rather insist that his viewers should submit unconditionally to his way of thinking. Many would call this his arrogance. But this was in fact the measure of his self-belief, which helped him defy all odds during the early stages of his career, which was really difficult.
His films were mostly based on fiction, yet they are miles away from conventional narrative films. Sen carefully avoids the charm of storytelling or the chronology of events and brings out another dimension of fiction. It can be called the inner core of the story. Instead of a linear or chronological progression, the stories in his films meander in irregular patterns. And it depends more on the feelings of the characters. Sen did not believe in the hegemony of fiction. Fiction is only incidental in his films. It just creates a space for his characters to play around. When he turns to literature for any of his films, he doesn’t have too many demands. He only uses the skeleton to play with his scheme of things. Literature for him becomes the source of some social information, or the structure of a social process. Then, through his signature screenplays, literary fiction not only gets transformed, but also acquires a different genre. It becomes a mirror of different characters. Even their behaviour patterns and utterances on screen reflect his own mentality. Not the flow of events but a medley of special moments is important because of the marginal role of literary fiction in his cinema. It is the organization of these moments and their delineation, not the story, that gives his cinema its density. In this sense Sen’s cinema is non-literary, despite being grounded in literature.
Sen had two distinct approaches while dealing with literary sources. Minor literary sources would only work as a trigger for him. It provided him with social data and ideas about social processes. He would then transform the work liberally and elaborately to suit his ends. The storyline was the least of his concerns. Sen would rather get under the skin of the characters and their behavioural patterns in different situations. Not for him was the comfort of a readymade script. More often than not he would work extempore while shooting, creating impromptu situations to challenge his actors and actresses. In so doing he actually challenged himself as a filmmaker.
For major literary works, on the other hand, Sen would generally transpose the characters in a different cultural milieu than their original, ‘literary’ ones. He would still play with the characters, focus on their personality traits and emotion, and finally weave situations around them according to his own understanding of society and politics. Thus, the celebrated Hindi short story ‘Kafan’ by Munshi Premchand would be recreated as a film titled Oka Oorie Katha in Telugu (1977), a Bengali short story ‘Gotrantar’ by Subodh Ghosh would become Ek Adhuri Kahani in Hindi (1971), a Bengali short story ‘Bhuvan Shome’ was transformed into an eponymous Hindi film with the same name in 1969 and an Urdu story ‘Badshaha ka Khatma’ by Saadat Hasan Manto was made into a Bengali film Antareen.
As a matter of fact, Sen did not want the artistic import of his films to be discussed in parallel or in comparison with the literary value of the sources. He was an avid reader of literature. He knew how different the experience of watching a movie is than that of reading literature. He did not want any high-quality literature to overwhelm the viewer of his film with its strong impact. From that desire, Sen rejected the linearity of fiction, the overwhelming effect of strong narration. Not the complex structure of the narrative, but the feelings and perceptions of the various characters became the main driving force of his films. But the impact of the narrative on the characters in his early films was comparatively prominent. From there it was relatively difficult to find the world of feelings of the characters. Later, however, the characters in his films wandered in a narrative-neutral orbit.
One cannot say that Sen has moved towards that goal from the very beginning of his filmmaking career. But there has always been a propensity towards transcending fiction in the delineation of his films. He has more often than not looked beyond the scope of the narrative forming the core of his films. His experimentation with the cinematic form, downplaying the importance of story, is actually the result of that search. Sen rose to prominence with this reluctance towards linear storylines or straightforward narratives. He created his own genre, his signature creative realms. Always in fright of an intellectual stagnation, Sen revelled in tearing himself away from a comfort zone after a few similar films. Towards the end of his filmmaking career he very much wished that his films acquired the characteristics of poetry. During a personal interaction in 1986 he told me, “Poetry begins from the physical reality and switches over to a concept. Likewise, I also want to go beyond the physical reality and arrive at a concept—with all my experiences about reality, with all the experiences that history has offered me.” Films like Antareen or Genesis (1986) were apparently veering towards that direction. Amar Bhuvan, which turned out to be his swan song despite his wish to make one or two films more, had the mix of both narrative and poetry.
To some, Sen was a maverick maestro. Maestro Sen certainly was, considering the weight and quality of his oeuvre. However, the term ‘maverick’ will hardly denote the essence of his creative personality, his cinematic idiosyncrasies and penchant for unconventional treatment or experimentation notwithstanding.
Sen hardly followed a consistent creative path. He had phases in his creative life that were incongruent to or at odds with each other. At times he has experimented too much with the cinematic form. But all this was part of a rich cinematic journey, in search of life’s myriad vignettes.
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