Kunal, son of Geeta and Mrinal Sen has penned an evocative account of his father in a memoir, Bondhu, published in 2023. Intimate yet distant, personal but a critique, Kunal painted Mrinal Sen’s private persona with care and insight. Silhouette editor Amitava Nag speaks to Kunal to find out a bit more about the working mind of Mrinal Sen.
Amitava Nag: You have written “I always saw my father’s life as a run … That was the secret of his creativity.” Mrinal Babu, almost throughout his career, advocated low budget films. Given that as a constant, don’t you think that improvising a lot would have made him spill over the tight budget of his films? How could he handle that? Or is it that to balance the budget and improvisations he would compromise artistically, at times.
Kunal Sen: There are three points during the production of a film where he would improvise. First, he might modify the written screenplay just before shooting a scene or the night before. Though that sometimes created a problem for the production crew, as they had to accommodate the changes, it didn’t increase the cost. Second, he would often make changes during the shooting itself, changing dialogs, or the camera position, or even the entire scene. However, he knew what he was doing and did not consume extra footage in the process. Third, he would make significant changes during editing, but he was mostly playing with the footage he had, so it had no impact on the cost. Therefore, he did not allow the shooting schedule to bloat or consume more film than what they planned.
Of course, such a dynamic process would sometimes make the end product a little rough-edged, but he was never too keen on perfection. He often said that he wished the film was just a dress rehearsal and he could make it a second time. However, if he did, I am certain he would have followed the same process and improvised on the way. He was not cut out for executing a strictly planned screenplay.
Amitava Nag: When you were growing up, Anup Kumar, your uncle, was more of a father figure to you than your own father. It was at this time when you started referring to him as “Bondhu”. How did Mrinal Babu react to you referring to him as “Bondhu” and not “Baba”?
Kunal Sen: I have zero recollection of exactly when I started calling him “Bondhu”, or of his reaction. I started feeling awkward about it a little later, but I don’t think it ever bothered my father. He also never felt apologetic or guilty for not playing a traditional father’s role and was probably relieved that there was someone else to play that role in my young life.
Amitava Nag: You lamented “the intellectual atmosphere in Calcutta did not allow people of similar intellectual calibre and interests to interact more.” Do you think it was a problem only after friends became successful? Didn’t they interact more before they tasted success?
Is it different elsewhere?
Kunal Sen: Yes, of course, this problem only surfaces after the individuals have made a name. Up until then, things are fine. There was a very active and creative theatre scene in Calcutta as I was growing up. Several theatre groups were producing brilliant plays. To name a few, there were groups led by Sombhu Mitra, Utpal Dutt, and Ajitesh Bandopadhay. Each group had one very talented person at the top. However, as soon as another individual started showing signs of independent talent, the group would inevitably split into two, and often stop communicating with each other. The same may happen to some extent in other places as well, but the qualitative difference is the role that people close to these stalwarts play in creating such fissures. I think in more busy and cosmopolitan places, most people do not have the time to create such sycophant groups, but Calcutta was always like an overgrown village with a “bot-tala”* atmosphere.
There are so many examples of talented people still maintaining close communication. Think of Paris during the turn of the previous century, when there were many references to famous artists and writers who would meet regularly in cafes and salons, even after making a name. An even better example would be Vienna between the two great wars, where there were regular exchanges between artists, musicians, writers, and scientists, all in a single venue. Not that they agreed all the time. There were famous arguments and fights, but they continued to communicate.
I cannot comment on the atmosphere in other big cities in India, as I have no direct experience, but I see far more open dialogs in Chicago, where I live now. There is competition, banter, fights, but the communication does not come to a stop. It is both surprising and sad that Ray, Ghatak, and Sen all worked in the same city, at the same time, and yet had practically no meaningful communication. It is primarily because they surrounded themselves with people who wanted to get closer to the core through flattery and criticism of the others.
Amitava Nag: After you moved away to the US, you had less chance of interacting with your father in the initial stages of a new film. You could “see places in his later films where I would have tried to make a difference.” Any such example that you remember which didn’t work for you and probably you could have influenced a change had you been with him in pre-production?
Kunal Sen: One example would be Genesis. It is a powerful film in many respects, but I feel it did not succeed at an emotional level. It is perhaps my illusion, but I think I could have persuaded him to spend more time on the screenplay to make the characters more life-like rather than just props to tell a political fable. A better emotional substrate would have allowed these three brilliant actors to bring out more, as they did in Khandhar. I later heard that there were some bitter moments between Naseer and my father during the shooting, which could have happened because the actor was not fully convinced by the emotional justification.
Amitava Nag: Between Bhuvan Shome in 1969 and the Calcutta Trilogy soon after, Sen made Ichhapuran in 1970. It was his first short film, his only film based on a story by Rabindranath Tagore, and also the only one that can be termed as a “children’s” film. In every sense it is an exception. Was there any specific reason why Mrinal Babu decided to make Ichhapuran?
Kunal Sen: His friend, Mrs. Vijaya Mulay, was the head of the Children’s Film Society. It was she who organized the funds and convinced my father to take on this project. Making something for children was not his cup of tea, so I’m not sure how she made him agree. There was, by then, another relationship – Mrs. Mulay’s daughter, Suhasini, was the actress in Bhuvan Shome.
I have no recollection of why he chose this specific story by Tagore. He always consciously avoided working with Tagore’s materials. He was convinced that Vishva-Bharati would question any departure from the original story, and he could not imagine following any story faithfully. He believed that the caretaker organization was unusually lenient towards Ray, perhaps because of his connections with Santiniketan, but no such exception will be made for him. Imagine some other singer singing “Ami chinigo chini tomare” the way it was rendered in Charulata and getting away with it. Vishva-Bharati was notorious for their heavy-handed approach to maintaining the purity of Tagore’s work. So, I believe it was the correct decision on his part. Despite his reservations, he did make this exception and picked one of Tagore’s short stories. He probably did not deviate too much and didn’t get into any trouble.
Amitava Nag: Mrinal Babu launched a few amateurs who would become celebrated actors later on – Subhendu Chatterjee in Akash Kusum, Ranjit Mullick in Interview, Mithun Chakraborty and Mamata Sankar in Mrigayaa, to name some. However, his films don’t have a consistent acting pattern or scheme like, for example, one that can be found in that of Satyajit Ray’s. Yet, Utpal Dutt in Bhuvan Shome, Mithun in Mrigayaa or Ranjit Mullick in Interview won national and international awards for acting in these roles. What was Mrinal Babu’s approach in choosing actors for roles and eventually making them act in his films?
Kunal Sen: In his earliest films, he used established actors like Soumitra Chatterjee and Sabitri Chatterjee. But from mid-sixties, he preferred to use new faces, where the audience would have no preconceived expectations. The selection was made mostly on the basis of the physical appearance and how well it fitted the character. I do not recall there was ever any acting audition. He would meet these prospective actors in our living room, talk about the role, and engage in an adda session over cups of tea, and a decision was made. He had an inflated confidence that he could get out what he wanted through detailed instructions and by the magic of editing. He was not too concerned about whether they could act or not. This technique worked in some cases and failed in others.
Many of his films from that era could have benefited from better-trained actors. This started to change in the eighties when he started working with powerful actors, and since then, he has almost exclusively used professional actors. His films of this period were also more complex, where he could use the talent and sensitivity they could bring to the production. It would have been natural for him to make Khandhar in Bengali, as the story is set in Bengal, but he needed actors like Shabana, Naseer, Pankaj, and Annu and decided to make the film in Hindi.
How he instructed actors during a shoot also varied dramatically, based on what he thought the actor could do. He would be completely prescriptive when working with actors with no training, asking them to mechanically repeat what he wanted them to do. However, with good actors, his approach was entirely different. I have never seen him instructing actors like Shabana, Smita, Nasir, Om, or my mother. Instead, before any complex and difficult scene, he would sit down with the actor and talk about the psychological situation the character is in. Sometimes, he would tell anecdotes that had little to do with the story. He tried to convey the logic of the situation and create a mental state and trusted that the actors would be able to interpret it creatively. Good actors always did, adding a new dimension you can never get from novice actors trying to follow instructions.
Amitava Nag: You have mentioned an intrinsic chemistry between K K Mahajan and Mrinal Sen. How Mr Mahajan would react to improvised scenes including the street ones. Can you elaborate with any example? Also, the ones that were not that impromptu, like the indoor shots in many films, how did they interact and plan the shooting?
Kunal Sen: Mahajan was the perfect person for the shooting style my father used during the seventies. He was absolutely comfortable jumping out of a car, with camera in his hand, and start shooting without any light measurement, reflectors, or any preparations. The shot would be over even before the crowd on the street realized that a film shooting was taking place. I don’t think the spontaneity of these scenes could be done by conventional cinematographers, always too careful about perfection. I think it is this trait of Mahajan’s willingness to take risks that created a great partnership. He also instantly understood what my father wanted, with very few words exchanged. He just knew it.
In indoor situations, there were two variants – one, where he was shooting inside a real home, or shooting in a set created in the studios. In the seventies, he often shot in real homes, probably to make them look more authentic and cut costs. However, there are other limitations of working in a real home. One cannot remove a wall to place the camera and must use close shots or wider lenses. Similarly, lighting the space is easier in a studio. I have seen Mahajan in both situations. He was quicker than most other cinematographers and could quickly set up his lights. He could also build a trusting relationship with the lighting and the camera crew. There was very little verbal communication between them. Before each shot, my father would show him where he wanted his camera positioned and what movement he wanted, then leave it to Mahajan. Once everything was set, my father would look through the camera and suggest necessary changes.
Amitava Nag: Subrata Mitra was a close friend of your father. Are you aware of any of Mitra’s reactions about K K Mahajan’s cinematography mainly in Bhuvan Shome and the Calcutta Trilogy films?
Kunal Sen: Yes, they were close friends, but I have not heard Subrata Mitra talking about Mahajan’s work. He may have, but I was not there to listen. Mahajan had tremendous respect for Subrata Mitra, and they always rented their camera from him. Subrata Mitra was fanatical about the maintenance of the cameras he rented out, and that is the only camera Mahajan and my father would trust. However, temperamentally, they were polar opposites of each other. Mahajan was always willing to take chances, with little patience for perfection. Mitra was just the opposite, always a perfectionist – slow and deliberate.
In several films, my father contemplated asking Mitra to do his camera work. They even discussed it a couple of times. But ultimately, my father backed out. They both feared that Mitra’s style would come in direct clash with my father’s shooting style, and they would end up fighting a lot. They did not want to risk their friendship. Even Ray, with his desire for perfection, could not afford to use Mitra after his first few films. Subrata Mitra was a difficult person to work with. Personally, I had many interactions with him because he trusted me as an electronic engineer, which was a rare thing to achieve. Even that would test my patience as he was unbearably slow and deliberate at every step.
Amitava Nag: Who were Mrinal Babu’s favourite authors — both in Bengali and other languages? Did he ever think of making films from the stories/novella of any prominent Bengali writers of the ’60s-’80s.
Kunal Sen: There are too many to name. He loved literature. Initially, during his formative years, it was an even mix of international and Bengali literature. However, since the mid-sixties, he mostly read Bengali literature. The main intention was not just to enjoy a story, but to find materials for his films. That is, he always was on the lookout for materials for his next project. It was no longer reading for the sake of reading but reading to find the subject of his next film.
In all his films, the story just provided a skeleton. He would make all sorts of changes to make his screenplay work. Some authors were fine with that, while a few were not so happy. That is why he was often a little nervous about using famous writers, but whether they liked it or not, they mostly accepted the changes.
He generally avoided long novels as he felt he could not capture the whole text in a 100-minute film. For example, he liked Manik Bandopadhyay’s ‘Padma Nadir Majhi’, but he only contemplated making a film out of just one episode in the novel, where a character foretells his own death. He only wanted to make films about people he had direct contact with. His main attraction was the Indian middle-class, which he knew and understood intimately. He was far less familiar with the upper class in India, and you will rarely find them in his films, and when they did appear, they were depicted a little stereotypically. For the same reason, he never adopted any western book, even though he loved reading them. A few times he was approached to make a film in Europe, but he never entertained them.
Amitava Nag: How did his wit and humour help him in his personal as well as his artistic life?
Kunal Sen: In his personal life, he used his humor to combat the ill effects of financial hardship, personal shortcomings, and repeated failures. He never tried to gain sympathy for anything he did not have. It also did not bother him as much. It didn’t matter to him that he was poor. Most of his early films received very little praise and a lot of criticism, but none of that made him feel sorry for himself. Rather, he became more combative. I believe a lot of this is due to his ability to turn every negative situation into something funny or something that made him angry.
It is a bit surprising that he rarely used his sense of humor in his films. Akash Kusum was probably the only film with an undertone of humor. Perhaps a little in Bhuvan Shome as well. But most of his films deal with darker subjects. The only way I can explain that is that his anger and societal concerns were a little too important for him and prevented him from exploring the world of laughter. He was not too keen on entertaining his audience when he had more pressing matters to talk about.
Amitava Nag: Which other Indian or Bengali film-makers did he appreciate/admire apart from Satyajit Ray and Ritwik Ghatak? Did he enjoy being bracketed as a trio with both of them?
Kunal Sen: He had many favorites, some more than others. He was fond of films by Adoor Gopalakrishnan, G. Aravindan, Shyam Benegal, Gautam Ghosh, Aparna Sen, M.S. Sathyu, Saeed Mirza, and many others. But it was never an unconditional love. He judged each film independently and formed his opinion.
I recently met someone in Chicago who was a student here when my father visited the University in the seventies. This was long before I came to Chicago. He told me that my father was traveling through US universities with a set of four or five films from India. Interestingly, none of them were made by my father.
I think he was indifferent about being bracketed into a trio.
Amitava Nag: Can you name a few of his films which you have adored most, and why?
Kunal Sen: That is a bit hard to do. I have many favorites and for different reasons. I still enjoy watching Bhuvan Shome for the freshness of style it has. Films can age rapidly, but I don’t think it aged that much. I like Interview for its stylistic aspects. It still feels rather modern to me.
Padatik impresses me as a great example of using a film to forward a political thesis. Ekdin Pratidin and Kharij are powerful in dissecting our own middle-class values. Aakaler Sandhane is one of my favorites for the complexity of its structure and raising important questions about role and limits of an artist in depicting reality.
One of his least appreciated films, Chaalchitra, to me is one of the most modern films I have seen coming out of India. Indian audience was and still is too fond of rounded stories, and films like this are unlikely to satisfy even the most refined audience. I love Khandhar for its sensitivity and depth of emotions.
Amitava Nag: Also, the ones that didn’t work for you. Did you ever discuss them with him?
Kunal Sen: There were a few films that I could not enjoy as much, and he mostly agreed with me. My father had the unique ability to become critical of his own work after a few years of making it. I did not like Ek Adhuri Kahani, and he was also quick to discard that film. I liked Mrigayaa and Parashuram immediately after they were made but became less enthusiastic with time. I think my father had similar sentiments. We had many discussions about some of his later films. While I cannot say I disliked them, I felt they could have been better. He disagreed with my assessment when the films were still fresh, which is natural, but we also did not get to talk about them later. One example of that would be Ekdin Achanak. I liked the film and its autobiographical aspect. However, I felt it failed to emotionally engage the audience at the same level as Ekdin Pratidin or Kharij could. Despite the depth and complexity of the father character, who leaves home one day, the audience felt less engaged because, I felt, the father’s departure remained a little contrived, and not as natural as the disappearance of the daughter in Ekdin Pratidin, or the death of the servant boy in Kharij.
Amitava Nag: You have written about Mrinal Babu’s cinematic legacy, mainly his experimentations with form and adherence to his political beliefs. Given the socio-cultural reality of Bengal and India, do you think his films will be remembered for these two attributes? Even in the centenary celebrations, don’t you think as a collective race we are keener to hear personal anecdotes rather than analyses of his work?
Kunal Sen: That is very hard to predict. In the current socio-political environment, it is unlikely too many people would be interested in his films. But these things also change over time. Who can say that many decades from now, what type of political reality will prevail and whether someone may take a renewed interest in what he had to say? I feel a little more certain that there may be a more interest in his stylistic experiments. A few years ago, Interview was screened at Northwestern University, and I was present during the Q&A session. I was pleasantly surprised by the intense interest in the formal aspects of the film, even among those who had no direct understanding of the political realities of Calcutta fifty years ago.
True, most people are only interested in personal anecdotes than to hear about his films. A year ago, as everyone was excited about Ray’s centenary, most of the conversations were around his children’s literature and his adolescent films. These are not things that define his genius, but most people do not have the training to appreciate what makes him a great artist. Such is the reality. It always was and always will be. Good art will always remain an elitist and minority thing. It takes too much effort to refine one’s taste and learn a new language, and few people are willing to spend that effort.
Amitava Nag: Dear Kunal da, thank you for taking the time out, and delving deeper into some of the aspects of Mrinal Sen’s creative genius. And, also your opinions on them.
Kunal Sen: Thank you.
* ‘Bot-tola’ — a Bengali expression for a gathering under a banyan tree
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