Mrinal Sen, known for his films the world over, ventured into television briefly, when in 1986-87 he made a 13-episode series titled Kabhi Door Kabhi Paas. AK Nanda rewinds the episodic short stories to look at how Sen explored distances which are more psychological than physical.
Life is, both near and afar, somewhat like a boat afloat on the ocean, being either pushed far and wide or pulled to nearby shores before it reaches its destination. Sometimes people think they are very close to each other until they interact and find that they are, in fact, very far from one another. We enjoy each other’s company until the time comes for us to move away towards destinations either made by our own choice or by circumstances other than our own making. Life is lived with a link between the past and present emotions — with remembrances of the past and aspirations of the future making up the present.
Mrinal Sen, known for his films the world over, ventured into television briefly, when in 1986-87 he made a 13-episode series Kabhi Door Kabhi Paas, which delved into how unforeseen situations bring people close to each other and throw them apart again, leaving behind only the memories of temporary togetherness and the resultant memories of happiness or unhappiness.
I remember watching these on Doordarshan, back in those days when it was the sole TV channel and some serials were truly worth watching. The name Mrinal Sen was enough to excite interest. The episodes, we can call them short films, were a sight-and-sound portrayal of 12 short stories, 10 of which were written by different authors and two by Sen himself. Telecast weekly, these short stories took us briefly into a world where what was apparent was not real and also, the real was not always apparent. The real came out in glimpses, through friction, pulling the characters briefly near only to throw them far apart again.
Thanks to Kunal Sen, the filmmaker’s son, who has uploaded 10 of these films on his YouTube channel, I was able to relive the films, and ended up watching each of them more than once. Forget the blurry video quality and the slightly muffled sound (expected from a VHS conversion); it is the story that touches a chord every time. The pace is languid, unhurried just as life rolls by. The casting is perfect – each character is played by an actor who fits into the role effortlessly.
Ajnabi / The Stranger, is based on a story by Dibyendu Palit. A press photographer from Calcutta is waiting for the train at a solitary village station. His day-long assignment is over, and he is returning to the city. As he paces the platform, we hear the rattling sound of a ‘dumroo’, possibly being played by a folk singer as he hums a tune somewhere nearby, but no one else is visible.
The photographer whiles away his time clicking an odd photo or two. The only other person who appears in the non-descript platform is a woman, clad in a sari and a shawl wrapped closely around her covering her head. She is waiting for the train to catch a two-minute glimpse of her father, who would be coming by the train on his way to Calcutta. As the train is late, the two lonely souls strike up a conversation. After a good deal of hesitation she tells him about herself – how she had run away from home to marry a person of her own choice and ended up in this village.
However, her husband has left her and now she is in a fix how to face her father who is under the impression that she is happy in her own world. The confusion, the embarrassment and the trepidation are very well brought out by Neena Gupta playing the woman and Dilip Dhawan does what is expected of him. He looks puzzled and intrigued by the woman, unable to decide whether to appreciate her honesty or feel sorry for her. The train is sighted and suddenly the woman musters up the courage to request the stranger to step in as her husband for those critical two minutes. The photographer is in a quandary but is unable to dismiss the woman’s frantic plea to save her from the impending ignominy of being duped by her husband.
Sen leaves the ending open. As long as the train waits at the platform, we only get to see its other side towards the tracks. The train chugs out of the station and we see the woman standing alone on the platform. We don’t know what transpired, but we do know for that fleeting few minutes, the two strangers came together in an inexplicable bond.
There are causes of our own making, knowingly or unknowingly, that result in why and how our lives come together and why again fall apart. Sometimes we feel close to each other in the face of circumstances we are drawn into until we begin knowing ourselves through our interactions and find that we are miles apart from each other.
Girish Karnad and Aparna Sen star in a beautiful love story by Achintya K Sengupta Dus Saal Baad / After a Decade – about a love that was left unredeemed. One fine morning Aparna Sen makes a sudden appearance in Girish Karnad’s quiet life in a small town. She has come to appear for a job interview, she says. Karnad tries to make her feel at home, where he lives alone after the death of his wife.
Aparna Sen perhaps nursed a secret desire to see if her past love had any place for her in his life now. The two, alone in the house, recount old memories, try to be easy with each other as they used to be in the past and manage to steal some warm moments when each understands the other’s unspoken feelings. But as the day progresses, Sen realises that the wife is still present in every piece of the household and she leaves quietly without informing Karnad. Mrinal Sen’s famous theme of ‘presence of absence’ comes forth powerfully once more in Dus Saal Baad.
Anniversary, again based on a story by Achintya K Sengupta, is about the love affair of a young couple who could not marry for reasons beyond their control. The girl (Deepti Naval) was married off to someone else, leaving her love affair infructuous. On the third anniversary day of their marriage, the boy (Dhritiman Chatterjee) comes to meet her at her home. The girl’s mother-in-law assumes him to be her “brother” but the girl is apprehensive about what her former lover may reveal. The suspense builds up as Dhritiman fishes out her old letters making her wonder if he plans to blackmail her.
When new leaves grow, the old ones fall off as part of the natural process of change. The marriage anniversary serves as an occasion to look back into the past and accept the present with equanimity. There was scope for acrimony, but it doesn’t happen because the coming together was temporary, only to suggest that the time was ripe to ring out the old and ring in the new – to prove what was once so near was now afar.
A few of the stories revolved around ripe-in-age couples with Manohar Singh playing the male lead. A sweet, tongue-in-cheek look at modern times in Aajkal / Modern Times, based on a story by Ramapada Chowdhury explores the eternal generation gap. A 50-something couple (Manohar Singh and Lily Chakraborty) assume that the close friendship between their son (Piyush Mishra) and his friend is a love affair. And as a mark of their acceptance, they develop a sort of intimacy with the girl.
The parents mentally prepare themselves to welcome her as their daughter-in-law and treat her with utmost care and fondness until one day the girl drops in to give them her wedding invitation card. Shocked, the couple starts living in the fear that their son would not be able to bear the trauma that his lover is getting married elsewhere. When they realise that the son had known all along and their cozy camaraderie was just a friendship, the relief makes the aged Manohari literally do cartwheels on the bed while his wife giggles happily.
A very endearing story that leaves you smiling at how ‘modern times’ will always puzzle the previous generation. The manner in which their growing fondness for the girl gets washed away the minute they realise she is not going to be part of their son’s life shows how transient relationships can be.
Aparajit / The Unvanquished, true to its name, is Sen’s impactful tribute to Satyajit Ray’s Aparajito. It is based on a story Sen wrote himself and one can see reflections of his own emotions as well as his only son was far away, in a country on the other side of the planet.
In Aparajit, an elderly couple spend their days waiting for some communication from their son. Earlier, he used to call every week, but now his calls have become irregular and fewer, and it is not quite certain if he will return at all. His phone call comes only on his birthday. This birthday too the couple patiently wait at their neighbour’s house since they don’t have a telephone at home but the elusive call does not come.
Disappointed, they return home and the mother pulls out some old letters which have been read a hundred times before. In one of the letters, the son recounts how he had gone to see Aparajito long ago with his mother and she had cried at Apu’s “cruelty” towards his mother, asking why he went so far away and never returned. In the letter, the son mentions that watching Aparajito once more with his friends in Chicago University (one can’t miss the reference – it is a place frequented by Mrinal Sen’s own son Kunal), he had cried profusely. The son writes that while his friends argue that the Apu’s mother was being selfish in trying to hold him back from his aspirations, he is determined that he won’t be Apu and that he would return to his mother the moment his work finishes. Sadly, that doesn’t happen. Identifying herself with Apu’s mother who dies waiting for her son, the mother breaks down in hopelessness. When one master filmmaker pays tribute to another, he does so in a way that adds fresh new dimensions to the iconic work. Sen’s ode to Aparajito becomes a masterpiece by itself.
These short films bank on a fairly simple, linear narrative. The one exception is the title story Kabhi Door Kabhi Paas – a monologue enacted by Anil Chatterjee based on Sen’s own story. A tale of the past told in a closed room, in a confined space where the camera stays mostly on the actor. Again, a power-packed performance since it is not easy to hold the audience’s attention, especially when there are no flashbacks or other characters.
Swayamvar is also based on a story written by Sen himself. Three friends (Nikhil Bhagat and Suhel Seth along with Aparajita Krishna) were having a relaxed vacation in a luxurious bungalow in the countryside. When Suhel playfully asks Aparajita whom she would choose among the two of them, Aparajita throws a challenge — the one who wins three rounds of carrom will win her. What begins as a fun game escalates into a duel where pride and ego are put on stake, more than the girl.
The Shawl, based on a story by Narendranath Mitra, explores the relationship between a married couple (Priya Tendulkar and Dilip Dhawan) that hits a seed bump on the road when a shawl the wife gives to her husband to help him fight the mild chill turns out to be one belonging to her former husband. Unlike the other boats in the series that come near briefly only to drift afar in the ocean, theirs are the boats that pull back closer after drifting apart for a short while.
Do Behen / Two Sisters, again on a story by Narendranath Mitra, explores how a storm raging outside sparks the eruption of long suppressed emotions, jealousy, frustration and anger between two sisters who find themselves alone with each other after a long time. They both loved the same man but none of them got him. The intense frustration of unfulfilled love turns into a blame game leading to a catharsis. Thought we don’t see the man, his presence is felt almost all through the narrative. A favourite theme for Sen.
Jeet / The Victory, based on a story by Moti Nandy, is about man’s eternal fight to defeat the odds. Dipankar De, nearing retirement, is unsure how to earn an extension as his boss wants young blood. With the help of his wife Surekha Sikri, De tries out new ways to look young. Instead of his regular dhoti, he starts going to work wearing his son’s trousers and shirt with a new pair of boots. The office’s sports meet offers a chance to prove his stamina for work and he practises hard to finally win the walking race. The highlight of this two-episode story is the ageing couple’s endearing little plans and attempts to hold on to the job and defy age.
The eternal landscape of light and shade, as alternatively played out by nature on earth, is imaginatively captured through hope and despair in these stories. The running theme of Sometime Afar, Sometime Near explores distances which are more psychological than physical. Brilliant performances mark each of these stories. Sen uses minimal dialogues, simple sets, mostly close up or medium shots since the films were made for the small screen in the ’80s. Not surprisingly, almost all the episodes, except Ajnabi and some parts of Jeet, were shot indoors.
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