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Mrinal Sen in Conversation with Italo Spinelli

May 14, 2023 | By

Italo Spinelli is a reputed Italian critic and festival director with an abiding interest in the cinemas of India and other Asian countries. Spinelli speaks with Mrinal Sen about his thoughts, beliefs and films.

Mrinal Sen

Mrinal Sen at home (Pic: Mrinal Sen family’s personal collection)

Mrinal Sen, the grand old man of Indian cinema, has covered during his long career half a century of Indian cinema. He has been highly involved in the political tensions that have crossed the country, particularly in Bengal. Among his first films, which reflected the political scenario of West Bengal, there is the well-known so-called Calcutta trilogy: Interview, Calcutta’71 and Padatik (The Foot Soldier). Bhuvan Shome (Mr. Shome), his first film in Hindi and acclaimed as the birth of New Cinema in India as an alternative to the Indian commercial cinema, was a big success all over the country. Among his most relevant realizations there are Mrigaya (The Royal Hunt), Oka Oorie Katha (The Fringe Elements of Society) and Parashuram (The Man with the Axe), created in the 1970s. In his later films, Mrinal Sen focused more on human relationships, as in Ekdin Pratidin (A Day Like Others) and in Aakaler Sandhane (In Search of Famine) on the lack of communication that exists between city-dwellers and rural folk.

 Antareen (The Confined), made nine years ago, is about the story of a desperate attempt of a man and a woman at communicating over the telephone, keeping themselves at an undefinable distance in a sprawling metropolitan city, a world replete with sensuality. His latest film, Aamaar Bhuvan, was realized by the 80-year-old master with the same enthusiasm of a beginner. “Even now I believe in creating controversies because only through controversies can truth attain a certain quality.”

* * *

Italo Spinelli

Italo Spinelli

Italo Spinelli: You have always been identified with Calcutta, which you have once also defined as your El Dorado. Do you still have the same feelings for this city?

Mrinal Sen: Yes, for the simple reason that I cannot escape from it. I love Kolkata. If you send me to Bombay or if I go to Madras, I enjoy the place for 5 or 6 days, but after that, I have to come back to Kolkata. I can’t stay outside Kolkata for more than one or two months. I need to come back to it to be emotionally stimulated, as Chaplin once said about London. I love Kolkata for its greatness and for its meanness, because it is full of contradictions, very rich and very poor, very lazy and very active. And I love Kolkata especially on two occasions when it is unpredictable: when there is an excess of monsoon and when there is an excess of political passion.

Then, life is completely paralysed.

Once, during a political manifestation, a clash between police and students, Louis Malle was here and he told me, “Mrinal, I am fascinated by the crowd, I have to make a film on it.” And when I asked him, “Do you have any script, any idea?”, he answered, “No, but there is a crowd, there are so many faces, so many stories to tell.” I said, “I don’t think you are going to be allowed to film anything, because foreigners are not allowed to take any coverage of sensitive situations. But you can come with me.” So he came along with me, together with his cameraman and his sound recorder. Suddenly a jeep stopped in front of me and a man got down and he was the commander of the operations there and I knew him well. “Well then, you are the commander of the operation.” And he said, “Unfortunately, yes.” So I said, “A friend of mine is with me, a foreigner.” And he said, “Sorry, I can’t allow him to film, I can’t do it, my hands are tied.” And I said, “Well, he is not a political activist, he is just interested in the crowd. He wants to see how the crowd in different situations behaves differently, that’s all, come on, he’s from France and…”

The moment I said — from France — he said, “A filmmaker? What’s his name?” I said, “Louis Malle.” And then he said, “Mrinal, Louis Malle is here? Oh, I love his films, I must see him, I must meet him.” So I introduced Malle to my friend and he said, “I saw your film last week, Zazie Dans Le Metro, I know French, I learned it at Alliance Francaise and after my diploma I translated a poem of Louis Aragon.” And all the time they were waiting for the students to arrive and for the fight to start.

Louis Malle pulled me by my sleeves and said, “Mrinal, all this could happen only in Kolkata. This man, who is going to beat the students to jelly, is talking about French literature.” There are many manifestations in Kolkata because there is often an excess of political passions.

Italo Spinelli: And you have often shared these passions, especially at the start of your career, and have often represented the political situation in your films.

Mrinal Sen: When I was a student, when India was a British colony, I couldn’t escape the radical political movement.

At times, I was very didactic in my political statements in the films.

My first film was a lousy film, the lousiest of all lousy films that could ever be made by anybody. Now I have become wiser. Time sits on my neck, on my shoulder. I have tried to be very honest to my own time — I am no historian, I am no archivist. Even if I go back to the past, if the subject is 100 years old, I try to invest the story with a contemporary sensibility. That is why if anybody asks me which is the most contemporary film I have seen, I would unhesitatingly say, The Passion of Joan of Arc, made by Carl Dreyer in 1928, when there was no sound. The story is told in such a manner that you feel as if it has happened today. Satyajit Ray, for instance, made quite a number of films on contemporary subjects, but no subject was that contemporary to me.

I don’t say it is your job to analyse politically. I say I am trying to solve my own time. When I make a film I have to serve three mistresses at the same time. I have to serve: the subject that I am working on, the media in which I work, and my own time.

Italo Spinelli: But to serve your own time also means, as you once said, that the public should be instigated to be non-conformist.

Mrinal Sen:The point is to break conformism. This is very important to me and it’s important to anybody who wants to do something really tangible.

When you are making a film, you have to see how you can break the frontiers of cinema, the frontier that has been made by my predecessors. Not only in terms of ideas but also with technology. Sometimes I failed, sometimes I didn’t. Because of the high level of conformism in India, there should be a wide release of madness on the Indian screen.

We live at a time when things have been changing so much; we live in a bastard culture, in a hybrid culture, all of us. They talk about Italian culture, French culture, Indian culture. But all the cultures have been mixed up. And I don’t think that roots matter much these days. True, I happen to be an Indian, true I have an Indian passport, true my parents are Indians. But cultural identities will sooner or later be a thing of the past. Once, when my son was 6 years old, he and I were sitting together in a park and suddenly it became very dark. There was a storm and suddenly there was lightning that covered the entire sky — it was all lit up and I was terrified, but my son was enchanted. He said, “This is like a 70mm screen.” He used a term to explain what the sky was like, and this term is international — wherever science and technology have made headway, you can say it. But there again, I have a problem: when I go into the interior villages, where there’s no such technology, where they speak in a different manner, where “70mm screen” will not be understandable to them, whom do I address? The urban people or the rural people? There are two different languages, two different walls. But the fact remains that we live in a hybrid culture, in a bastard culture. Our society is very conformist and we don’t want to go beyond the experiences of our predecessors. And that is reflected not only in social life, in family life, in an individual life, but also in other areas.

Italo Spinelli: For instance, in cinema?

 Mrinal Sen: Yes, if you think of literature, painting and music, the language has been changing, the form has been changing, the applications have been changing. Why then not in cinema?

How is it that you have to have a beginning, a middle and an end all the time? I don’t say that you cannot make great films sticking to very traditional forms. For instance, look at Bergman.

His form is very traditional, but his films have a tremendous impact on me. In my own way, I have tried to break the storyline, I have tried to break the narrative form. I wouldn’t say non-narrative, because even when you place a pencil somewhere, you are narrating.

For instance, I am somewhat critical about using too many flashbacks. In literature and poetry you see there is one line, and in a line you have the past and the present. But in films, when you go back to the past, you use flashbacks.

There is a main story, the structure, and you go back to the past and you bring some information. Why this separation?

Why shouldn’t the past and the present intermingle? This is what happens in our real life. I remember one day, many years ago, I went to a place where Buddha had been after he received enlightenment, a place called Sarnath, near Benares.

The archaeological area is beautifully preserved. At one point, I had to go down, because the rooms where Buddha’s disciples stayed were down there. The door was not there but the shape had remained. I had to bend down to enter. And at that moment, a miracle happened, it was magic: I was performing a ritual by bending down.

I went back to the times of Buddha, when his disciples used to do the same thing. The moment I bent down I went back 5000 years. This happens to us every time the doors open between the past and the present. And this is what you can capture in a film. You have to use technology in different ways, not in the way Spielberg does. When I watch a Spielberg film, I know that he has the entire technology of cinema at his fingertips with the latest innovations, and cinema, for that matter, is by and large a technological performance. When I watch a Spielberg film, I take very respectful notice of the advancements of science and technology, which have been used in cinema and which he has been using marvellously. I see the magic.

But cinema is not a vehicle of magic.

Cinema is a vehicle of art. That is why I immediately take refuge in Bresson, in Fellini, in Antonioni. Spielberg is not my cup of tea. But I feel that modern technology has to be respected.

aakaler sandhane

Smita Patil in Aakaler Sandhane (Pic: Google Image Search)

Italo Spinelli: Could you talk about the genesis of Aakaler Sandhane?

Mrinal Sen: When I was very young I read a line by Tagore, about the washerman who washes clothes. I consider Tagore to be the most modern writer. The clothes of the woman and the man who were once in love and now separated are carried by a donkey. And then when they come to the houses, they are taken apart — the clothes belonging to the woman and the other clothes, belonging to the man. A washerman washing clothes is not a subject, it’s not a poetic expression, but it can become a story. I was very excited and then I wrote a story. Many years later, I thought about it. I kept on correcting my own conclusions because I had seen more things. That was the beginning of my thinking about Aakaler Sandhane, to what extent we can be realistic. A bunch of filmmakers with history on their backs invaded a village and wanted to make a film about 1943, when there was a famine all over Bengal and how a few hundred thousand people died, just starved and dropped dead. That was the time when I thought that instead of finding the enemy outside, you should look at the enemy inside of you. After the leftist party came to power in 1977, we thought a lot of things would happen, but nothing happened. My leaning then was towards the leftist party, but at the same time I was also very critical of it. We have to correct ourselves to build a better society. I wanted to say something about my own community, to what extent we project reality. This is also the theme of my later films. We are all fantasizers, we indulge in fantasies, the middle class, the lower-middle class, the rich people, we don’t want to look at reality, we are not unaware of the reality, but we are scared of looking at reality. And then, when at a certain point of time, you have to face reality, it is terrible. If you can survive it, then you make yourself into a different person. Like surviving or living in Kolkata. If you come to Kolkata you will have problems initially for five or six days, but then, once you survive the initial shock, you will start loving Kolkata.

In life also, once you can survive, once you have confronted reality, you make yourself a different person.

Mamata Shankar in Ekdin Pratidin

Mamata Shankar in Ekdin Pratidin (Pic: Google Image Search)

Italo Spinelli: Confronting reality and change is also, in a way, the theme of Ekdin Pratidin (A Day Like Others), the description of the trauma in a middle-class home when a working daughter fails to return home on time?

Mrinal Sen: Yes, the woman underwent a metamorphosis late at night and the next day she became very different. She left, she became absent. The next morning she has to do the usual things and on the surface you feel that the dull tragedy of life continues, but it’s not just that. Hidden behind this apparent despair, there is an interior strength which keeps you living, loving and desiring and looking beyond and dreaming. This is the only hope for survival. And that is what happens in our lives all the time.

Italo Spinelli: The theme of absence is present in a number of your films. Is it present also in your last one, Aamaar Bhuvan?

Mrinal Sen: Yes, it is an extension of the previous one. My job is to build moments, and moments taken together give rise to situations. But whenever the story pattern comes in, I try to de-emphasize the story. In a way, this is a story of how not to tell a story. It is also about the life we have now – terrible things have been happening in these days of hate and mean violence. And you have to fight it by waging war against lethal weapons, by living, loving and desiring, and discovering yourself.

(Courtesy : Indian Summer Locarno Film Festival, 2002)

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More Must Reads in Silhouette

Moviemaking in Calcutta

For the Love of Cinema – the Story Behind the Calcutta Film Society

Mrinal Sen: The Man Who Fought Through Cinema

Ek Din Pratidin – Mrinal Sen’s Indictment on Patriarchy

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