Mrinal Sen’s films evolved thematically, exploring societal and personal journeys, while maintaining a balance between storytelling, cinema as a medium, and his contemporary context. Shoma Chatterji recalls her long association with Sen and how the filmmaker had a profound impact on her.
I have interviewed Mrinal Sen since 1971, when I was just beginning my career and he was shooting Calcutta 71 till his last film Amaar Bhuvan. Among the filmmakers I have interviewed over the past more than forty years, I have interviewed Sen the maximum number of times. I have grown with his films and also, along with him. In some unconscious way, he played an important role in ingraining in me the importance of values like modesty and taught me that the quest for learning is infinite. He was an extremely anecdotal man, as he filled his interviews with anecdotes that transcended the borders of subject, history and geography. I wrote a brief biography of him under the commission of Rupa Books more than a decade ago.
He would go off at a tangent and it was almost impossible to hold him to the questionnaire one had prepared with great care and good research. Precisely because of this, one always came away a better-informed person and may be, even a better human being.
The first time I interviewed him at his flat behind Priya Cinema, was in February 1971, when our daughter was three months old. I was embarrassed to chance upon a very informal adda consisting of film personalities who were, in course of time, to become big names. Among them were the late K K Mahajan, his cinematographer, Kumar Shahani, and the late Anup Kumar who was family to the Sens. He introduced me to his wife Gita. The interview was taken in bits and starts at small intervals during their ‘adda’ of which I understood very little. I was only in my 20s and knew negligible about cinema at that time. It took three long hours to finish the interview. I went on meeting him off and on during functions and felt bad when he would say that he had outlived men and women who ought to have outlived him. He tended to be whimsical and moody later on at times, edgy and irritable too. But he remained the inimitable and irrepressible Mrinal Sen.
Few Indian filmmakers could have boasted of several books written on them in several languages. Mrinal Sen is one of them while the other two are Satyajit Ray and Ritwik Ghatak. They laid the foundations of scholastic work on Indian films and filmmakers. When both his contemporaries were no longer around Sen would still make his presence strongly felt at every serious seminar or festival of films, never mind whether the festival included his films or not. What appeared to sustain him was his ever-youthful approach to life and people. He was 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 Ekdin 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 had acquired the physical manifestations of a public image that gradually became an integral part of his total persona. He sported longish sideburns generously dotted with a lot of salt and less pepper. He always wore spotlessly white churidar kurtas. His spectacles were black-framed with angular corners that could barely veil that glint in his bright eyes. Thanks to a serious gall bladder surgery, his cigarette was 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 small-town neighborhood 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,” he would say. 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, he would say, “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 was one director who made films in languages he did not know, like Odia 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 filmmaker. “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 Bengali than in another language. But that in itself is a challenge I love to meet,” he would say.
Sen picked awards left, right and centre. 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 commendation for an Indian film-maker. USSR gave him the ‘Soviet Land Nehru Award’ and he had won numerous awards for his films at various international film festivals including 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 he had himself won several Silver Lotuses as Best Director at the National Film Awards topped by the ‘Dadasaheb Phalke Award’. He represented India at the UNESCO Commission to celebrate the centenary of cinema and was president of the International Federation of Film Societies.
Yet, awards did not really matter to him after a point of time. Once, in Bombay, Sen was travelling to Maratha Mandir as an invitee to a film show. He caught a taxi and began to chat with the driver. To his surprise, the driver told him that he had recently watched a Hindi film he had seen and was mesmerized. Intrigued, Sen asked him the name of the film. Now it was his turn to be shocked. “Bhuvan Shome” replied the driver without knowing that his passenger was the director. When they reached the destination, Mrinal-da shyly told him that he had directed the film he was referring to. The cabbie staunchly refused to accept the fare all the way from the airport to Maratha Mandir. “It is worth a dozen awards I have received over the years,” said Mrinal-da.
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 tried to sustain a balance among his commitment to (a) the story placed in a particular time setting, (b) his medium, cinema, to which he owed his ideological obligations and (c) his time, which “sits on my neck.” These are, in his words, the ‘three mistresses’ he had served all his creative life.
(All pictures are courtesy Shoma A Chatterji)
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