Mrinal Sen, the last of the triad of breakthrough Bengali film-makers with Satyajit Ray and Ritwik Ghatak, has left a legacy of craftsmanship that celebrated humanism
My first introduction to Mrinal Sen was through his films Calcutta 71 and Chorus. Both the films were telecast on the national channel soon after he passed away. My father was a great admirer of Mrinalda’s films and he became my initial guide to understand his thought-provoking art films that were based on contemporary political and social issues of Bengal during the late 1960s and early 1970s. Thanks to Doordarshan, many of his films like Ek Din Pratidin, Ek Din Achanak, Akaler Sandhane, Akash Kusum, Interview, Neel Akasher Neechey and Padatik among others were telecast over the years and exposed us liberally to his worldview.
And then finally one day I got the chance to meet the great master of our times at a discussion in Nandan, Kolkata. I gulped whatever he was saying to the listeners — about how he was amazed watching a European film, where the hero and the heroine were supposed to meet at a decided place, but the former did not turn up and, hence, the latter reached his house and wondered if she should press the calling bell or not. Sen described that never ever had he seen such beautiful fingers that played around the calling bell but was unable to decide if it should be pressed or not. This scenario, according to him, spoke about the self-esteem and self-respect of a woman and played around the conflict in her mind.
In yet another case, Sen chose to describe a scene from his own film. As per the sequence, in a particular shot, one of his actors had to ask his wife if she was involved in an extra-marital relationship with another man. The actor asked Sen if while coming on a motorbike to pick up his wife, after she had heard the bike’s horn, he should strengthen his facial muscles to show the anger within him or not. Sen clearly advised him not to do so because any actor could get just 90 or 99 marks out of 100 but he/she cannot, by any chance, score 110 out of 100 while acting. This conversation depicted how Sen was completely against overacting.
In those days, we saw how after the destruction of the Berlin Wall, East and West Germany came together. In this process, the Germans discarded communism. Sen, however, came up with his own version of the narration about the impact of the failure of communism through his film Mahaprithibi (World Within, World Without). Sen was a Leftist but never ever entered actively into direct politics. Nor did he shy away from questioning its shortcomings.
Sen was a true master of craftsmanship and tempered it to reflect his humanist concerns. His cinematic language was acknowledged internationally as he always chose to portray the narrative from a local, Indian perspective and not attempt a foreign grammar for the heck of it. As his contemporary Ray was painting an urban India emerging out of the pangs of early nation-building in an uplifting manner, Sen never romanticised or universalised the struggle. Rather he kept it stark. His everyday man, be it a job-seeker or a tribal, was a product of the systems in place and was just attempting his/her survival within it rather than asking the hows and whys. His protagonists learnt to compromise alright but within the everydayness of life.
Sen did not restrict himself to making films in Bengali, Hindi and English but made films in Oriya (Odia) and Telugu like Matira Manisha Oka Oori Katha. His films were highly applauded for the relatable human condition and, therefore, won awards and prizes nationally and across the world, which included those at Cannes, Berlin, Venice, Moscow, Karlovy Vary and Montreal film festivals. Retrospectives of his films have been shown in almost all major cities across the world.
His international acclaim also helped India earn a prestigious identity in world cinema. Besides, Sen also served as the jury member at international film festivals like in Cannes, Venice, Berlin, Moscow, Karlovy Vary, Tokyo, Tehran, Mannheim, Nyon, Chicago, Ghent, Tunis and Oberhausen.
Finally, the golden moment dawned upon me when I got the opportunity to interview him. Mrinalda was in Delhi for the release of his book, Always Being Born: A Memoir. Sen was very close to my mentor and godmother, Aruna Vasudev. It was, therefore, quite easy for me to approach the great master, who agreed to meet me for the interview. The best part of the conversation with him was when he said, “Whenever someone asks me about my age, I always say, I am one year older than last year, and if they ask what was my age last year, I always say, one year younger than this year.” And he did have an ageless mind. During the interview, Sen did not fail to point out the mistakes in my way of conversation in Bengali. He had a rare eye for seeking perfection in every detail. That perhaps explains why his observation of society was so real and penetrated multiple layers of complexity. I was fortunate enough to mingle with the pioneer of the Indian cinema once again when Aruna Vasudev, who has been the director of many film festivals, decided to honour Sen with the lifetime achievement award at the 10th Osian’s Cinefan Festival of Asian and Arab Cinema in Delhi in 2008.
As he suffered ill-health after 2002, Sen could not direct any film but would attend the Kolkata International Film Festival till 2011. When the Singur and Nandigram episodes took place in West Bengal, huge social and apolitical protests were reported from across the State, particularly in Kolkata. Sen was the front-runner of these marches on consecutive days, siding with both the Leftist and neutral lobbies. For him, Singur was about people. Incidentally, both the protest rallies happened at a time when the 2007 Kolkata International Film Festival was on. Though Sen never became an active member of any political party, he became a victim of petty politics. As long as he was alive, he never got his due and till his last breath, he was denied the highest civilian honour of the country, the Bharat Ratna award.
It was also shocking and unfortunate that during a committee meeting at the Kolkata International Film Festival, where noted film-maker Gautam Ghose, the chairman of the festival, proposed a retrospective of Mrinal Sen, some authorities within the political circles did not think it necessary to honour him during his lifetime. Sen was the last representative of the greatest trio of Indian cinema that comprised Satyajit Ray, Mrinal Sen and Ritwik Ghatak. An unmatchable story-teller, we have lost the last of the Mohicans.
(The writer is a Delhi-based film festival curator and a freelance writer)