On Mrinal Sen's his 90th birthday, celebrated by individuals, fans, young filmmakers and different organizations associated with the Bengali film industry, organized a grand celebrations within a packed auditorium at the Russian Cultural Centre in Kolkata on May 14, 2013.
The first offering came in the shape of a bouquet of 90 red roses reflecting each year of his age. Some came with a poetic tribute while some gifted him with a sketch of the filmmaker. What struck out the most were the small bits of nostalgia his admirers, actors he had directed, technicians he had argued with, shared with the audience. He looked as happy as a child would, but a bit tired at the end of the two-hour programme that ended with the screening of one of his many films. His low-profile wife Gita sat quietly in the front row, sharing in her husband’s hour of glory.
Four years later, Mrinal-da (Mrinal Sen)on his 94th birthday is resting at home, away from the noise and the bonhomie of the world outside, with son Kunal beside him, who has come all the way from the US to be beside his lonely father on his 94th birthday. Mrinal-da is alone now, his wife Gita having left him behind to spend lonely and long hours all alone. Gita-di passed away in January this year and since then, Mrinal-da does not step out of his modest flat in South Kolkata.
This extremely anecdotal man whose memory is as lucidly alive at 94 as it used to be when he was 49, said some time ago, “The greatest crisis filmmakers’ today face is based on four important elements – ideology, subject, medium and time. I sincerely believe that as creative artists, it is necessary for us to remain loyal to the time and the medium in which we are making a film and also, to the subject we are dealing with. But then, this loyalty to the time factor would differ from person to person.
A glimpse of Mrinal Sen’s filmography reveals a deep obsession with the basic survival needs of people, some of who adhere to their native simplicity and innocence (Bhuvan Shome, Mrigaya) through the tragedy of politics and poverty in an environment rid with every kind of inequality between human beings, (Calcutta ’71, Ek Din Pratidin, Parasuram, Padatik). Finally, having wearied of socio-political causes, he gravitated inwards, into the minds of people and by his own admission, into his own mind.
Responding to whether his films are autobiographical, Mrinal-da says, “The very experience of filmmaking is an exploration and an extension of my intellectual and emotional self. In Kharij for instance, no servant actually died in our house. But the film was a strong comment on the society I belong to and therefore, on myself. It is a part of me, a part of my wife, Gita, a part of that reality where middle-class urban families treat their servants in ways they don’t even realise are inhuman and cruel. Till before Ekdin Pratidin, I was fighting the enemy outside, through my films. I was pointing a finger at the enemy around us. But from Ekdin Pratidin, I began a journey of soul-searching. The process of fighting the enemy within began from there. For any creative artiste, it is almost impossible to escape from one’s real life experiences. They creep in and take you sometimes by surprise, sometimes by shock, and sometimes, you bring them in because you feel they need to be brought in.”
Actors he gave their first break to, namely Mamata Shankar and Mithun Chakraborty won the National Award for their sterling performances in Mrigaya. He has directed a virtual encyclopaedia of actors of three generations spanning Utpal Dutt, Anjan Dutt, Ranjit Mullick who debuted in Interview, Dhritiman Chatterjee, Simi Garewal, Nandita Das, Smita Patil, Naseeruddin Shah, Soumitra Chatterjee, Aparna Sen, Konka Majumdar, Sreeram Lagu, Roopa Ganguly, Koushik Sen, Saswata Chatterjee, Jnanesh Mukherjee, Kali Banerjee, Sreela Majumdar, Bikash Roy, Manju Dey, Kanika Majumdar, Subhendu Chatterjee and many more.
He considers Raatbhor (1956), his first film a disaster. “I not only felt terrible, I felt humiliated.” His second film Neel Akasher Nichey (Under the Blue Sky) had a popular appeal because of an international backdrop and lovely music, with songs by Hemant Kumar. But Mrinal-da says “it was over-sentimental, technically poor and visually unsatisfying. But one thing about the film I still find relevant is its political thesis: the struggle for national independence is inseparably linked to the liberal world’s crusade against fascism and imperialism. That is perhaps why Jawaharlal Nehru liked the film.”
The Bengal Famine of 1943 left a deep impression on this then twenty-year-old man. This impression remained with him through life. Baishey Sravan, his third film, was his way of purging himself of the traumatic memories of the time. “I cannot remember a single day when I did not have to step over seven or so dead bodies, just lying there…They starved and just dropped dead,” he says. The riots in Calcutta on August 16, 1946, which took a heavy toll of innocent lives left a deep impact of shock and disbelief. These historical events and the city of Calcutta, found expression, reflection, questioning and interpretation in Mrinal Sen’s films.
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 tries to sustain a balance among his commitment to (a) the story placed in a particular time setting, (b) his medium, cinema, to which he owes his ideological obligations and (c) his time, which “sits on my neck.” These are, in his words, the ‘three mistresses’ he has been serving..
Mrinal Sen is not just a name. He is a legend. He is a cult figure. He represents an era which survives and reflects itself through him – the lone ranger in a track that is now filled with other people, other cinemas. He holds on to his principles. He does not direct films any more. Since he turned 92, he needs support while walking. Till about two years back, he would hardly miss special screenings of significant films. Till his 80s, he was prominently visible at book exhibitions, play premieres, film festivals, special screenings and diplomatic parties. The anger of yesteryear has given way to a strange cynicism, a sort of biting satire charismatic enough to attract you, and scaring to pull you away. His alacrity and his nervous energy surprise you. Till last year, he would happily allay your fears and set your intrigue to rest. Spiking his answers with the right dose of barbed smiles and caustic one-liners, Mrinal Sen, the doyen of India’s parallel cinema, faced every question with the brashness and courage of a young soldier. On his 94th birthday, I wish his admirers leave him alone to nurture his nostalgia of days gone, but not forgotten.
Written byShoma A. Chattterji
Dr. Shoma A. Chatterji is a freelance journalist, film scholar and author based in Kolkata. She has 20 published titles, has won the National Award twice and the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Rotary Club of Kolkata Metro. She has done her post-doctoral research on cinema and has juried at national and international film festivals over time