The world Mrinal Sen built

One of the foremost filmmakers of our time, Mrinal Sen matched his strident politics with breathtaking storytelling. As he turns 95 on May 14, a look at the enduring arc of his work and how the man who was known for his plainspeak was also a master at looking inwards.

Written by Premankur Biswas | New Delhi | Updated: May 7, 2018 12:44:16 pm
mrinal sen Mrinal Sen will turn 95 on May 14.

Life was almost always chaotic at Mrinal Sen’s South Kolkata apartment through most of the 1970s and 1980s. The kind of people who gathered, however, changed over time. When he was in the middle of a film production, the crowd would mostly be his film crew. At other times, it would be his family. But evenings were always reserved for friends, which included a wide variety — artists of various stripes, people from the industry, those interested in good films, political activists, academic people, students and old friends. “My father loved talking. He had an infinite stock of anecdotes for every occasion. His infectious excitement, his sense of humour, a colourful array of friends and a constant supply of tea kept these gatherings buzzing till midnight. We lived in a very small flat, so I had to do my studies either in our bedroom, or in our living room, packed to the brim with people and dense with cigarette smoke,” says Kunal Sen, 64, son of the iconic filmmaker.

One such day saw a very “charming” visitor at the Sen household. The doorbell rang and Nisha, Kunal’s wife, opened the door to find a very young Deepti Naval outside the apartment. She led her in and went to tell Sen of her arrival. “He sent me out saying that I have to entertain her as he needed to shave. Apparently, he was not feeling bhadralok enough,” says Kunal. Naval, who had just started working in the industry then, remembers a warm but incredibly shy man welcoming her to his house. “I had heard a lot about him. I wanted to work with him and I felt I should just land up at his place to meet him. I could only do this because these people were so wonderful. Had it been a typical Bollywood filmmaker, I would have never dared to do something like that,” says Naval.

Mrinal Sen with smita patel Smita Patil and Mrinal Sen during the shooting of Akaler Sandhanay. (Express archive photo)

Sen himself has recounted the incident in a number of interviews but the very idea of one of India’s most celebrated filmmakers feeling vulnerable in front of someone much younger, seems almost implausible. After all, Sen is, as Shyam Benegal calls him, an “anarchist”, the man who chose to redefine the boundaries of Indian cinema through films like Bhuvan Shome (1968), Calcutta 71 (1971), Interview (1971), Padatik (1973) and Akaler Sandhane (1980). What did he care about a two-day old stubble?

Sen, who will turn 95 on May 14, was a tour de force behind the camera, but actors who have worked with him say that behind his outspoken public persona was also a man who was sensitive and inward-looking. Shabana Azmi, who has collaborated with Sen in films like Khandhar (1984), Genesis (1986) and Ek Din Achanak (1989), says, “The world might know him as an iconoclast, as an effusive confident man, more often than not with his foot in his mouth, but during the making of Khandhar, I discovered that he was also capable of great emotional depth, a facet he liked to keep hidden from the world. Jamini, the character he had written for me, was also drawn from the recesses of Mrinalda’s being. In these contradictions, lie the strength of Mrinal Sen the filmmaker.”

Indeed, his 1984 film Khandhar is unlike any other Sen film. A lyrical adaptation of Premendra Mitra’s Bengali short story Telenapota Abishkar, the film talks about the systematic isolation of a young woman and her ailing mother, who are of no use to the patriarchal structure. Sen, who made this film after two searing indictments on middle-class Bengali morality — Ek Din Praitidin (1979) and Kharij (1982) — chose to rein in his emotions. Often accused of being overtly political and verbose, he chose to make a film about silences. “Khandhar was a film of rare ebullient beauty. But it was also a film that made its point very strongly. That was always the mark of a Mrinal Sen film. It almost always drove its point home. If (Satyajit) Ray was the great humanist of Indian cinema, Sen was the anarchist, in the nicest sense of the term,” says filmmaker Shyam Benegal, a family friend of the Sens for about four decades.

Sen, who made his first film Raat Bhore (1955) roughly around the same time as Satyajit Ray, the other luminary of his generation, didn’t find the instant success that his peer did. However, his 1960 film, Baishe Shravana, saw the emergence of a more confident, angry voice. The film, which looks at a rural Bengal household through the prism of the great Bengal Famine of 1943, is intermittently beautiful and cruel. It is also an interesting parallel to Ray’s 1973 film on the famine, Ashani Sanket. Ray’s critics would say that Ashani Sanket was too beautiful a film on a topic as serious as a famine. “Ray once told me that Mrinal is often too driven by his ideology. But that was his truest calling as a filmmaker, I feel,” says Benegal.

mrinal sen with om puri and shabana azami Mrinal Sen, Om Puri and Shabana Azami at the 31st National film awards ceremony at Vigyan Bhawan. (Express archive photo by RK Sharma)

National Award-winning filmmaker Adoor Gopalakrishnan, who cites Sen as one of his favourite filmmakers, feels that after 1960, along with Ray and Ritwik Ghatak, Sen laid the foundation for a parallel cinema movement in India. “Each of them brought a completely different and individualistic approach to cinema — uncompromising, humane and socially relevant. If Ray was a thorough professional and perfectionist, Ghatak was an iconoclast. Sen has been the most daring and experimental in his work and was never afraid of failures,” says Gopalakrishnan.

The three of them burst on to the scene at a time when Bengal was passing through one of its darkest phases after Independence. The state was still reeling from the after-effects of the famine of 1943, the wounds of Partition were raw and yet another war — the 1971 Bangladesh War of Independence — was brewing. Labour unrest and people’s protests were on the rise and Naxalism would soon lay seige on the state.
Interestingly, mainstream Bengali cinema turned a blind-eye to these socio-political changes, concentrating instead on the home and the heart. All that was to change with the arrival of the trio, who shared a close camaraderie with each other.

Stylistically, Sen had more in common with Ghatak than with Ray. “He was visceral like Ghatak, and like him, most of Sen’s films are about class rather than the individual. The whiplash motif of Ghatak’s Meghe Dhaka Tara (1960) could have been Sen’s motif too,” says Kannada filmmaker Girish Kasaravalli. Yet, there are intrinsic differences. While only two of Ray’s films were in Hindi, Ghatak chose not to make films outside Bengal. Sen, however, always wanted to reach a wider audience and made films in multiple languages.

In the Seventies, both Ray and Sen made their celebrated Calcutta trilogies, films that thematically talked about the Naxalite Movement in Bengal that brought the state to a standstill. Ray made Pratidwandi (1970), Seemabaddha (1971) and Jana Aranya (1976), while Sen made Calcutta 71 (1971), Interview (1971) and Padatik (1973). “Pratidwandi was an intensely political film, just like Interview. Thematically, they were similar, too. But they approached them completely differently. Ray’s heart is in the right place but he refrains from taking that leap,” says Benegal. In contrast, Sen, who got drawn to Marxism during his days in Scottish Church College, was openly and stridently political. In fact, during the course of his career, he never shied away from speaking truth to power. Kasaravalli, an ardent fan of both Ray and Sen, says, “In the film Calcutta 71, Sen tells you distinctly that he is taking sides. His leftist politics is out there. The greatness of Sen’s cinema is that he makes his stories poignant even after laying out all his cards on the table.”

Mrinal Sen One of the foremost filmmakers of our time, Mrinal Sen matched his strident politics with breathtaking storytelling. (Express archive photo)

By the end of the Seventies, Sen had made his intentions clear: his films were critiques of the harsh realities of contemporary India and he would not shy away from asking difficult questions. Mrigayaa (1976), which marked the debut of Bollywood star Mithun Chakraborty, attempted to expose how people of tribal origins are exploited by landlords in rural India. Oka Oori Katha (1977), Sen’s first Telugu film, talked about the esoteric world of two village wastrels. Bhuvan Shome (1969), his breakthrough film in the national scene, is a perfect showcase of his directorial ambitions. A satire about a conformist bureaucrat on a hunting expedition who is taught important life skills by a village girl, Bhuvan Shome was also his first commercial success.

The Eighties and Nineties saw a mellower but politically vibrant phase of his career. His films were less angry, but they posed larger philosophical questions. Genesis (1986), which starred Om Puri, Azmi and Naseeruddin Shah, is a parable which talks about freedom and slavery in the form of a love story. Amar Bhuvan (2002) again talks about the endurance of tolerance in a rapidly divided world. Kunal says despite his decidedly Marxist leaning and the political tenor of his films, Sen never shoved his beliefs down anyone’s throat. “I grew up to believe that the best intellectual quality one can have is the ability to think independently. I had a strong affinity to be a contrarian, and my parents encouraged that,” he says.

To understand Sen the filmmaker, one has to recognise the contribution of his wife Gita Sen, actor and long-time collaborator, to his career. Gita had been a part of a splinter group of the iconic Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA) before she started acting in films in the late Forties. Her first film was Dudhara (1950), that had been written by Sen. The two married in 1953. Even though her career took a backseat after Kunal’s birth, Gita would remain Sen’s favourite collaborator and also his strongest critic. “While writing a script, he would often read a scene or two to us, and my mother would be very critical any time she sensed something didn’t sound natural. This is where her experience as an actress helped,” says Sen.

Earlier this year, when Azmi was asked by the editor of a film magazine to present the lifetime achievement award to Sen at his Kolkata home, she was a little hesitant. She had been told that his memory was fading and that he had not been himself since the death of his wife last year. She need not have worried. Her Mrinalda not only recognised her, but hugged her several times. “He touched my face tenderly like my mother does. I tried to control my tears. Mrinalda is fond of me as I am of him, but in all the years I’ve known him there had never been such an open display of affection,” says Azmi.

The conversation that followed showed a different side of the director Azmi had known. “The first question he asked was ‘Did you think Gita was a good actress?’”, recalls Azmi. As an emotional Azmi answered in the affirmative, his face lit up. “I narrated a couple of episodes in which Gitadi (who played my mother in Khandhar) had given me acting tips I use to this day and he listened to me like a mother listening to the accomplishments of her child, basking unabashedly in the reflected glory,” says Azmi.

His actors recognise him for the visionary that he was, but also for being a tough task master on the set and an affectionate comrade once the cameras were switched off. Simi Garewal, who worked with Sen in the 1973 film Padatik, says, “After the shoot, I returned to Mumbai. One day, I got a call from Hrishida (Hrishikesh Mukherjee). He asked me if I knew that Mrinalda was planning to dub my voice in the film and was in Bombay for it. I immediately rushed to Mrinalda’s guest house and asked him if that was true. He said my accent wasn’t right. I somehow convinced him to give me another chance. The next day, we spent eight straight hours trying to get one line right. ‘Kemon achchen, how are you?’. Somehow, Mrinalda felt I am not getting the intonation right. Then, during our tea break, we bumped into Yusufsaab (Dilip Kumar). When I introduced him to Mrinalda, Yusufsaab, in an attempt to charm Mrinalda, said ‘Kemon achchen?’, Mrinalda’s retort was immediate. ‘That’s not how it’s said!’ You should have seen Yusufsaab’s face then,” says Garewal with a laugh.

As he approaches 95, Sen still remains relevant as a filmmaker in contemporary India. National Award-winning Bengali filmmaker Kaushik Ganguly says, “Films like Kharij and Akaler Sandhaney are just as valid today. They speak of our hypocrisies and fears, but also about the emotions that redeem us. These emotions are timeless, as are the storytellers who have the ability to capture them honestly.”

Our Mrinalda

Actors who have worked with the director remember his distinctive vision and his sense of humour.

Mamata Shankar – Dancer and actor, who debuted in Sen’s Mrigaya

Mrinalda is generally always cracking jokes on the sets. He puts everyone at ease immediately with his laughter and his stories. However, there was this one scene (in Mrigayaa) where I get kidnapped. He kept telling me that this was going to be my most difficult scene, he does that sometimes. I was already nervous, and he added to the pressure by emphasising how “tough” the scene would be. Then, without warning, he shot my reaction of being startled by something and told everyone to pack up! I asked him about the rest of the scene, and he said he had got what he wanted. Then, when I saw it on the big screen, where he had put together that reaction shot with sound effects and my screams (which I dubbed for), I was amazed. I had never seen anything like that before. That was Mrinalda for you.

Dhritiman Chatterjee – Actor, who was in Sen’s Padatik and Akaler Sandhane

One basic similarity between the films of Satyajit Ray and Mrinal Sen — and I have worked with both — was, how both were socially and politically conscious. That consciousness found its way into the stories, but there was no deliberate attempt to write a story that preached the virtues of such consciousness. They used cinema as a medium to express their socio-political concerns, and I don’t think either of them made a film just for the sake of “entertainment”. There are obviously many, many dissimilarities in the way they went about shooting or writing. Ray was obviously more individualistic, gifted in many directions such as in the use of the camera, in his musical talent, the way he directed his actors. Sen was more collaborative as a director. In fact, I would often be surprised by how deliberately unplanned his shoots were and how Mrinalda would bank on inspiration to strike or a conversation to emerge to take the scene forward.

Suhasini Mulay – Actor, who debuted in Bhuvan Shome

Mrinalda could be a taskmaster on the set, but he also had a delightful sense of humour. Utpalda (Dutta, actor) had this godawful habit of pulling pranks on everyone. He slept very late, because he was always reading something or the other. Somebody told me that Mrinalda is scared of ghosts, so obviously I conveyed this information to Utpalda instantly. At night, both of us crept into Mrinalda’s room and made our way to his bed to scare him. Much to our surprise, Mrinalda was standing behind us and he scared the living daylights out of us. I became particularly fond of his wife, Gitadi, during my stay in Calcutta when I was assisting Mrinalda on Mrigayaa. I haven’t met him in a long time, but I will be going to Calcutta in June or July and I will go see how the old man is doing!

Mithun Chakraborty, who made his debut in Mrinal Sen’s Mrigaya

In the court scene, I was inside the cage. As I knew he was very short tempered and restless, I was confused how to portray the scene. I was scared to ask him but I dared and told him, “Dada, I don’t know how to enact the scene. Please help”. He told me, “Have you been to a Zoo?”. I said, “Yes”. He said, “Have you seen a tiger in the cage?”, I said, “Yes”. He said, “Have you seen him pacing from one corner to another restlessly?”. I said “Yes”. He said, “How does he do it?”. I said, “He goes one side and bangs a wall and comes back and bangs the other wall” He said, “Just do the same”. I kept practicing and Mrinal Da told K.K.Mahajan to roll the camera. The rest is history.

As told to Tatsam Mukherjee

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