EXCLUSIVE: “Control And Chaos” – Dhritiman Chaterji On Working With Satyajit Ray And Mrinal Sen
Dhritiman Chaterji reminisces about the widely differing methods the legendary directors employed while making their films
The very last time I met Mrinal Sen was a few days after his 95th birthday in May, last year. The only thing that seemed wrong with him was extreme old age. That, and a memory that sparked on and off, like a faulty electrical circuit. His skin had fine texture, his hair cover was generous and that gentle, if mischievous, smile was as familiar as ever. The conversation was halting, of course, and when his son told him about the film I was working in at the moment, we wondered whether the information had sunk in. There was a long silence and then he asked: “Who’s the cameraman?” It was a question that could come instinctively only from a person who lived and breathed cinema.
Our first encounter (50 years before that) started, as I remember, with quite a sharp rebuke from Mrinal da. We were trying to set up a film society in Delhi University and bring out a magazine, and were trying to get in touch with the leading ‘parallel cinema’ filmmakers of the time. Mrinal Sen’s Akash Kusum had released recently. Not only was it different from his earlier work, but it broke away from the narrative mode of Indian cinema. It seemed to be influenced heavily by the French New Wave, which film lovers in India were just getting acquainted with. So, in the questionnaire I sent Mrinal da, there was what I thought was a perfectly innocent question. I asked how strong the influence of the French New Wave had been on him. The reply was a bit unnerving. Mrinal da commended our efforts to spread a cinema culture in Delhi University, but was clearly irritated by the question about the French New Wave. ‘Don’t boast’, he admonished. ‘Don’t think that you’ve understood everything there is to know about cinema’.
My first encounter with Satyajit Ray, two years older than Mrinal Sen and already a significant name in world cinema at that time, also took place as a result of the same project. He asked us to visit him when one of us was in Calcutta, opened the door to me himself when I rang the bell (no secretarial firewall there) and asked me to leave behind a set of questions. The magazine was never published (although the film society flourished), but this meeting was partly responsible for my first two roles as an actor, with Ray and then with Sen.
Tomes have been written comparing and contrasting the work of these two contemporaries which will, I suppose, enrich the film history of India. This is not the place to add to that discussion. Let me talk briefly about the attitudes and methods that I sensed when I worked with them. With Ray, everything was planned, everything was under control. My first time as an actor was also my first time on a film set, so I was both participant and observer. I was familiar with Ray’s work, but now I was seeing it from the inside, and it was astonishing to see that Ray controlled, literally, every aspect of the process. For example, he would tell his cinematographer to light a shot after having specified the angle and the lens and then would operate the camera himself. I could never understand how a director was able to observe and control acting and atmosphere while concentrating on the physical task of actually operating the camera. But that is the way it was with him. Even before that, at the pre-production stage, he would sketch the sets precisely for the art director to follow, and I recall he took me along to select every bit of clothing that I would need in the film. And, of course, the post-production process was almost entirely his, including the music score.
The first thing Ray did when we met for my second film with him was to have me measured for a pair of shoes with high heels. This seemed distinctly odd to me, so I asked him why. He wanted me to look about as tall as the lead actor, Soumitra Chatterjee, for there was a particular tracking shot, long and crucial, that he would not otherwise be able to frame properly.
With Mrinal Sen, on the other hand, it was an atmosphere of controlled chaos. The first film I made with him was shot mostly in one apartment – that is to say, under pretty controlled circumstances. Pre-planning would not have been difficult. But he seemed to enjoy a certain atmosphere of uncertainty and wanted his actors and technicians to be on call pretty much all the time, as he was not sure what he might want to do when. Friends would come and go, tea would be drunk, cigarettes smoked and sometimes the shooting would recede to the background until an assistant gently reminded Mrinal da that it was time to push ahead. I recall him telling me with absolute nonchalance, with about five days to go, that he hadn’t yet worked out an ending for the film.
Uncertainty went to another level in the second film I made with Mrinal da. On two occasions, the shot was virtually ready except for the fact that my co-actor, Smita Patil, and I had absolutely no idea what we were meant to say. When I reminded Mrinal da of this slight difficulty, he seemed surprised. ‘You know what the situation is’, he said. ‘Why can’t you just improvise the dialogue?’
These are purely personal memories, quite possibly distorted a little with the passage of time. They are probably not important in themselves, and I’m not even sure what they prove. Do they point to the opposing poles of order and uncertainty, control and chaos? If so, there is a very good reason. Ray has been called a renaissance man, the inheritor of high liberalism, a tradition of erudition and lofty moral values. Importantly, he was much more than a filmmaker. His body of literary work, his illustrations and graphics are equally impressive. It is no wonder, then, that order was at the very core of his sensibility and his aesthetic.
Mrinal Sen’s development was far more tempestuous. He was a child of the partition of the country, having migrated with his family from Faridpur in the east to Calcutta, soon after Independence. His life as a young person, whether in education, politics or occupation, was one of constant change – and the change and uncertainty of life around him would influence all his work. He once said to me that his cinema was built on just three elements- optics, sound and what he called his reality. No wonder he called his memoirs Always Being Born.