From enfant terrible to eminence grise is a journey Mrinal Sen made on his own terms. Uncompromising. Passionate. Engaged. He did not retreat into the ivory tower of resting on his impressive achievements. The youthful spirit of enquiry and involvement remained…till the last few years before his illness, I am told by a friend from Kolkata. As long as he made films, even little seen experimental films like Genesis (1986) or the last of his 27 films, Amaar Bhuvan (2002), his engagement with his muse never flagged. “I work in cinema. I am cinema from head to toe, cinema through and through. I am totally attached to cinema.” John.W.Hood’s Chasing the Truth, the definitive book on Mrinal Sen, begins with this quote (translated from Chalachitra: Bhut, Bartaman, Bhabishya, published in 1977).
Sen’s directorial debut was not very auspicious, with no hint of the intellectual energy and social consciousness that churned within. Rath Bhor (1955) failed to create any ripple among cineastes. In many ways, it was inevitable, in the wake of Pather Panchali, Satyajit Ray’s masterpiece that was released the same year. But in less than two decades, by the time he made the above quoted statement of commitment to cinema, heart, mind and soul, he had earned the reputation of a self-declared agent provocateur par excellence. One gets the feeling that even if the Calcutta Trilogy had not established him as a major auteur, Sen would have reiterated this self-definition with equal conviction. There was that core of his faith in his own ideas and craft, even when critics would overlook some of his experimentations because the results were inconsistent.
The comparison with Ray was always present – unfairly. And yet, Sen was generous enough to declare on the occasion of Pather Panchali’s silver jubilee: “A certain Friday in 1955 came as a surprise, the biggest of all big surprises, a coup d’état so to speak, conceived and staged almost conspiratorially. Yet Pather Panchali was not an accident, it was overdue.” The two contemporaries had a long history of rivalry. Ray and Sen had famously engaged in a long, heated, public and near acrimonious debate in the letters column of The Statesman after Akash Kusum (Sen’s 1965 film about a poor young man’s dreams of rising in life through dubious means) got a bad review. The celebrated war of words between two legends ended with Ray’s famous, rather condescending put down: ‘A crow-film is a crow-film is a crowfilm’. This battle is part of our film lore. The letters are fascinating to read. Aesop, Chaplin and Quixote are dragged in to debate the film’s proclaimed ‘topicality’. Even more piquant is that Akash Kusum featured Ray favourites Soumitra Chatterjee and Aparna Sen.
Sen was part of the famous triumvirate of cinema greats of Bengal and India, the third being Ritwik Ghatak. Born within four years of each other in the early 1920s, the three made the Bangla identity intrinsic to all their work, except for occasionally straying into other Indian languages. The three auteurs were honored at home and abroad – though the great Ghatak was shortchanged as far as international exposure was concerned in his lifetime. Ray was the perfect classicist, of deep emotional insights and fine balance, occasionally rare irony distinguishing a masterpiece like Jalsaghar (my personal favourite). Ghatak’s tormented passion created searing epics that left you shaken and uplifted.
Sen was more polemical. Politics flowed in his veins like a true argumentative Bengali intellectual even as he matured into more introspective films. Politics of a different kind textured the layers of the later films. What never wavered was his focus on common people – their impoverished lives, challenges and relationships with themselves and the world outside.
He never let go of an essential quality – outrage at poverty and the injustice of it all. The expression grew from agitprop anger to muted reflection that was far more effective. The polemics of the issue initially overrode the films but with time he learnt to weave political argument with the unfolding narrative – even those without much of a conventional plot. Sen’s films remained the cinema of ideas, provoking his viewers to think and figure out the probable denouement from his favoured open-ending.
He respected his audience and wanted them to be intellectually engaged with the film. A faithful core of admirers stayed with him, through the various stages of his narrative journey : social realism (a primary concern), the thin line between politics and propaganda, passages of surrealism and German, expressionism, veering into nouvelle vague and deliberate disconnect with local specificities to convey the universality of the idea (commerce and profit) that he explored in Genesis (1986).
Sen was very articulate in what he wanted to achieve in his films. He was the best spokesman for himself. “It is very difficult to tell you in brief what I mean by realism. But all that I can say is that it is not possible to redeem the physical reality in terms of cinema. What you can do is to project your understanding of the reality,” he once said, adding “You cannot project a slice of reality physically on the screen. What you do by the lensing of a particular object, by the tonal and linear compositions that you create, is that you give a very impressionistic impression of the reality. That is what I also try to do. The physical reality is controlled for me by my own mental make-up. I want to invest the physical reality with my sensibility, my own contemporary sensibility. Reality with a comment”.
Comment was never absent in his Calcutta Trilogy, though each individual film is different in style. Interview (1970), Calcutta 71 (1972) and Padatik (1973) all explored the fallout of the turbulent Naxalite period on the youth that was greatly affected. Interview, as the title suggests, dealt with the unsuccessful struggle of a young man to somehow get his hands on a suit, to give an interview at a British firm. There are newspaper clippings that begin the film, showing the shifting of Raj era statues from the most Anglophone city in India. It is foregone that he doesn’t get the job and vents his frustration on a window display dummy.
Calcutta 71 starts with a voice over chorus that recurs through the film, set in different periods : 1933, 1943, 1953 and then 1971. The chorus connects the compendium of three sketches through the overriding theme of poverty and youth that is crushed by it. “I am twenty years old, and over a thousand years I have been a witness to poverty, misery and death” is the refrain. Padatik is quieter, more reflective, with two main characters shut indoors. A young man on the run for disobeying Party orders seeks refuge in the upscale apartment of a lonely divorcee. Both are ruminating over their disconnect with society. There is a telling scene, of the social chasm between the two. Simi Garewal, as elegant as ever, asks ‘how much’ with a spoon poised over the sugar bowl in the tea tray and Dhritiman Chaterji, the imprisoned guest, looks at her in total incomprehension. Sen would habitually insert small scenes loaded with political inquisitions in all his films. A leftist by conviction, Sen was never a cardcarrying member of the Communist Party. He was an individualist who retained the right to question.
Post his Calcutta trilogy came films set in the heart of Bengali bhadralok, asking inconvenient questions of the milieu he knew from within. Kharij (1982) was a brilliant indictment of a middleclass couple’s futile guilt, when a young boy they employ dies in the kitchen due to carbon dioxide inhalation. The police come, take away the body and close the case as an accident. The relatives of the boy come to the flat after performing the last rites, and the couple cowers in fear, expecting recrimination if not something stronger. The relatives leave silently and the silence slays the guilty far more than any anger. The film won the Silver Lotus at home but scored abroad far more impressively: Jury prize at Cannes, Silver Hugo in Chicago.
Sen first won national recognition for Bhuvan Shome (1969), the film that was officially stamped with the honour of heralding the Indian New Wave. It is unbelievable, but Sen made it with Rs 1.15 lakh given by the NFDC precursor, Film Finance Corporation. The charming duel – full of gentle satire and warmth – between the pompous bureaucrat (Utpal Dutt) on a bird hunting expedition and the spirited village girl (Suhasini Mulay) who teaches him a lesson or two in common courtesy, shows a different facet of Sen’s storytelling craft. As does the meditative melancholy of Khandar (1983), where the ruins of an outpost echo with the loneliness of an ailing mother (the marvellous Gita Sen, the director’s wife) and stoic Jamini (Shabana Azmi). The mother waits in hope of a distant cousin coming to marry her daughter. A trio of city bred young men come to sample the picturesque charm of the ruins. Subhash (Naseeruddin Shah) is a photographer capturing the decaying beauty of the place. He pretends to be the suitor, taking pity on the mother. Even though he is aware of Jamini’s attraction to him, he leaves. As he must. A quiet film, beautifully shot in haunting sepia tones by Sen’s longtime cinematographer K.K.Mahajan, Khandar is a masterwork of mood and poetry of the unsaid. Shabana Azmi has often claimed that this is a film where she has made the least mistakes. She won the National Award for best actress as did Sen for direction. It won for best editing too.
Khandar was the culmination of a trend that started with Ek Din Pratidin (1979), a film that explores the anxiety of the family of a working girl and sole breadwinner, after she does not come home one evening. The three generational family lives cramped in two rooms, with neighbours privy to the goings on in each other’s lives. A fraught night filled with bitterness, spilling over the lack of concern for the absent daughter’s emotional wellbeing, visits to hospitals and morgues, ends with no answers.
Absence is present in two other films that followed. Kharij three years later, and Ek Din Achanak, from 1989. The latter was made in Hindi, with Shriram Lagoo and Shabana Azmi. At one level, the intriguing introspection into the unknown depths of apparently normal middleclass life ought to have prepared us for his masterpiece, Akaler Sandhane (1980), the unsettling, honest examination of the whole process of filmmaking itself – its motives and the unforeseen effect it can have on others. Sen is a filmmaker who won four best director and an equal number of best film prizes and a host of lesser ones at the National Film Awards, along with international accolades at Berlin (where he was a favourite), Cannes, Chicago and Moscow.
For him to make Akaler Sandhane speaks of total honesty to look deep within himself. Smita Patil is cast as herself, a New Wave cinema icon, and Dhritiman Chaterji is the unnamed director. The crew settles into an old, decaying mansion and the neighbourhood is galvanized by this unexpected attention, consumed with both curiosity and anxiety. As the film starts recreating the life of a young wife of an ailing man, this excavation into an unpalatable past, without a thought to how those who lived through that terrible time, turns the whole village hostile.
Sen is not afraid to ask himself: is this another form of voyeurism? It is a question that ought to haunt documentary filmmakers too – where does investigation end and voyeurism begin? Sen had faced a similar dilemma early in his career. Where does the political end and propaganda begin? He provides no easy answers to this damning indictment even though the director of the film-within-film starts with good intentions. Akaler Sandhane ends with the crew abandoning the project. The director is peeved and frustrated. Sen gives Smita the luxury of honest emotion, something that he thought was due to her commitment. Akaler Sandhane is the summation of brave creativity and honest admission of all that could go wrong with creativity without conscience.