Dhritiman Chaterji on Mrinal Sen: ‘There was no difference between the filmmaker and the man’

One of the great actors of Indian cinema, Chaterji worked with the master director in Padatik and Akaler Sandhane.

Published : Aug 10, 2023 11:00 IST - 4 MINS READ

Mrinal Sen and Dhritiman Chaterji during the making of Padatik.

Mrinal Sen and Dhritiman Chaterji during the making of Padatik. | Photo Credit: D.R. Naidu

As we approached Mrinal Sen’s birth centenary earlier this year, we saw a rash of celebrations. Seminars were organised, discussions, lectures took place; I myself was invited to several such events. Celebrations have a symbolic value, no doubt, but I cannot help wondering what such celebrations mean to the younger generation of moviegoers. Do they make them more aware of Mrinal Sen’s work? Do they enhance their understanding of his films?

Recently, I was having a conversation with an intelligent and informed young man about cinema. I was explaining to him the difference between arthouse films and mainstream movies and how, at some point, they began to merge. That young person had heard of Mrinal Sen, but I am certain he has not watched a single film by him. By and large, that is the way with most young people, except those with a specialised interest, who watch films with seriousness. There is a lack of awareness about what we call parallel cinema; which we, the older generation, celebrate and talk about. It is as if there is a chasm between generations as far as understanding of the works of directors like Mrinal Sen is concerned.

So, going back to my earlier point, do these celebrations reignite the interest in Mrinal Sen and his work? Do they make them come alive again? At the risk of sounding uncharitable, I have to admit that when I was invited to these centenary celebrations, I had a sinking feeling that it would be the same old show that has been going on for years. They would say how great a political filmmaker he was; mark the difference between him and Satyajit Ray. No new understanding of his work would emerge.

I feel that in the pantheon of Satyajit Ray, Mrinal Sen, and Ritwik Ghatak, Sen has always had to play second fiddle to Ray. Let us not forget that both Ray and Sen made their first films around the same time: Pather Panchali in 1955 and Raat Bhore in 1956. Ray got international and national recognition with his very first film but Sen had to really struggle.

People say he struck gold with Bhuvan Shome in 1969, but I personally believe Neel Akasher Neechey (1959) was a very important film. With it, he started to emerge in the public eye. I think a lot of work is left to be done on Mrinal Sen, chiefly because of a general lack of awareness about parallel cinema.

Look at the number of films that he made in different languages—Odia, Hindi, Telugu—languages he did not understand very well either. Certain questions can be raised. Was he more experimental than Ray? Was he more adventurous?

Also Read | From revolution to realism, the multifaceted legacy of Mrinal Sen

Meta-realism, which Bertolt Brecht used in theatre, is a method by which the director keeps the audience aware that they are watching not reality, but a depiction of it. Sen used this as early as in Akash Kusum (1965), and in the Calcutta trilogy (Interview, Calcutta ’71, and Padatik).

There are aspects of his craft and style that need greater analysis. Look at Akaler Sandhane—it is a film within a film within a film. As in Interview, the audience is kept aware of the process of making the film and the people making it.

One thing I remember about working with Mrinal da was my constant involvement with the shooting. I wanted to see what was happening, and looked forward to what surprise he would pull off next. This continued in post-production.

Also Read | Memory, history, and political commentary 

Mrinal da was an inveterate smoker and would constantly borrow matchboxes; I was a smoker myself and lost many matchboxes this way. I used this habit of his in a scene in Akaler Sandhane. There was improvisation in his filmmaking that kept us on our toes

When he started working with video during the television series for Doordarshan, Kabhi Door Kabhi Paas (1986), I saw a change in his shooting style. He was not watching his actors during the shot but on a monitor. There was a kind of distancing.

He was as immersed in filmmaking as he was in literature. He would read voraciously not just for the joy of it, but also to get material for his films. Apart from Bengali literature, he read literature in Hindi, Urdu, and Odia.

Also Read | From Paradise Café to political cinema: Mrinal Sen’s radical journey

There was no difference between Mrinal Sen the filmmaker and Mrinal Sen the man. In spite of our 20-year age difference, I felt no hesitation or awkwardness in talking to him, and we talked about various aspects of cinema.

Once we were discussing nudity and intimate scenes, and I said that we had not yet seen any credible intimate scenes in Indian cinema. Mrinal da’s answer was interesting. He said that in spite of the presence of erotic sculpture and literature in our heritage, the modern Indian is inherently prudish. He said, “Look, many of us have not even seen our wives nude. So, how do you expect us to treat intimate scenes in a credible way.”

As told to Suhrid Sankar Chattopadhyay.

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