CALL the veteran Bengali filmmaker Mrinal Sen on the day the government announces the Dada Saheb Phalke Award for him, which is to be conferred on February 2, and the man almost does not hear your congratulations. He is more anxious to know if you have been personally affected by the tsunami, and to hear details of the relief measures. "What terrible suffering, and not over yet, by no means," he muses sadly. "There are indications of tremors to come, and who knows, how many more disasters. No certainty of dying peacefully or naturally any more, for anyone in the world."
His forebodings infect you with gloom. You shake your head and sigh. But what is this? Sen's voice is no longer blue, but sunny, exulting. "Do you know what happened when the award was announced?" he asks like a wonderstruck child. "My wife kissed me. Not on the lips, no, but she did kiss me. Has not happened in a long time, you know! And she said the award was long overdue." Then he falls silent. It is the silence of a happy man.
This quicksilver, un-pin-downable quality makes Mrinal Sen endearing. You can see it in his films too. Take the first of his city trilogy Interview (followed in turn by Calcutta 71 and Padatik). It was made around the same time as Satyajit Ray's Pratidwandi, and with the same theme of an unemployed young man, but there the similarity ends. While Ray's film follows a classic, subtle path of satire, Sen has stylistic devices ricocheting off the screen, not always making hits, but eager and robust. They question and castigate the socio-political system, unable to extricate itself from its feudal, regressive, post-colonial shackles. He demands reappraisals of individual and community.
In the film the young man fails to get the job, because along the way he is caught up willy-nilly in a street demonstration and loses the suit he had borrowed for the interview. How can he make an impression without it? Sen records gleefully that he even made his protagonist speak a line from Ray's film that had come to him through the grapevine, but modified to suit his purpose. Interestingly, Sen had the Pratidwandi debutant Dhritiman Chaterji play a young extremist in Padatik, committed to party ideals but disillusioned with the smug leaders. The overtly political film spewed debates and controversies for critiquing Left leadership.Akaler Sandhane.
The trilogy also testifies to the filmmaker's deep devotion to Calcutta (Kolkata). He had been dispatched to the metropolis at age 17 to study physics, from hometown Faridpur, now in Bangladesh, where he was born (1923) among seven brothers and five sisters. The city's milling crowds, its apathy and anonymity, instilled fear in the country lad, who underwent arrest and inquiry for suspected links with the underground movement. The terror was soon replaced by love. Although he never lost his feeling for rural, village life, and has made films on even marginalised tribal people facing unspeakable injustice as in Mrigaya and Oka Orie Katha (Telugu), Calcutta became Mrinal Sen's home.
He was to make an unforgettable journey to a changed-beyond-recognition Faridpur in 1990, and stand in front of his old house as a `foreigner'. The local people gathered around in silence. A smiling woman walked out of the house and offered flowers to Sen's wife Gita saying, "You are in the house of your father-in-law." She turned to Sen and said, "Come, you will see the memorial at the water's edge." Through the decades, his sister's memorial (she had drowned as a child in the same pond) had been preserved by the occupants of his ancestral home. Being Mrinal Sen, he could not see it as a moving individual experience. Its impact widened to include vast political issues: if only the Mahatma were here now, he exclaimed. He would know that Partition had not robbed simple folk of their essential values, their humanity. Sen searched for this humanity in every one of his films, and agonised over the forces that tried to destroy it.
Ekdin Pratidin shows a different side of his city when a young woman, the sole breadwinner of the family, does not return home until dawn. We are not told why she was absent through the night. Sen had decided to turn the pointing finger at himself, his own selfish, conniving, conformist patriarchal community. The film had the bhadralok up in arms. Asked by irate viewers "Where did she go?", Sen replied blandly that he did not know, they had to suffer not knowing, thereby provoking Ray to write to a friend that never before had a filmmaker shown "such ignorance about characters authored by him".
Such barbs were part of the Ray-Sen bond. They circled each other like wary lions, snapping and roaring at intervals, but knowing that they belonged to the same fraternity. They longed for the approving nod from each other. Sen gave it unreservedly for Ray's Aparajito, calling it a rare masterpiece for being so localised in its village mother-son relationship, but universal in emotional appeal. However, when you reported to Sen that Ray was visibly happy to note how "Mrinal Sen came up to me after the screening of Agantuk and said it was wonderful," the younger filmmaker retorted, "I mentioned only the dialogue. Not the whole film."
Their polemics included a two-month exchange of letters in 1965 (Sen calls them bombs and missiles) in the columns of The Statesman over Sen's tragi-comic Akash Kusum, where a young man spins lies about his wealth to a girl. Sen's arguably best known, best-loved film Bhuvan Shome was dismissed summarily by Ray for its conventional wish fulfilment theme, "Big Bad Bureaucrat Reformed by Rustic Belle".
The film had been acclaimed in India and abroad as a neo-fable of erotic motifs, a human comedy shot with pathos, and credited with launching the New Wave movement of the 1970s. Sen described it in his inimitable way: "In a desperate drive, we ran wild and made a film. De-emphasising plot and structure, we told a human story - within the framework of a simple story line. All done on location, made with a throwaway budget."
The same approach characterised Sen in most of his projects. He remained unpredictable, trying to delink cinema from well-made plot and well-defined structure. Many found the influences of the humanistic Italian neo-realist mode and the more intellectual stylistics of the French New Wave on his perspective an uneasy blend. But failure and criticism could not make Sen abandon experimentation. He was most alive when he took the boldest risks. He refuses to be anything less than an auteur, lovable for his dauntless spirit. Had he not outlined his credo, "By taking chances you achieve or perish, playing safe you just survive?"
The making of Bhuvan Shome is a typical example of the Sen method of filmmaking. His famous hit-or-miss improvisations struck pure gold here. Outlined in three hours when an insistent friend virtually locked him up with an old typewriter, and funded by the Film Finance Corporation, low-budget Bhuvan Shome had a boring, obnoxious, self-righteous, about-to-retire martinet bureaucrat (Utpal Dutt) taking leave for a brief duck-shooting holiday on the sand dunes on a remote rural outpost. Meeting an unsophisticated village girl (Suhasini Mulay) brings drastic anagnorisis. He realises what he has missed in life, but cannot transform his identity.
With Dutt and Mulay living their roles, Sen mirrors a real-surreal world, sweet and sour, fleeting, poignant. Stumped over the finale, the director created magic with a memory of his own, long-ago personal experience. During his short stint as a medical representative, young Mrinal once found himself at a lonely, boulders-strewn spot in Jhansi's Hindi belt, shouting in Bengali, "I am an exile here!" Back in the hotel room he stripped himself and stood before the mirror, babbled to the image, broke into sobs. Sharing this experience with Utpal Dutt was to make the actor take off brilliantly on the image, a vignette of inspired insanity.
A journalist-turned filmmaker, Sen has often talked of his disastrous debut in Raat Bhore, made just when Ray's Pather Panchali astonished the world. He recovered somewhat from the humiliation with Neel Akasher Neechey juxtaposing the anti-colonialism with anti-fascism. The film was banned briefly owing to a goof-up over its period and field of reference. His first memorable film, Baishey Shravan, followed, pointing to the later Akaler Sandhane. Both deal with famine, a nightmare reality in Bengal. Akaler Sandhane had a huge cast of professionals, and villagers playing themselves. It was the kind of situation to stimulate the director to use the script as a mere guideline, and to shape the result at the editing table. The compassion you see goes above the techniques of its film-within-film sequences. Did it reflect the director's disturbance when he heard a villager exclaim on the arrival of the crew on the rural location, chosen to depict the 1943 drought - "They have come from the city looking for famine. But we are the famine".
Khandahar develops the theme of exploitation. Mother and daughter living on the edge of poverty in the ruins of a mansion are deceived by urban male visitors, all the more callously for their twinges of conscience. Here Sen avoids the direct approach, allowing fragile wisps to tangle, ready to snap at close scrutiny, but looming like a beam-lit web.
Although Sen swore to avoid turning his features into documentaries, his party ideologies are often blatantly reflected in his work. But when he rose above the slogans as he movingly did, what you saw was his empathy with the deprived and the marginalised. That empathy had made him espouse the party he thought came closest to working for their betterment. He did not shirk critiquing the government when it faltered, or became self-complacent, either. Unswerving in his allegiance to the Communist Party since his early link with the Indian People's Theatre Association, he was able to share his profound distress with this writer when the Soviet Union splintered. "I am confused, CONFUSED!" he reiterated, like a fan watching his adored hero toppling from the pedestal.Khandahar.
Although violence was foreign to him, rebellion was part of his nature, inheritance, environment. In his youth, did he not have Subhas Chandra Bose as the houseguest, to treat his toothache in the middle of preparing a speech for the All-Bengal Conference?
Politics was so ingrained in him that his first gift to Gita, a fine actor whom he was to marry after seven years of courtship, was Notes from the Gallows by Julius Fuchik, a Czechoslovakian communist who was tortured and executed by the Gestapo at the age of 40. He carried a manifesto to a later rendezvous in the middle of a lonely bridge, cooled by the breezes and the ripples. And then "I clasped her hand for the first time and drew her closer. Instantly A Case for Communism slipped from my hand and dropped into the darkness below."
The Sens' home on Beltala Road remains unostentatious. An international celebrity for decades now, counting among his friends across the world men of commitment such as Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Gunter Grass, Mrinalda can be childlike. Concerned about global issues, he can still take pleasure in simple matters. When I visited him 10 years ago, he broke off in mid-interview to call his wife and say, "Would you have guessed that this young woman has a college-going daughter? Give her another sandesh."
He loves to talk endlessly, and is delighted to be told that he is more handsome than ever. At the Locarno International Film Festival where his last film Amaar Bhuvan (2002) was shown, he did not walk, but strode across the aisle to interact with the audience, engaging them in banter and serious discussion. Even today you can see that his zeal for ideals has not diminished despite many upsets, nor has his zest for life. Looking at Mrinalda is to feel that he would know just what the forgotten poet Leigh Hunt meant when he wrote:Jenny kissed me when we met,Jumping from the chair she sat in;Time, you thief, who love to getSweets into your list, put that in:...Say I'm growing old, but add,Jenny kissed me.