On the legendary filmmaker’s centenary, an excerpt from his memoir Always Being Born which talks about his relationship with Calcutta.
“I am a filmmaker by accident and an author by compulsion,” claimed Mrinal Sen, part of the triumvirate of Bengali cinema—along with Satyajit Ray and Ritwik Ghatak—who founded the Indian New Wave. The fire of protest born of his acute political awareness and left-wing orientation burns bright in his movies. His memoir is informed by the same sensibility: while being matter of fact in the realist style, it is engaging in its honesty.
In this excerpt, Sen talks of his return to Calcutta and filmmaking after a brief hiatus working as a medical representative. The timeframe is the glory days of the 1960s when intellectuals like Sen, Salil Chowhury, Ritwik Ghatak, Tapas Sen, and Hrishikesh Mukherjee would have prolonged addas in Paradise Café in south Calcutta’s Bhawanipore area, discussing film, literature, music and life. A strain that runs through the memoir is his intimate relationship with Calcutta—a city which gave him his images and inspirations.
Once again, back to my big city! Once again, to Paradise Café! Once again, to our marathon addas!
Following Baishey Shravana in 1960, I seized my courage in both hands and continued to make films one after another. But in one case I was compelled to make a rather weak compromise—I tried to go commercial with Abasheshe (And at last) (1963), a stupid comedy on divorce. It was sad and very foolish of me; in an unguarded moment, I surrendered to the silly dictates of my producers. It happened only once—never again. I went back to being on my guard again. I did face controversies. I confronted them all, I fought, I survived and, realizing that I needed to expand my area of operations, also corrected my own conclusions. That, after all, is a positive sign of growth.
In 1965, a big controversy was raised over Akash Kusum (Up in the clouds), where the protagonist, a modern young man with a less-than-modest lifestyle, wanted to cross the wealth barrier in a desperate bid to change his life. He put up an innocent bluff before a young girl he happened to meet. Frequent meetings thereafter forced him to pile up the bluffs. His friend, well placed in life, cautioned him about his actions, but he turned a deaf ear. Then the inevitable happened—he reached a dead end. Finally, the young man emerged wiser but not without paying heavily for his bluffs. I presumed it would be great fun watching the film, but I framed it in a manner that caused it to end in despair.
This is how the controversy began. A review appeared in the city’s leading daily, the Statesman. It was not very positive but not entirely negative either. Ashish Burman, author of the story on which the film was based, wrote a sharp rejoinder. Then Ray called me and said he was going to write a short piece without hurting me. And that set the ball rolling. In his inimitable style, Ray made a sarcastic comment about the author of the story and was obliquely critical about the film too. Though a long-time friend of Ray, Burman hit back. And I too joined the fray. It all began as a sort of wordplay, one dropping names, one dropping a bombshell, another dropping three or four, even launching a missile or two. The battle continued for about two months. By the end of it, there were about a hundred people writing! Ashish, Ray and I were crossing swords; the others were commenting, for or against. All in the columns of ‘Letters to the Editor’, all in the Statesman! Four or five or six in a column, sometimes five or six more in an additional column. It was a wordy battle, but not signifying very much. Finally, it was nobody’s gain and nobody’s loss.
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The edited version of the controversy involving only Ashis, Ray and I featured in a book titled Les visiteurs de Cannes (The visitors at Cannes), published in 1992, for the 45th anniversary of the festival. It was a beautiful book about Cannes, about the filmmakers who were regulars, written primarily by themselves—by Kurosawa, Fellini, Antonioni and plenty of others—their thoughts, their sketches, their diaries, their sentiments. A very lovely publication!
Around the same time, or even earlier, from 1960, my Paradise Caféfriends had been growing steadily, going from strength to strength.
Ritwik Ghatak—the tallest, the thinnest and the most daring of us all—was always on the eternal quest for a greater truth. He used to say, ‘I look for a language which will talk less, which will mostly suggest, which will not be loaded with “references” and which will lead me to archetypal images.’ People loved his films, and had their problems too. As did I.
Tapas Sen grew into a lighting wizard, experimenting with light and shade, ‘dividing the light from darkness’, playing with umbra and penumbra, with diverse shades in-between and with inducing particular moods through each variant. He was very much in demand, by all the theatre groups especially, whether big or small.
Salil Chowdhury got an opportunity and was already one of the finest composers in Indian cinema, combining Western styles with Eastern. A stupendous leap from the folk variety was his forte. As a lyricist of different moods, he was unparalleled.
Hrishikesh Mukherjee, the single earning member in our group at one point of time, migrated to Bombay and very effectively struck a balance between art and commerce, earning the Bombay film industry’s love and respect.
And despite a struggling career at the beginning—just like the rest of us—Bansi Chandragupta, born and bred in Kashmir, migrated to my city out of love and then became one of the most creative art designers in Indian cinema.
I remember, during one of my trips to the United States, possibly in 1975, at a lecture theatre in Chicago where one of my films was to be screened and I was to deliver a lecture, I met an Indian man who said, admiringly, ‘I am proud of you and your friends at Paradise Café.’ Who was the man? I wondered. Then he told me, quite proudly, that during our days at Paradise Café, he had been one of its employees, serving tea to the customers.
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‘What do you do now?’ I asked.
He replied as if he had committed a crime: ‘I am now teaching English at a private college in Chicago.’
It was now my turn to say how proud I was of him, a teacher of English but once a tea boy in a backstreet of my city.
Excerpted with permission from Always Being Born: A Memoir by Mrinal Sen, published by Seagull Books in May 2023.