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Mrinal Sen In His Own Words

So, on that August afternoon in 2004, with my Dictaphone tucked into my handbag, I had set out to meet a man whose films had left an imprint on the consciousness of a couple of generations of Bengali speaking people and whose craft had found admirers across the world


Mrinal Sen completed his memoirs in May 2004, 14 years before he breathed his last at his Kolkata home on December 30. As Jyoti Sabharwal, who was then Editorial Director of Stellar Publications, says in the Editor’s Notes to Always Being Born, getting the much-laurelled filmmaker to write about himself had proved no mean task. The endeavor begun at the Calcutta Book Fair of 2001 and culminated in 308-page monologue three years later, just about a year after Amar Bhuvan ‒ Mrinal Sen’s last film was released.

The year before he had been awarded the Indian government’s most prestigious award for films, the Dadasaheb Phalke Award. The Commandeur de’ l’orde des Arts et letters (Commander of the Order of Arts and Letters) of the French government and Order of Friendship of the Russian government had come earlier. Peer acknowledgment had come from far and near even earlier. Mrinal Sen had been President of the International Federation of Film Societies, member of the Jury at various international film festivals including those at Cannes, Venice, Tehran, Mannheim, Nyon, Chicago, Tunis and Oberhausen among others. Sen had by then also been a nominated member of the Rajya Sabha. 

Mrinal Sen had turned 81 that year, which could justify why the Epilogue of Always Being Born began with the words, “Finally, I come to my funeral chapter, not numbered. I come to my journey’s end, of course, within the framework of this book.” It could also explain why he had consented to write his memoirs at last.

He had by then not just directed 28 feature films but authored six books. His first book, a translation of a Czech short novel (Cheat) by Karel Capek, had been published in 1943, 16 years before Mrinal Sen directed his first film, Neel Akasher Neechey (Beneath the Blue Sky). The Hindi feature film Bhuvan Shome, starring Utpal Dutta and Suhashini Mulay that unboxed the Mrinal Sen magic and mastery over what was then referred to as “new wave cinema” out of the cocoon of Tollygunge (West Bengal’s tinsel town) came six years after Sen used his pen again to pay his homage to his indubitable beacon, Charles Chaplin. Published in Bengali in 1961, Sen’s book is titled Charlie Chaplin

“At last she came to our tiny apartment ‒ Kiera Chaplin, accompanied by a local photographer,” Sen writes on the penultimate page of Always Being Born. “She was very much in the news in the local dailies, as the headlines informed that Chaplin’s granddaughter was in town. From what I gathered, she was here to act in a film, short or long, being made by some woman director, an Indian living in Los Angeles. I had received a request that she wanted to come and see me. She came and first looked at Charlie, the vagabond, pasted on the wall.

“She giggled and asked me, ‘For me?’

“I said, ‘For me and for anybody who comes here.’

“After a little pause, I said, ‘He is for the world and will remain so for ages, for eternity.’” 

Sen’s other books, Views on Cinema, Cinema Adhunikata (Bengali) and Montage, are obviously on cinema, a medium he said he had “accidentally stumbled upon at the Imperial Library” (now National Library) in Kolkata, when he found a copy of Rudolf Arnheim’s Film. And as the jacket of Always Being Born says so succinctly, he was the “last of the Mohicans … As part of the Ray-Sen-Ghatak triumvirate” of master craftsmanship.

 Even though that allusion has probably adhered to him all his life, Mrinal Sen was probably closer to Ritwik Ghatak in tradition, both having hailed from the Indian People’s Theatre Movement (IPTA). So, the films of both reek of a message, a hang-over no doubt of the IPTA tradition of street plays that told of the miseries of the famine and the people of the land in the early 1940s,  before Independence. Today, of course, the IPTA is acknowledged as a cultural wing of the Communist Party of India, a party Sen did not formally belong to, but whose label did get slung over his work a lot of the time.

As with Ritwick Ghatak, Sen’s cinema is often a mirror image of the times and not a warped magic mirror with allegorical stories either, but a stark image of well-researched subaltern history. Ghatak’s iconic film Meghe Dhaka Tara (Star Beyond The Clouds) was the story of a family struggling to survive post partition. Even though the camera tracked just one family, it upheld the plight of perhaps 15 million, uprooted from their homes and tossed hapless into strange surroundings. 

In writing of Baishey Shravana, Sen writes, “The ‘Famine of 1943’ came later in the film. Slowly but inexorably, it walked into the second part as it grew more ugly. Inside the house, all was quiet and oppressive. Till the end, it was the story of the two ‒ a bitter husband and a bitter wife ‒ both of whom, unable to endure the ruthless reality of the famine, hurled against each other in impotent fury and hatred.” 

So while the world accoladed the triumvirate for realism and craftsmanship, Sen’s cinema (Baishey Sravan, Calcutta 71, Interview et al) like Ritwick Ghatak’s films (Meghey Dhaka Tara, Komol Gandhar …) had little messages dangling in their tale, much like the moral in the fable. Komol Gandhar incidentally, is set around the IPTA movement. Both Calcutta 71 and Interview (where a young Ranjit Mullick playing the then ubiquitous ‘educated-unemployed’ youth of Bengal hops from interview to interview in search of a job) portray the bleak 1970s of high inflation and low expectations.

So, on that August afternoon in 2004, with my Dictaphone tucked into my handbag, I had set out to meet a man whose films had left an imprint on the consciousness of a couple of generations of Bengali speaking people and whose craft had found admirers across the world. I dare say, I may have been a little awe-struck by the gentleman with the trademark thick-rimmed spectacles I had seen a million times in photographs before, but if he did notice it, the maestro of cinematography certainly did not show it. 

In the course of the conversation, though most of which he had a laptop open in front of him, Sen spoke of the effort he had taken to adhere as closely to facts as possible. “My son kept telling me not to rely on memory, for memories play tricks,” he said over and over again. In his memoirs he writes, “Thus I had piles of raw material, coming to me from time to time in course of my writing, and I had to select rather judiciously. However, there was only one, my son, living in Chicago, who asked me not to blindly trust memory because ‘memories are reconstruction rather than being photographic.’ We were always in touch …”

When I returned to my office of the time, I noticed that even though Mrinal Sen’s memoirs had been written in the language of the Raj, he had signed the copy of Always Being Born I had carried with me, in Bengali  – a language his protagonists speak in most of his films and his books.

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