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This article was first published 5 years ago  » Movies » Mrinal Sen: 'I wish I could start from scratch'

Mrinal Sen: 'I wish I could start from scratch'

By Shoma A Chatterji
December 30, 2018 16:53 IST
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'How do you expect me to tone down my anger when the most prominent culture in India today is the culture of corruption, in every sphere of life?'
Mrinal Sen, who passed into the ages on December 30 in coversation with Shoma A Chatterji.

IMAGE: Mrinal Sen. Photograph: Kind courtesy

The 'accident,' as Mrinal Sen likes to call it, happened when he was in college.

A voracious reader, Sen would regularly frequent The Imperial Library, now called the National Library, in Calcutta.

He read everything from Marx to Nietzche, from Shakespeare to the Shahnama.

One day, as he relaxed with cards in the catalogue room, he chanced upon Rudolf Arnheim's historic book, Film.

He found the book riveting and even charismatic, leading him on to read everything and anything on cinema.

Along the same time, he wearied of the crop of Indian and American films he began to see.

The love for books on cinema which inspired in him the love for good cinema, juxtaposed against the real-life experience of watching films he did not quite care for, egged Mrinal Sen on to write on the subject, and then involve himself more directly by directing a film himself.

The film was called Raat Bhor (1956).


Few Indian film-makers can boast of not less than six to seven books written on him in two different languages. Mrinal Sen is one of them, while the other two are Satyajit Ray and Ritwik Ghatak

Interestingly, these three film-makers -- who are among the greatest India has ever produced -- have several things in common.

They come from the same backdrop (East Bengal), were born around the same time (the early 1920s), and had the same interests -- that of creating new spaces and worlds through the art, craft and language of cinema.

While Ray and Ghatak are no more, Sen lives on.

He was the lone survivor of the triumvirate of Bengali cinema, the three who, through their films, transcended boundaries of culture and geography and language, to place Indian cinema on the international map.

IMAGE: Mrinal Sen. Photograph: Kind courtesy

Sen picked awards left, right and centre.

They didn't matter to him anymore.

Most of his archival clippings, posters, press coverages and photographs are in France which bestowed on him the honour of Commander de L'orde des Arts et des Letters and also held a retrospective of his films, a rare honour for an Indian film-maker.

The USSR gave him the Soviet Land Nehru Award and he has won numerous awards at international film festivals like Cannes, Berlin, Moscow, Karlovy Vary, Chicago, Montreal and Carthage.

The Indian government awarded the Padma Bhushan in 1980 while the West Bengal government gave him the Satyajit Ray Memorial Award in 1994.

At the National Film Awards, his films won four Golden Lotuses over the years while he himself has bagged four Silver Lotuses as Best Director.

He represented India at the UNESCO Commission to celebrate the centenary of cinema and was the president of the International Federation of Film Societies.

He was nominated to the Rajya Sabha and grandly felicitated on his 75th birthday by the West Bengal government with a retrospective of his films and a seminar at Nandan, the city's premiere cultural complex.

The proceedings of the seminar were brought out in the form of yet another book on this film-maker and on his films.

Born in Faridpur district (now in Bangladesh), Sen was sent to Calcutta to do his graduation in 1940.

He reminisces, "As soon as I came to the big city, I was seized with a kind of fear. Confronted by a crowd, a huge crowd, I felt lost. I felt I was standing alone in the crowd -- an anonymous, self-absorbed, indifferent swarm of crowd, even menacing and monstrous. Loved by my parents and liked by my smalltown teachers, I was now suddenly reduced to anonymity, suffering acutely from a depressing sense of emptiness. Till things proved different, I remained an outsider."

Asked to comment on his films in retrospect, Sen says, "I wish I could start from scratch. I have done good, bad and indifferent films."

"I wish I could erase it all and start afresh like the professor in Ek Din Achanak who walked out on his family on a rainy day and never came back."

"One of the characters in the film says, 'The saddest thing with life is that you live only one life'."

IMAGE: Mrinal Sen with his contemporary Satyajit Ray. Photograph: Kind courtesy

"However famous you are, you are aware of your mediocrity in certain aspects. When you realise that you face a crisis that is almost insurmountable."

"Though I have an enviable position in society as a maker of good, bad and indifferent films, I cannot escape this feeling of mediocrity within. Perhaps this happens because we are too immersed in our own selves," he sums up.

Where has all the anger gone that formed part of his persona and his films of the 1960s and 1970s?

"I have realised through my own life that, with age and experience, I grow more careful, if not wiser. They say I have toned down with age, but this is not true."

"How do you expect me to tone down my anger when the most prominent culture in India today is the culture of corruption, in every sphere of life?" he asks.

Sen himself has the answer.

"The time has changed. The wind has shifted," he says.

"It is no wonder then that the quality of anger you seem to be hinting at has also gone with the time and the wind."

"Gone are the desperate days when we thought that a kind of revolution was brewing on all fronts. Hence the militancy all around -- in me as well."

He analyses it well.

IMAGE: Mrinal Sen with Suchitra Mitra, singer and composer. Photograph: Kind courtesy

"Life is two steps forward and one step backward," says Sen, commenting on the militant movement of the 1960s and 1970s in West Bengal.

"We believed in certain things and then came the realisation that we had made a mistake.

But my anger did not evaporate. It was fermenting within, it is fermenting even now, even at my age."

Through each film that he directed, Sen always managed to disturb his audience and stir them into bouts of investigation.

He experimented with the non-narrative form of film-making through two films, Chorus and Calcutta 71.

But they left the audience cold.

Perhaps they were conditioned to his angst of anger unfolded through a story, or an incident, or a character, such as Ek Din Achanak (based on a novel), Ekdin Pratidin (based on an incident) and Bhuvan Shome (based on two characters), even Khandhar (based on a setting) which often mixed and blended to produce a different, cohesive whole, as seen in Antareen.

He goes on. "I wish the audience and the critics would not sit on judgement on my films by their exterior look alone. True, I no longer shout these days."

"But anger, if not in its elemental form, is there, coupled with an inner strength -- all hidden behind the surface despair," he says.

Which, however, has been repeatedly belied in his last films, from Genesis through Maha Prithibi to Antareen.

Over the years, consciously or not-so-consciously, Sen acquired the physical manifestations of the public image of an intellectual often splashed across the media.

Much like M F Husain's beard, Sen sported his sideburns and always wore spotlessly white churidar kurtas even at home.

His spectacles were angular and black, making one wonder if he ever changed them since his Mrigaya days.

But they are a poor apology for those bright bright eyes that now seem to have whitish edges round the pupils.

He wears ordinary chappals for footwear and, thanks to a serious gall bladder operation a few years ago which took him to the edge of death, Sen replaced his chain-smoking with the ultimate insignia of the intellectual, the pipe.

"I am fortunate to have been able to pass through the turbulent phases of Indian and world history, the second Great World War, the Partition of India, Independence, Mahatma Gandhi's assassination, the forming of the Indian Republic, the evolution and growth of the Nehru clan... and technically too, the evolution of sound and light technology, much more than an average man with an average lifespan can dream of experiencing," he states.

Some of these events, he adds, "threw me asunder while some others put me back to better shape. There was no wall around me."

"I enjoyed ideal freedom which helped me to take flights into fantasy. I began to dream."

"I really believe that in the present consumerist culture, people have stopped dreaming."

"They no longer have the kind of dreams we had."

Sen believes that "anything that breathes is life," admitting that he is a part of living history.

"But I must also say that I am not a part of history. I do not always care for history because I live in the instant present, at times, quite conveniently."

"I am a part of history because I have lived long. That is all."

He confesses quite openly that though he does not dislike the idea of seniority, he hates to be treated as if he were an ancient man.

He hates to talk about Raat Bhor (1956), his first film, because "it was a big disaster. Having made it I not only felt terrible, I felt humiliated."

His second film was Neel Akasher Nichey (Under the Blue Sky).

Though it did have a certain amount of popular appeal because of an international backdrop and lovely music, with songs rendered by Hemant Kumar, Sen himself feels "it was much less than good. It was over sentimental, technically poor and visually unsatisfying."

"ut one thing about the film I still find relevant is its political thesis: The struggle for national independence is inseparably linked to the liberal world's crusade against fascism and imperialism. That is perhaps why Nehru and others liked the film."

He says, "Someone once asked me whether my films are autobiographical.

"Physically, they may not bear any semblance of my life."

"But the very experience of filmmaking is an exploration and an extension of my intellectual and my emotional self."

"In Kharij for instance, no servant actually died in our house. But the film was a strong comment I made on the society I belong to and therefore, on myself."

"It is a part of me, a part of my wife, Geeta, a part of the reality where middle-class urban families treat their servants in ways they don't even realise are inhuman and cruel."

"Till before Ekdin Pratidin, I was fighting the enemy outside, through my films."

"I was pointing a finger at the enemy around us. But from Ekdin Pratidin, I began a journey of soul-searching. The process of fighting the enemy within began from there."

This feature was first published on on March 4, 2000.

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Shoma A Chatterji