Sometime in the mid-80s, Mahesh Bhatt commented that he found Mrinal Sen’s films extremely boring. Sen retorted, “If I had not proved boring to Mahesh Bhatt, I would have doubted my own credibility.”
Known for his candid opinions about filmmakers, politics and cinema, his remarks however, were never caustic. Sen, born 14 May, 1923 in Faridpur in today’s Bangladesh, was not given to camouflage his feelings; but his comments never hurt anyone; rather they provoked discussions and debates like his films which were intensely political that turned a critical gaze on the prevailing social reality – as opposed to mainstream cinema.
In one of his interviews he had declared that he wanted to pull down Satyajit Ray from the pedestal that he occupied, but there was no rancour in his statement; rather a youthful rebellion against a filmmaker who was only two years elder than him. Ray in his turn observed that he found his films overtly political and alternated in his criticism and appreciation of Sen’s films. He disliked his Akash Kusum (Up in The Clouds, 1965) so much that he remarked ‘Akash Kusum is a crow’s film is a crow’s film is a crow’s film’. The Statesman, the popular English daily that came out in Calcutta carried out a debate between the two filmmakers on the film over several weeks, in which Ray made the famous comment – till it was called off by its editor. Despite such a spat, they shared a healthy rivalry that enriched Bengali cinema and were often seen together sharing a camaraderie over tea and cigarettes.
Sen was a man full of contradictions. He considered himself a ‘private Marxist’ as opposed to ‘party Marxist’; he carried his ideology on his sleeves and always railed against the Congress government; but he did not hesitate to take the help of the newly formed Film Finance Corporation to make his first Hindi film – Bhuvan Shome (1969) that kick-started the Indian Parallel Cinema movement. He had no qualms accepting the National Award for a record 18 times, including the Dadasaheb Phalke Award in 2005, and graced film-related functions that were sponsored by the government, mingling with young filmmakers and film enthusiasts, heaping praise on debutant efforts which many a times were simply mediocre.
He was a man who was given to addas. Whether as a jury member or recipient of awards in important international festivals, he was full of anecdotes and never let go of a chance to regale you. On his experience of meeting with the Colombian Nobel laureate for literature Gabriel Garcia Marquez, with whom he sat on the jury of an important film festival, he claimed to have extracted permission to shoot his novel One Hundred Years of Solitude on the condition that Marquez should never watch the film when it got made. And Marquez acquiesced! It is a different matter that the film never got made.
Starting his career with Raat Bhore (1955) that starred Uttam Kumar – a film that he disowned and hated so much that he wanted to go back to his medical representative profession – Sen went on to make 27 feature films in a career spanning five decades. Mithun Chakraborty owes his debut to Sen’s Hindi feature film Mrigaya (The Hunt, 1976)which fetched the young actor his first National Award, while Amitabh Bachchan, an unknown actor then, was paid Rs 300 for the voice-over narration in Bhuvan Shome (1969). Apart from Bengali and Hindi, he also made films in Odia (Matira Manisha, 1966) and Telugu (Oka Oori Katha, 1977).
His films showed a remarkable arc in their style and treatment over the decades. He was a man who was always experimenting with the cinematic form. In his famous Calcutta trilogy – Interview (1971), Calcutta 71 (1972) and Padatik (The Guerrilla Fighter, 1973) that captured the turbulent Calcutta of the 70s that was marked by political upheavals, the style that he adopted was a direct impact of the French New Wave with its ellipses, jump cuts and freeze frames that often violated the concept of the 4th wall and conventional story-telling. A lot of people and critics found his style inconsistent and gimmickry, but he was unapologetic, confounding the media with his trademark wisecracks.
By the time he came to the late 70s and 80s, he seemed to have found his footing with his controlled treatment that marked some of his greatest films that included Ak Din Pratidin (And Quiet Rolls the Dawn, 1979), Akaler Sandhane (In Search of Famine, 1980), Kharij (The Case is Closed, 1982), Khandhar (The Ruins, 1983) and Ek Din Achanak (Suddenly, One Day, 1989). The last film he made was in 2002 – Aamar Bhuvan (This, My Land) after a gap of more than 10 years. When this writer met him during the shooting of Aamar Bhuvan at a Kolkata studio – the only personal interaction I had with him – he kept the unit waiting while he narrated certain amusing incidents from his past, mixing up dates and countries. It was a sad feeling to see such a great filmmaker on the last leg of his creativity, but still retaining his wit and enthusiasm.
In all the polemical discourse surrounding Ray and Ritwik Ghatak, somehow Mrinal Sen got passed over and gradually forgotten over the decades. He remains more of a name today, hardly watched by the present generation of film enthusiasts, which is so unfortunate; but there was a time in the 70s and 80s when he occupied the cultural horizon like a generous force, encouraging young filmmakers and engaging in endless debates. If Ray was invested with an aura of unapproachability, Sen endeared himself to all and sundry with his unassuming personality and pocket full of anecdotes.
With his death in 2018 at the age of 95, the curtains came down on an era. Mrinal Sen, Satyajit Ray and Ritwik Ghatak formed the triumvirate that uplifted Bengali cinema from its routine commercial fare, and if there is one thing that marked him apart, it was his perennial youthfulness and gregariousness till the end.
Ranjan Das is a Mumbai based filmmaker & faculty.