In memoriam: Mrinal Sen showed us that to understand the present or future, it is essential to know the past

Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay

Dec 31, 2018 14:31:18 IST

The early 1980s it was. In my early 20s, sure that I would not make a career pursuing Russian language and literature but unsure of what path to follow, I and a fellow JNUite, who since went on to become an accomplished academician, had taken a cigarette-cum-tea break. A Mrinal Sen Retrospective was on in the capital's Mavlankar Hall in the Constitution Club complex as part of the International Film Festival of India (IFFI). We were discussing the film just seen and debating its treatment by the director when I heard a stentorian voice that seemed somewhat familiar. Both of us turned and thereafter looked at one another - there he stood, shawl draped casually over a slender frame, the thick, quadrangular, black spectacle-frame and a swirl of smoke rising over him as he exhaled the Charminar's white fumes.

It is difficult to recall how we summoned the courage to approach him and introduce ourselves. We asked a question or two on the films we had seen and he showed extreme patience while replying. Midway through, the first bell rang for the next show making us fidgety. Seeing our predicament, he asked why we did not continue the conversation next morning. "Our chat can be at government expense," he said with a sardonic smile. I have been put up at the Imperial Hotel and we can meet tomorrow morning, if you so wish."

In memoriam: Mrinal Sen showed us that to understand the present or future, it is essential to know the past

Mrinal Sen. All images from Twitter

How could such an offer be turned down? The next morning, lugging my tape-recorder, we were off on a DTC bus. He saw the machine and asked what we would do with the recording. Neither had an answer. It was several days later while sitting with a friend working in Link, the leftish weekly magazine from the stable of the now-dead Patriot newspaper, that I mentioned our conversation. He asked if we intended to do anything with the interview and when I replied in the negative, asked to give it to him, typed of course.

The university library had a couple of rickety machines for students and I laboured over it for two days, after transcribing by hand in the hostel room. When the interview was published, it looked good and suddenly, the idea of seeing one's name in print caught the imagination.

Besides speaking on his films, Mrinal Sen was extremely curious about us — "I am compelled to know the story of every person I meet, if I have the time of course." When he heard I was a Probashi, born a Bengali but brought up outside the state, he emphatically advised. "You can leave your roots, but the roots will never. So get to know them better."

Sen counselled that arming myself with three episodes in Bengal's history will help understand the political and cultural 'fault lines', and be better aware of my psychic core. These were: Bengal partition (the unsuccessful attempt in 1905 and then the final one in 1947), Bengal famine, and turbulent Bengal of the late 1960s and early 1970s.

That night, I was reminded of tales my father narrated of his childhood in a starving small town where I was later born. I also recalled hearing hushed conversations, which made little sense to the young boy I was then, of a missing cousin when we visited relatives during vacations in the early 1970s. Fortunately, JNU (Jawaharlal Nehru University) then encouraged students to know more than what their formal course ordained. Since then, on innumerable occasions I spoke how Mrinalda, as he said we should call him, guided me to know 'my', and through it 'our', history better. The amateur historian in me would not have been had it not been for him.

Years later, I secured his telephone number from fellow journalist, SNM Abdi, whose wife Sreela Majumdar, had acted in several of Sen's films. Despite failing health and fading memory, Sen exhibited the patience of yore and expressed happiness that someone had heeded his advice on picking up slices of history. His delight was evident on learning that I was hosting a TV discussion programme on anniversaries of historical events and had got in touch as I was doing an episode on how Bhuvan Shome, made in 1969, formally triggered the beginning of the Parallel Cinema or New Indian Cinema or even Indian New Wave. He appreciated the effort to get him to join the discussion on phone but expressed inability for health reasons.

Mrinal Sen

Mrinal Sen

In our conversation-turned-interview, Sen explained that despite making several abstract and non-narrative films, in the conventional sense, he never underplayed the importance of a story. But he often loved leaving awkward gaps in the narratives. He took great pleasure in recounting an interaction at a presser after the release of Ek Din Pratidin. A feminist critic asked where Chinu, the middle-class family's bread-winning daughter, essayed by Mamata Shankar, had spent the night. The character's failure to return home after work immediately triggered worries regarding the family's economic future and raised fears of a moral scandal even as concern over her safety took the back seat. The critic argued that Sen, by keeping it vague where Chinu spent the night, had indulged in 'intellectual voyeurism'.

"I don't know where she went, never gave it a thought. The film attacks those who ask this question, for they too are guided by middle-class morality. Chinu for such people, including her family, was just a bread-winner not entitled to take her decisions," Sen had replied.

Many of Sen's films had slices of narratives with no beginning or conclusion. Antareen was one such. At another IFFI shortly after the film's release, he interacted with the media, when the issue of what statement he wished to make, cropped up. He had none, he said. It was just a story between two disjointed and unsure individuals who engage with one another in hope of securing input from a strange quarter on untangling knots of life. The gaps that the script left for the viewer are of precisely those varieties with which Sen troubled his viewers in a career more than three and half decades.

Sen liked stories, big and small and through them, made statements. But, he was not always compelled to make one. It depended on the occasion, like his Calcutta trilogy and Chorus, possibly the most political of all films on the period.

This article too is a story on the man who showed that to understand the present and get a sense of the future, it is essential to know the past. It will be another three days before Sen becomes history completely. His mortals remain in a mortuary, awaiting the return of his only child, a son, from Chicago. Till then, he remains in an awkward gap of the realms.

Updated Date: Dec 31, 2018 14:31:18 IST

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