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Lounge Tribute | Mrinal Sen: The interlocutor of societal maladies

Sen had an intriguing pas de deux with Raythey spoke to one another in letters to a newspaper and the films they made

Director Mrinal Sen at the Venice Film Festival in 1981.
Director Mrinal Sen at the Venice Film Festival in 1981.

Mrinal Sen was easily among India’s earliest radical film-makers in an overt, political sense. But he had the misfortune of making films at the same time as the auteur Satyajit Ray did. His other great misfortune was that his first film—Raat Bhorey (1955)—was a mushy, sentimental film that sank without a trace even as Ray picked up accolades over his truly path-breaking debut, Pather Panchali, in the same year. Ray would follow its success—Pather Panchali was given a special prize as “the best human document" at the Cannes Film Festival in 1956—with Aparajito (which Sen would later call Ray’s greatest film) and Apur Sansar, firmly establishing his reputation as one of modern cinema’s greats. Sen had to work longer and harder; he began to flower only in the mid-1960s.

Calcutta, as the city was then known, was at the cusp of discontent. Bengalis were frustrated and disenchanted with the political status quo, and the ferment would erupt in Naxalbari in May 1967, at the tea estates in North Bengal. Students would disrupt classes and people would march on the streets. Strikes became the norm, as trade unions demanded higher wages and better work conditions. The Congress party would lose power to the United Front in 1967.

The angry youth of Calcutta were drawing inspiration from the revolutionary East. Left-leaning students read Mao’s Little Red Book and the streets of Calcutta were smeared with slogans in red, saying “Vietnam Lal Salaam". It is in that context, in 1965, that Sen made a brilliant film, Akash Kusum, about a young man who wanted to succeed in life and painted a fantasy world of who he was, to woo the woman he loved, even though he was a man of modest means. His close friend, whose life he claimed to personify, cautioned him, saying hubris lay ahead, but the man believed in the myth he had built around himself, with tragic consequences. Soumitra Chatterjee, a Ray regular, acted in the film with Aparna Sen, another Ray discovery. Yet another Ray regular, Bansi Chandragupta, was its art director.

The film had exceptional black and white camerawork and used freeze-frames and jump-cuts, borrowing unabashedly from the French new wave, chronicling a doomed romantic comedy.

A year earlier, Ray had made Charulata, perhaps his most elegant film, based on Rabindranath Tagore’s novella, Nashtanirh (The Broken Nest), set in 19th century Bengal. Before that, he had made Mahanagar (1963), also regarded as a classic, which showed the changing dynamic of domestic politics when the woman steps out to earn when it becomes a necessity. After a mildly critical review of Akash Kusum appeared in The Statesman, its scriptwriter Ashish Burman defended the film, prompting Ray to intervene, leading to weeks of correspondence the newspaper carried between Ray and Sen, turning its pages into the print equivalent of a refined Bengali adda. Ray dismissed the claim that Akash Kusum was topical, by arguing that its theme—of a poor man enchanted with status symbols—was hardly new. Sen responded, saying he wasn’t making any claims; he had made a film, and that was that. But Ray wasn’t convinced—disavowing the restraint he was known for, he said, “a crow-film is a crow-film is a crow-film," probably alluding to Gertrude Stein’s famous description of cubism as “a rose is a rose is a rose", which a character from Ernest Hemingway’s For Whom The Bell Tolls would later pithily paraphrase as “a rose is a rose is an onion".) The correspondence offered a masterclass of the expansive reach of the Bengali intellectual milieu of the time, as Sen and Ray refer to Aesop’s fables, Gorky’s and Cervantes’ fiction, Oscar Wilde’s wit, Henrik Ibsen’s plays, and, of course, Shakespeare.

A still from Sen’s ‘Ek Din Pratidin’ (1979).

What riled Ray was Barman’s insistence that Akash Kusum was topical. At a time when Bengal was in flames, some radicals complained that Ray himself was receding into the past, making films like Charulata—a fine period piece of little contemporary relevance. Ray therefore wrote: “If Akash Kusum has any contemporaneity, it is on the surface—in its modish narrative devices and in some lively details of the city-life. But where is the topicality of the theme and where is it in the attitude of its makers?" Ray probably thought his own feminist take, Mahanagar, deserved better recognition.

Sen defended the topicality, and the sleight-of-hand, saying Charlie Chaplin did the same, hiding his poverty as a tramp by wearing a hat and a moustache. But Ray argued that the film wasn’t really angry, despite its claims, as it did not present “a confrontation of Have or Have Not (which might have made a social point, however hackneyed), but an indignant father concerned about his only daughter’s future ticking off a suitor who has turned out to be an impostor. Hardly a topical predicament, one would have thought."

Ray then said Sen had misunderstood Chaplin: “The tramp knows only too well that he is not fooling anybody for any length of time with his derby and his moustache: The only person he ever tried to fool was a blind flower girl who found him out the moment she found her eyesight. The tramp, in fact, is not Aesop’s foolish crow at all, but a wise crow who has learnt Aesop’s lesson and yet wears the peacock’s tail as a constant reminder of the inherent absurdity of status symbols."

Sen defended himself: “About Chaplin and his tramp—who are two separate personalities—I do not wish to be inventive like Mr. Ray and shall only quote the film maker himself. ‘This fellow,’ Chaplin says, ‘is many sided, a tramp, a gentleman, a poet, a dreamer, a lonely fellow, always hopeful of romance and adventure ... trying to meet the world bravely to put up a bluff, and he knows that too.’ And he is always ‘buffeted by life’—a fabulous consequence indeed!"

The Statesman halted the correspondence by September, and since then, the two largely maintained reticence towards one another, even being polite, and only rarely speaking of each other in public, although a personal letter Ray wrote to a friend, which had mildly critical remarks of Sen, was leaked towards the end of Ray’s life, to which the dignified Sen did not respond, knowing how unwell Ray was. One public exception was when Sen made a film supported by the Film Finance Corp., Bhuvan Shome, in 1969. Ray didn’t think much of it, and in his book, Our Films, Their Films, he summarized it as “Big Bad Bureaucrat Reformed by Rustic Belle". Sen would later review Ray’s book, and good-humouredly write that he didn’t mind how people reacted to the film, but he would characterize it as “Big Bad Bureaucrat Chastised by a Charmer’s Cheek".

But a livelier and cinematically more important conversation between their approaches continued. For instance, in the context of how poverty suppressed middle-class aspirations in urban India. In his Calcutta Trilogy—Interview (1971), Calcutta 71 (1972), and Padatik (1973)—Sen showed the gradual radicalization of the youth unable to make material gains, even using techniques that seemed aesthetically crude. When Ray turned to the theme with Pratidwandi (1970), Seemabaddha (1971), and Jana Aranya (1975), he relied on contemporary fiction (Pratidwandi was based on a Sunil Gangopadhyaya novel; Seemabaddha and Jana Aranya were based on novels by Mani Shankar Mukherjee, who wrote as Shankar). Sen’s trilogy cried out for political commitment of the kind street-fighting students of the city displayed; Ray’s trilogy chose to withdraw in the middle-class ennui, aware of its inadequacy and incapability to bring about any meaningful change. (I had once asked Gangopadhyaya what would Siddhartha, the protagonist of Pratidwandi, do a decade after. “He would own a Maruti and be an executive in Citibank," Gangopadhyaya had said matter-of-factly.)

Try as they might to distinguish themselves, their work continued to run along parallel lines. Both were profoundly affected by the Bengal famine of 1943—Ray’s Ashani Sanket (1973) had a scene of a woman forced into sex for a bag of rice. Sen’s Akaler Sandhaney (1980) was a Truffaut-like film-within-a-film, about a film unit that goes to rural Bengal to re-enact the famine. During a crucial scene, a man accuses his wife of exchanging sex for a bag rice, which brings back harrowing memories among villagers watching the shooting, leading to an uproar and the unit being forced to pack up. Ray told the story direct; Sen added the filter of a film unit.

Another time their films “conversed" with one another was when Sen made Khandahar (1984), about a group of friends going to rural Bengal for a weekend outing. Ray had visited that theme in Aranyer Din Ratri in 1970. Both films began on a sunny note, turning progressively greyer.

Ray turned more political towards the end of his life (he died in 1992). Ganashatru (1990) was a fine exploration of what blind faith and religious fundamentalism could do to a temple town—presaging, with uncanny prescience, what Hindu nationalism would do to India, when unleashed with the destruction of the Babri Masjid two years later. Sen, on the other hand, revealed the helplessness and haplessness of the urban middle class, like the early Ray, where characters await outcomes they cannot control. For instance, in Ek Din Pratidin (1979) where a family awaits the daughter who is working and who hasn’t returned home all night, or in Ek Din Achanak (1989) where the family awaits the patriarch who has chosen to leave, never to return.

Ray was an auteur in every sense of the term, for whom the art ultimately had to prevail over political stands although he turned more political in the autumn of his career; Sen was a political activist at heart, for whom the camera and celluloid were tools to broadcast his message, but who turned to simpler narratives in his later films. Bengali, and indeed Indian cinema, was richer with their dialogue

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