Gopal Gandhi’s tribute to Mrinal Sen

Posted: June 12, 2015 in Mrinal Sen

A word in time

– Mrinal Sen is unique in his ability to apply the artistic reproach

A still from Neel Akasher Neechey

Mrinal Sen turned 92 a few days ago. Not that the birthday made much of a difference to him. The greatest film-maker in our midst today lives for fulfilments other than, beyond those, that anniversaries give.

What may such fulfilments be?

No one quite knows.

Mrinal da is inscrutable. What goes on inside that mane-covered dome of a head is a mystery. Is he a satisfied, fulfilled man? Is he a man with deep regrets or none at all? Few would venture an answer to such questions.

When he smiles, laughs, he does so in a way that wants to cancel the indulgence, erase it. He jokes, makes others laugh but in a manner that is spiked by a cocktail of emotions independent of the ostensible one. He finds in laughter a vein of pain, in pain a filament of fun. There is a layer beneath each layer of his conversation. Through my few conversations with him, I have learnt to respect the fact of those layers, without wanting to excavate them.

Like the story buried under the mounds of an archaeological site Mrinal da does not want the earth to be removed from his life’s holdings, the dust to be brushed from its interstices. He does not want labels to be tagged on its shards, with circa such and such written across them. He would rather be an undated riddle underneath Time, than a period ruin encased in glass. He would rather be a locked script than an opened text that has been cracked open to be thumbed and dog-eared by shallow fingers wanting to interpret it.

The known is dead for being known, the unknown dead for being unknown. The part-known and part-unknown is rumour’s nourishment, speculation’s food. It is gossip’s ultimate dessert. No wonder rumours buzz around his name, busy bees claiming to know him, understand him better than others, for longer than others.

There is, therefore, a self-protecting inwardness to Mrinal da. He has reasons to be inward and his inwardness has become its own perfect vindication.

I have heard conversations go like this one: “He is close to the Left but he does not quite belong to them.”

“Communists do not think of him as one of them either.”

“How can they… He can set out for a Left michhil but on hearing an anti-Left roar on the way, he can turn in the opposite direction that very instant and join the anti-Left rally.”

That is unfair, vicious.

Artists have to go by instincts, not ideologies. What does it matter if Mrinal da is or is not close to the Left or amenable to the Right or located at that bloated midriff which calls itself the Centre?

What is important is that there is in him a sense of what is done, what is not done and what is just not done. And this is neither to the Left, Right nor anywhere between those poles. And that sense is to be found in his cinema and in whatever else he does and says.

Like Tagore’s Kabuliwala, Mahadevi Verma’s Hindi novella, Chinibhai, is about what today would be called an expat. It is about ‘the other’ or ‘the outsider’ in our midst. Mrinal da‘s film, Neel Akasher Neechey (1959), is based on Mahadevi’s gripping story. The original is based in Allahabad, the film is situated in Calcutta. What a story, what a film! Mrinal- damakes China come alive in India in a manner that even the imaginative Mahadevi could not have envisioned. For one, it is full of typical Mrinal Sen unexpectednesses. For instance, one would have ordinarily expected a film on a Chinese vendor of silk to have title-scripts which are written to resemble Chinese characters. Like on the menu card of a Chinese restaurant. But no, Mrinalda would not do something so predictable. The title, the credits, in the film have just a little touch of the Chinese script. The touch is so gentle, that you might even miss it. But then as you read one credit line after the other, you know that you are actually entering through the hints of the Chinese script, the very world of expatriate China, from within Calcutta.

What makes the film so memorable, so very Mrinal Sen, is the sense in it of what is simply not done. And that comes from the use of a word, just one sound, that belongs to no language. That word is an exclamation. What is that sound?

The Chinaman (Kali Bannerjee) and the woman (Manju Dey), who could be called the heroine in the film, are bound by an enigmatic mutual empathy. When, in the film, the barrister husband (Bikash Roy) comes into his drawing room and sees the Chinaman sitting there, reaction after reaction follows and in what is obviously an act of possessive jealousy and class hubris, he asks the vendor to leave. The wife, who had asked the Chinaman to come in, sees her husband throw her guest out. She does not contest the husband’s right to do so. But, looking icily at her husband after the Chinaman has been ejected from the drawing room, she says one word or intones one sound – chhi. That single sound says it all.

The same chhi is used by Mrinal-da in Akaler Sandhane (1980) also. That film gives us Dhritiman Chatterjee at his restrained best, Smita Patil at her intensest. Is Akaler a gentle riposte to Rays’s Ashani Sanket? Is Mrinalda telling us through the story of the abortive filming of the 1943 famine in Akaler that famines and the famished – Ashani Sanket’s theme – should not be fair game for films? The father in Akaler says to the would-be director in the story that his daughter “will not play the role you have in your mind”. Dhritiman tells him that he and others like him who have been beneficiaries of the famine should not now act so uppity. And he says, simply, chhi.

That small word has been invested by Mrinal da with layer after layer as only he can give it. He knows that it suggests what is not done, simply not done. There are so many ways in which chhi can be vocalized, for so many things. You can say chhi, chhi, in revulsion, you can say chhichhichhi in disapproval. But the way Mrinalda gets them to say it is, simply, Mrinal- da. And it is excoriating.

Is chhi slang? If it is, it is Sanskrit slang.

Vaman Shivram Apte’s classic Sanskrit to English Dictionary (MLBD, 2000 reprint) has, complete with the visarga, the following entry – Chhih: f. Abuse, reproach.

In times when the ability to say chhi in the context of political and social discourse has been almost lost, Mrinalda’s use of the artistic reproach is priceless.

I cannot recall if in his Mrigayaa (1976) Mrinalda deploys chhi at all. But the whole film is a rebuke to the socio-political system that exploits rural societies, tribal communities. Today, when farmers’ and tribal’s rights are under severe strain at the hands of the techno-commercial and mining lobby, the Tribal Status Report crafted with great care is receiving zero attention from the Union government and the Land Acquisition Act is being stripped of its compensatory provisions, the chhi implied in Mrigayaa is vital.

The accident of time-lines has placed him in Satyajit Ray’s rain-shadow.

Saratchandra to Ray’s Rabindranath, Vilayat Khan to Ray’s Ravi Shankar and Somnath Hore to Ray’s Ramkinkar, Mrinal Sen is the unquestioned monarch of cinema’s power to rebuke. He, more than anyone else, has had and has used the aesthetic integrity to say to all those, urban intellectuals included, who exploit and immiserate the vulnerable – “Chhiiii!”


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