The maverick master

Posted: July 21, 2015 in Mrinal Sen

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November 15, 1983
Mrinal Sen: The maverick master
Mrinal Sen turns a new chapter, creating cinema that throbs with passionate details
Sumit Mitra July 16, 2013 | UPDATED 12:32 IST
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“Until somebody else comes along to change it,” prophesied film historian Penelope Houston 20 years ago, “Satyajit Ray’s Bengal will remain cinema’s India.” For Ray, the prediction was deservedly complimentary; for the 750 films a year Indian film industry – the world’s largest – it wasn’t.

Specially so because there was no dearth of Indian efforts to win the West. The ‘curry western’ certainly reached as far as the Gulf market, but was baulked at the doorway of Europe. Raj Kapoor of course continued to be rupee-traded to the Soviet Union, with Darjeeling tea and Assam jute. And as Shyam Benegal’s perceptive cinema briefly flickered in the western sky only to abruptly fall away, Houston’s prophecy seemed to sit there like a curse.

No longer. At 61, and turning a new chapter in 1979, 18 films after his nondescript debut with Rat Bhore (The night’s end) in 1979, Mrinal Sen today has edged past nearly all Indian film makers recognised abroad and respected at home. He is slowly inching forward to close the gap between him and the undisputed front-runner – Ray.

After a recent round of festival conquests in Europe – at Cannes and Berlin – Sen is clearly the second international film celebrity to emerge out of India’s vast and generally faceless film industry, after Ray blitzed his way through world cinema with Pather Panchali, made in 1955.

This year, Kliarij (The case is dismissed), his 1982 film, got the special jury award at Cannes, 27 years after Pather Panchali, the only other Indian film, got an equivalent award in the world’s most prestigious film festival. In 1980, the Berlin Silver Bear was awarded to him for Akaler Sandhaney (In search of famine): again a feat that only Ray had equalled, way back in the ’60s.

Commanding Respect: Back home, no one other than Sen has bagged the Golden Lotus, the top Indian honour, with more regularity – four times against Ray’s tally of five. Since 1965, not a year has passed with Sen’s entry receiving no award at the national film festival.

With the rider “other than Ray” added, no Indian film maker commands so much of respect among backers, critics, actors and actresses as Sen today does. Actress Shabana Azmi threw her dates, fixed months in advance, to four winds to work for his latest film, Khandhar. Movie Mogul G.P. Sippy coaxes him to make a film under his banner, with no strings attached.

Sen’s recent films have been shown in prime time slots in West Germany, France, Switzerland and Scandinavia. Retrospectives of his films have drawn record audiences at the Pompidou Centre in Paris. In London, his Ek Din Pratidin (And quiet rolls the day), the 1979 masterpiece, ran in Gate Theatre for over three months.

Cactus Films, the dynamic Zurich-based distributing firm, could cut a high profile in Europe’s highly competitive foreign film market purely on the strength of Sen’s repertoire. Writing in Sight and Sound, cine-buffs’ Bible the world over, observed Derek Malcolm, the London Guardian’s film critic: “He (Sen) is now regarded as one of the Third World’s most experienced radical film makers”

Sen, in his own words, is “uncertain, erratic, desperate”. His 23 films are as spiky and uneven as the cardiac graph of a heart patient. He has switched techniques dramatically all along, mixing freewheeling cinema verite style with strong narrative forms, punctuating story-telling with newsreel footage, interspersing pathos with comedy and generally making fun of everything including himself. Successes, naturally, alternated with failure and his maverick image tended to overshadow his identity as a master of the cinema.

However, with Ek Din Pratidin, Sen’s cinema acquired an altogether new austerity of style. With no adornments, no externalia, and a script as taut as a watch-spring, the film puts under microscope the reactions of a middle class family whose bread-earning unmarried daughter spent a night outside without informing home.

The film is Sen’s tour de force in capturing the nuances of middle class self-esteem, turning from anxiety to embarrassment and finally to helplessness. Though the film bombed at the box office in Calcutta, Cactus sold it to nearly every TV and parallel cinema network in Western Europe, besides arranging for its commercial release in London.

Sen: Gaining respect at home and abroad
From the relative obscurity of the Bengali cinema, two women acting in Ek Din Pratidin leapt into prominence: Gita Sen, the director’s 51-year-old actress wife who played the agonised mother; and Sreela Mazumdar, a dark and rather gawky beginner who gave an astounding performance as the absentee girl’s younger sister.

Triumphs: Disbelievers still took Sen for a one-trick pony, such being his reputation of unpredictability. But they rubbed their eyes in amazement as a torrent of successive triumphs unreeled from Sen’s repertoire. Akaler Sandhaney was about a film unit’s futile effort to reconstruct a 40-year-old famine honestly.

In this unique film on famine, acted superbly by both Gita and Sreela, the lead role was played by Smita Patil who hopped between film and life, illusion and reality, with incredible dexterity. And, at the film’s end. Sen distilled out the film’s essence: famines are not mere benchmarks in history but a continuous reality, and people are afraid to admit it.

Sen’s prodigiously fecund post-1979 phase was marked by Chalchitra, the sad and comic story of an aspiring journalist getting far too deeply involved in a news feature on the life around him; and Kharij, the nervy, tense story of a young couple trying to cover up guilt after the servant boy died of carbon monoxide poisoning while sleeping in the kitchen one winter night.

These films formed but a rousing overture to his crowning work, Khandhar (The ruin), made in Hindi was completed this year with Naseeruddin Shah. Shabana Azmi, Pankaj Kapoor, Gita and Sreela in the cast. Probably India’s official entry in the Berlin festival this year, Khandhar, according to many of those who attended its exclusive screenings in Calcutta, is destined to be the most talked-about film in recent times, apart from being a “sure award-grabber”.

Khandhar is set in a Chekhovian world of dark, cold nights, crumbling buildings, cobwebs of fantasy and hard, stony silence. Shah plays an agency photographer who, accompanied by two of his friends, arrive for a week-end in a remote Bihar village whose buildings indicate past affluence but are now battered and look bombed out.

However, their week-end is threatened by a little and sordid drama involving a mother-and-daughter duo in which they accidentally get mixed up. The photographer is curious about the daughter, played by Shabana Azmi, just as he is curious about the Gothic arches twisted out of shape by time, the peeling frescoes and the crumble of jagged stucco.

He tries to capture it through his lens before the troublesome week-end comes to its close. Back in his city office, with the pictures printed and laid out, the memory of the ruins blends with the noise of the traffic outside.

Azmi who in this film turns in one of the most memorable performances in her career as ‘the daughter, summed up the film when she said that in Khandhar Sen was “capturing moments of relationship” – between the mother (played by Gita Sen) and the daughter, between the two and the photographer, and between everyone and the ruins.

In etching the relations. Sen used images, sound and rhythm as delicately as a poet would use his metrical surprises, an odd turn of a phrase or a half-line. There are patches of total silence in the film, interrupted by a short grunt or a crackling of dry leaves; yet the film never seems to lack pace.

The camera of K.K.. Mahajan, who worked with Sen since 1967, relentlessly explores the space between characters, the longings, the half-gestures and the muted expressions of despair.

Khandhar is a film of atmosphere and is a surprising departure for Sen whose familiar milieu is the Calcutta middle class. It is the class he knows best, and of which he is a member himself, wearing its trade mark uniform, a drab white kurta-pyjama; sharing all its intellectual concerns; and even looking like its prototype with his thick glasses, his mop of unkempt hair, and the touch of snow at the temples.

Like a bumbling Bengali babu (and unlike Ray, who is sahib every inch) Sen has no rigid approach to film making. “Mrinal is like a mad spirit,” teasingly says Smita Patil, “and things happen with him to a point of disbelief.”

Amal Sarkar, Sen’s first assistant, says he was aghast to find, when he joined the unit in 1972, that “there was no file, no shooting script, no continuity sheet”. Other members fondly recall Sen searching his purse for the day’s shooting plan.

Actions are thought upon often while the camera is ready; words are often improvised at the set or on location. Says Patil: “It is very different from a Ray film where the director has got everything worked out for you.”

Yet, behind Sen’s rambling ways, there is a steelframe of discipline. Forever working on shoe-string budgets, Sen has today built up the reputation of never delaying the schedule and never upsetting the estimate. Khandhar, for example, was completed in just nine weeks, Akaler Sandhaney in ten, Kharij in eight, and Ek Din Pratidin in nine. “This is a unique feat,” says Dhiresh Chakravarty, producer of two Sen films, “because the script-to-can period for any good film maker in India ranges from one year to three years.”

Speed has made Sen prolific: in the 24 years since his moderately successful Neel Akasher Nichey (Under the blue sky), made in 1959, he has made as many as 22 films despite months of enforced inaction as financiers were hard to come by in the initial years when the money market regarded him as a “flop-master”. But, for him, the urge to make films was so overpowering that he often approached moneylenders who charged something as exorbitant as 4 per cent per month.

Born at Faridpur in Eastern Bengal (now Bangladesh), Sen has an unpedigreed and ordinary past: reading proofs in newspaper offices, living in a squalid pigeon-hole (which recurs in film after film by him); canvassing medicines; struggling and trying to find roots in a city that smelt of mystery and cruelty. He continued with his travelling job for years, weaving out of it in 1956 to make Rat Bhore, and returning to it after the film had crashed.

Individualist: He moved in the fringe of the Communist Party, though he was never a card-carrying member. He was close to the Indian People’s Theatre Academy (IPTA), but never participated in any of its productions.

At one level he was an organisation man: at another, a strict individualist. His main roots were in literature, mainly European, which he drank in like a thirsty foot-marcher across a desert.

He and Gita roughed it out in a tin-roof tenement house with one room to live in. Borrowing was a way of life. Recalls Tapas Sen, his friend and the best light-man of Indian stage: “There were times when both of us, while taking a walk down the streets of Ballygunj, would quickly switch lanes: either Mrinal had spotted his creditor or I had spotted mine.” The situation was close to Chaplinesque, and Chaplin was Sen’s first idol of cinema.

He took a long time breaking away from the general mould of Bengali cinema which was – and still is – heavy, humourless, sloppy, and downright hypocritical. Even after his first major success with Bhuvan Shome in 1969, which received the President’s gold medal and triggered a spate of low-budget movies, he was groping for a style, occasionally resorting to gimmicks and uncalled-for pontification.

(Clockwise from left) Vasudeva Rao in Oka Oorie Katha (1977), Gita Sen in Ek Din Pratidin (1979), Smita Patil in Akaler Sandhaney (1980) and Shabana Azmi in Khandhar: An ever growing list of successes
But his films never strayed very far away from his milieu: the middle class with its claustrophobic houses, amid plasters peeling off and furniture that is crude and cheap. Says Sen: “Cost cutting is a part of my art. You can’t expect a De Sica to make a film on a budget that’d suit De Mille.”

Today it is easier for Sen to work on relaxed budgets. The French TV wants him to do a film “on most liberal terms”, and he is looking for a subject. The offer from Sippy is still pending. Many successful film makers in Bombay admire Sen for his carefree style. Says Ramesh Sippy, the maker of Sholay: “The commercial cinema has a lot to learn from a film maker like Mrinal Sen: his economy, his sense of comedy.”

Marketing Support: Yet it is unlikely that Sen will ever be popular in the Indian context. He makes his films mostly in Bengali, and is thus cut off from the all-India market. True, he makes them at unbelievably low costs, but the distributors are still motivated by returns.

However, what has kept Sen going, apart from his grit and stamina, is purely the support from Cactus Films, a small outfit in Switzerland run by Eliane Stutterheim, a wizard in film marketing. Much of the credit for Sen’s current build-up in the West is due to Stutterheim who organised a series of his retrospectives in the European capitals, got his early films subtitled and reprinted and sought out channels for distribution.

Sen is now very much a part of the haut monde of international cinema. During the last two years, he has served as jury member in practically every major international festival – Venice, Cannes, Berlin. His friends josh him with the epithet: non-resident film maker.

“Given his burgeoning market in the West,” says Calcutta film critic Mriganka Shekhar Ray who had once worked as Sen’s assistant, “a lesser film maker would have been tempted to tailor his film according to the Western sensibilities. But Mrinal is too deeply rooted in his soil.”

He travels all the year round, often between a film’s shooting and editing, but the inspiration comes from the chaos and confusion of Calcutta. While scripting, his retreat is a room at the squalid MLA’s hostel, which he hires for Rs 8 a day. The attendants at the hostel regard him as “the mad babu” who pays two rupees to any of them if they would listen to his screenplay.

He makes up the lines and the situations not in any retreat by the Riviera but on the location itself. “I hear the lines,” he says, “only when the characters have put on make-up and costumes. I see a man’s stoop, or a girl’s pert, coquettish smile, and the line or the action flashes in my mind. The characters become like insatiable demons asking for a job, any job. The location turns me on; the colour of the sky gives me ideas; the faces tell me how they should be lit up for a close-up. You see, I can’t draw diagrams of shoulder movements on my script book.”

Smita Patil calls Sen a “spot genius”. But probably the mind-boggling variety of middle class life that uncoils itself from Sen’s films have their roots in the wanderings of a commercial traveller peddling his ware and constantly watching life from the closest possible quarter.

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