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Interview Bengali Hindi

Mrinal Sen was the critical insider; he wasn't attached even to his own work: Son Kunal

On Mrinal Sen's 94th birthday (14 May), Kunal Sen, son of the celebrated filmmaker and independent thinker, discusses his father's films, style, influences and ideology.

Mrinal Sen

Roushni Sarkar

Often dubbed the Maverick Maestro, Mrinal Sen is the sole surviving member of the celebrated troika of Bengali filmmakers — the others being Satyajit Ray and Ritwick Ghatak — who took the lead in ushering in the New Wave in Indian cinema with their radical approach to all aspects of filmmaking from choice of subjects and techniques to budgets and audiences.

It was the daring, realism and willingness to experiment of Sen, Ray and Ghatak that inspired an entire generation of filmmakers to make films in their own distinctive styles, without becoming hostage to considerations of commerce. Of the three, Sen was probably the most vocal about his political beliefs, both on screen and off it. He and Ray often had serious disagreements on matters of film and ideology, but the masters remained good friends despite these differences.

Last Sunday, Mrinal Sen turned 94. With the filmmaker no longer his articulate self on account of advancing age, we spoke to his son Kunal, technology development officer at the Encyclopaedia Britannica, about some of the aspects of his illustrious father's journey that won him international acclaim. Excerpts from the interview with Kunal Sen:

How was it growing up with a legend?

I had a very exciting childhood. Though it was a film-oriented environment in which I grew up, there were also extremely talented people of different aspirations, who always gathered at our place. So, more than just a typical film background, there was the culture of ‘adda’ [hangout] amidst which I grew up. During my early childhood days, my father was doing nothing as he was mostly struggling to get finance to get on with filmmaking.

How did Calcutta, with its middle-class lifestyle, turn out to be one of the most dominant themes in your father’s films?

My father came to Kolkata much before Partition, right after he completed his matriculation in Faridpur, now in Bangladesh. Therefore, unlike Ritwick Ghatak, he never had a strong sentimental connection with Partition; rather, he fell in love with Calcutta the moment he set foot in it. It was a love affair with the city from day one and he liked to associate himself with the intellectual scenario of Calcutta.

Kunal Sen

I always feel that Satyajit Ray was much more comfortable in a rural setting while my father liked the urban setting and was always keen on exploring it. If you ever notice an aerial view of the city in his films, you would see that he consciously avoided shooting trees, not because he did not like trees, but he was much more intent upon showing the concrete jungle.

Besides the primary association with the city, my father came from a lower middle-class family. He had a deep understanding of the middle-class urban lifestyle and was very comfortable portraying different aspects of it. He has also done films on village life, but, according to me, films such as Interview (1971), Calcutta 71 (1971) and Padatik (1973) are much more authentic. Later, as we moved out of the country, it was hard for us to take my father out of Kolkata for a longer stretch of time.

How did his association with IPTA [Indian People's Theatre Association] shape his journey of filmmaking?

His initial association with art and culture was through the leftist student movement, which culminated in the formation of IPTA. Most of his intellectual mentors, friends and sources of inspiration were involved with IPTA. His immediate friends Ritwik Ghatak, Tapas Sen, Salil Chowdhury, Hrishikesh Mukherjee — all were closely related to the association and were motivated to change the world through their medium of art.

My father never became an active member of the Communist Party as he did not conform to the idea of not being critical of a political party. Rather he was a critical insider. Eventually, IPTA crumbled and as a result many small groups were formed. In one such group of Uttarpara, outside Kolkata, my father met my mother.

Mrinal Sen: The filmmaker as ideologue

Mrinal Sen is one of the pioneering figures who introduced innovative techniques in the visual medium in India. Did he consciously adopt the techniques to justify his narratives? What kind of films inspired him?

He developed an early dislike for native commercial films; hence, he started watching foreign films. In those days films from other countries were not widely available. The Calcutta Film Society was the sole option which made foreign films accessible. He was really impressed by all kinds of experimental techniques. He was a huge fan of Russian filmmaker Sergei M Eisenstein and of Charlie Chaplin. Later, he got inspired by French films, Italian New Wave movies and the innovative techniques applied in those movies. He was never apologetic about borrowing techniques from other directors.

In his early days of filmmaking it is quite apparent that he was looking for a language of his own. I believe he found that distinct language for the first time in Bhuvan Shome (1969).

Speaking from a very critical perspective, I would say that the most unique feature of my father’s filmmaking is that he never settled for any particular style. He would always be so dynamic and innovative through repeated deconstruction that he would like to touch upon his next film with a different approach from the previous one. I would say this is a very rare feature in him since normally an artiste sticks to one distinct formula, once it is developed.

My father would lose interest in a film within one year of its making and would often publicly criticize his own works, much to the chagrin of the producers. His psychological make-up was such that he got never attached to his works and could always move forward in a new direction.

What is your take on his very vocal political approach in some of his films?

It was a specific period during the 1970s when he was very politically and ideologically vocal and hence ventured into the Calcutta Trilogy — Interview, Calcutta 71, and Padatik. He is a very reactive person and he essentially believed that we are all political creatures.

During the 10 years around the 1970s, a lot of movements were taking place in different corners of the world. Therefore, films such as Ek Din Pratidin (1979), Akaler Sandhane (1980), and Kharij (1982), which he made during this time, were products of his natural reaction to the politically turbulent era. Once the era died off, around the 1980s, his films began to take a rather introspective approach. The films were not bereft of political aspects, but a conscious focus on self-criticism rather than intended propaganda can be distinguished in films such as Khandhar (1984) and Ek Din Achanak (1989).

Did he make conscious efforts towards the New Cinema movement or did it happen along the course of his journey?

I think the movement gradually started taking shape on its own. Bhuvan Shome was made with a new kind of government-based financing. The Film Finance Corporation at that time played a really important role in financing such endeavours. Apart from the funding, the entire production of the film mostly incorporated people who were never really exposed to filmmaking. The crew was formed with amateur cameramen, music directors and so on.

The era was ready to welcome experimentation and also there was enough financing. I think the time was just right and he happened to be the first person to take the initiative. The financial success of Bhuvan Shome also inspired directors such as Mani Kaul, Kumar Shahani and Shyam Benegal to carve a new path. Therefore, a host of many other filmmakers came forward and made the New Cinema movement happen.

In many of his films, we don’t see a definite ending. Did he have a lot of faith in the audience and, therefore, left it to them to interpret?

He demanded a lot from the audience. He consciously made films for a small audience at a very low cost rather than making them commercially viable. He strongly believed that in order to understand those kind of films, the audience has to be particularly trained. He hated the idea of spoon-feeding the audience; rather he expected them to be sophisticated enough to handle the open endings. Though some of his films carry very contemporary political contents, the language he used to portray the issues were not really meant to be comprehended by the masses.

What has been his take on the recent works in which we often see an intention to create intellectual content, but for some commercial reasons the films end up blurring lines. Hence, in the past few years there have been few films from India which have made a mark internationally.

I don’t think he has seen films in the last 10 years. I believe it would have been difficult for directors such as my father, Satyajit Ray and Ritwik Ghatak, who concentrated more on films that were made at a low cost and were physically rough, to work in the present intellectual and commercial environment, where the target is the multiplex audience and a large cost is involved in the production.

Also, I feel that the films that are being made today may exhibit technological perfection and intellectually satisfying content, but somehow these films fail to surprise the world audience and, therefore, there have been significantly few entries [from India] to international film festivals in recent times.

Is it really possible for filmmakers of this era to be politically vocal in their works?

I think it is still possible to take an individual political stand since there has been no such official regulation declared by the government. According to me, it is the multiplex culture and the expectation of the masses that limit the area of experimentation for filmmakers more than any restriction on political preferences.

Which is your favourite film made by your father?

Khandhar is my favourite. The human drama in the film appeals to me the most. Kharij and Akaler Sandhane would be my next two picks.

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