Last year Dev Anand’s Guide that was screened in the ‘Classic’ section got a standing ovation. There was a repeat performance 12 months later as a restored print of Mrinal Sen’s Khandhar winged its way to the Cannes Film Festival for a re-run yesterday.
The feisty 87-year-old iconic filmmaker who tore to shreds political apathy and middle-class morality on screen, is no stranger to the French Riviera. He’s been felicitated at the annual fest, served as a jury member and even been conferred the prestigious Commandeur de l’ordre des Arts et letters by the French government.
He’s no stranger to me either. I’ve grown up on his Calcutta triology and his Ek Din… series. I got to know Mithunda (Mithun Chakraborty) through his Mrigaya and was haunted by the eyes of the young servant boy long after Kharij ended.
And my first lesson in loneliness and lost love came from Khandhar. So when he completed a half-century run in films, I approached him, with some amount of apprehension, for an interview.
‘A book sparked off my interest in films’
After weeks of persuasion, he finally agreed to answer “some questions on the phone”. But his hectic schedule left him with little time for a marathon talkathon.
So, he finally suggested that I mail him the questions. The answers arrived a week later, along with a grumbling note that he had never answered so many questions in his life. However, he grudgingly admitted, to my delight, that the queries had sparked off his interest because “you’ve obviously seen my films”.
I had but I had not known that the medical representative had stumbled into this world of fantasy and reality thanks to Rudolf Arnheim’s book on cinema and aesthetics, Film. He was fascinated by what I read and over the next four months, raided the National Library, then known as the Imperial Library, for more such books.
‘My first film was a disaster’
“After having read several of them, I believed I was adequately educated in the medium,” he flashbacked, and then admitted with rare candour, “I realised just how mistaken I was when I made my first film. Raat Bhor was a disaster and having made such a lousy film, I reckoned I had humiliated myself big time.”
But he didn’t move away. He continued with the process of learning, egged on by the words of celebrated physicist, Niels Bohr, “Confidence comes from not being always right but from not fearing to be wrong.”
‘Gautam Ghose took me to the house’
Khandhar was one his later works. It came in 1984 by when he was far more accomplished in his craft. The derelict mansion that is almost like one of the characters in the film, had long fascinated me. I learnt in the course of the interview, that it belonged to another filmmaker Gautam Ghose’s in-laws.
“It was just eight kilometres from Shantiniketan and as soon as I saw it, I knew this was it,” I was informed long-distance. Mrinalda remembered walking through the many looming pillars and down an unending corridor, braving the broken walls and the decaying arches that threatened to collapse at any minute.
That was a path Naseeruddin Shah aka Subhash followed in the film too with his camera. I was reminded of a scene where after coming out in the open, miraculously unhurt, Subhash shouts, “Time, the hand of time! Time, the destroyer!”
‘Nothing you see is the last word’
Kaal, Mahakaal… Philosophy from a student of physics? But then Mrinal Sen is no ordinary director. For over 50 fearless years, he has made anti-establishment films with government grants, roped in commercial Hindi stars for offbeat Bengali cinema, dabbled in tongues alien to him and resolutely refused to follow any rules.
And for him nothing is perfect or The End. He says, “Every time I look at one of my films, I wish I had treated the shoot as a “dress rehearsal” so that I could make it again, correcting my own conclusion. Nothing you see is the last word.”