Mrinal Sen was at a hotel in Tokyo as a jury member of a film festival. He received a phone call and the baritone on the other side introduced himself as Gregory Peck, who was also a jury member. The Hollywood icon insisted on having a discussion with the celebrated Indian film-maker on cinema.
It was a healthy and interesting discussion between the director and the actor in which the former insisted on the art of writing a story. As he explained the minute details of story-writing, Peck listened carefully. After Sen ended his version, the latter conveyed his views on the same, making it a conversation worth remembering for ages.
Sen has never shied away from expressing his viewpoint and ideology strongly. He’s received praise as well as criticism for his bent of mind, but he’s always been upfront about his views. This is a major reason why he is often referred to as a maverick or even a rebel. And rebellion against moribund capitalism and autocracy has been the highlight of a majority of his films. He’s never drifted away from leftist ideologies and he still believes in them as a genuine socialist with a reflexive attitude does.
The grave social concern posthumous to partition in Neel Akasher Neeche, the protest against feudalism in Bhuvan Shome, the turbulent, restless Kolkata of the early-70s in Calcutta 71, have proved his mastery over the medium of cinema. No other film-maker dared to depict on celluloid the cruel pangs of hunger and tragedy during the famine as Sen did in Akaler Sandhane. It was a unique experiment of a film within a film.
In his six decades as a director, Sen has justified his passion for rebelling with a cause through his films. He, along with Satyajit Ray and Ritwik Ghatak, brought international fame to Indian cinema which is yet to be equalled. He has the honesty of confessing that his first few films were no masterpieces and his maiden directorial venture Raat Bhor is simply forgettable.
The last time one witnessed Sen actively working behind the camera was in Amar Bhuban a decade ago. It wasn’t a memorable film when compared to his classics of the 70s and 80s. Since then he hasn’t taken to direction and doesn’t have any desire to direct meaningless films. The angry young director of Indian cinema turns 90 today.
As believed by a section that Sen is too much in love with his own creations, he, in reality, is diametrically opposite. Sen is always full of praise for Ray’s Apu Trilogy, literally wept with joy after seeing Tapan Sinha’s Khaneker Atithi and personally congratulated Rajen Tarafdar for Ganga and Palanka. He also bestowed high praise on Shyam Benegal for his earlier works.
There is an interesting anecdote about his difference of opinion as well as respect for no less a film-maker than Sir Alan Parker. In the Tokyo International Film Festival in the early 90s, Sen saw and objected to the lack of political content in a brilliant English film from Kenya.The film projected a humanitarian relationship between an English master and a young Kenyan boy whom he brought up as the latter was residing with him.
Sen openly pointed out that there was no mention of the Mau Mau anti-imperialist movement of north Africa in the film as the backdrop of the movement was Kenya. Sir Parker initially protested to this severely, but Sen stuck to his decision and other jury members supported him.
Birds of a feather flock together. The politically conscious director of classics like Midnight Express, Mississippi Burning and Come See The Paradise ultimately saw reason and agreed with Sen. The versatile Sen today reminisces about Sir Parker as a director with true grit.
Ranjan Das Gupta is a Kolkata-based corporate communications consultant and freelance journalist.
The views expressed by the author are personal