Mrinal Sen, The Last Keeper Of El Dorado

It was in 1992, 23rd April to be precise, Kunal Sen, son of celebrated filmmaker Mrinal Sen, called his mother, Geeta, to mourn the death of the legendary Satyajit Ray. I remember that night, I was busy making pages of the now-defunct Sunday Observer. I called Kunal, who narrated an interesting story about middle class relationships and Bengalis, and why he always felt his father was influenced by the two and called Calcutta (then not Kolkata) his El Dorado. 

Sen, 92, died at his home in Kolkata, triggering a flood of memories among filmmakers and actors

He said during the shooting of Interview, Sen pushed a bright young jobseeker, Ranjit Mallick, to walk into an interview wearing a dhoti and kurta because the dry cleaners in Calcutta were on a strike. That was considered a negative point, those on the interview board laughed their guts out. And then, they were in for a shock when Mallick said he found the Vietnam War a bigger world event than Man landing on the Moon. I loved the ending, when Mallick bursts in anger and – as a mark of protest- smashes a mannequin dressed in a complete suit. Sen allowed Mallick to speak directly to the audience in angsty monologues, using newsreels and images of the Vietnam war. Sen was always ready to speak his heart out, ready to experiment.

A rebel at heart, Sen always loved the argumentative Bengali. During an informal discussion in the late 90s, Mrinal Sen once told me how he had loved the way Aveek Sarkar of Anandabazar Group replied to Rajiv Gandhi’s cryptic statement that Calcutta is a dead city. Sarkar had told the Far Eastern Economic Review: “I do not read Hindi, Calcutta is Paris.” For Sen, it was a very strong, definitive statement, it should have been made to silence those who didn’t know or care to understand Calcutta, its life and pains.

Sen, 92, died at his home in Kolkata, triggering a flood of memories among filmmakers and actors. The media loved to pit him against Ray and Sen hated the comparison because there was a basic difference in the way the two handled movies. Ray thought poverty was a burden on human lives, Sen called it a social menace triggered by class differences. He loved a dialogue from Manoj Kumar’s highly successful movie, Upkaar, where Kumar, an educated farmer, told a friend outside a big hotel which had both rich and beggars at its gate: Kuch logon ko pehenney key liiye kapreyy nahin, aur kuch log badan pey kapra rakhna nehin chahate (Some people do not get clothes to cover their bodies, some hate to keep clothes on their bodies).

Sen loved to address poverty, adding an unique socio-political context to his cinema. Old timers in Kolkata remember how Sen was once arrested when he – then barely eight years old – was participating in a protest march. He had walked out of a movie hall, having watched Charlie Chaplin’s Kid. Slowly, yet steadily, politics, poverty and movies stayed with him till he breathed his last. He never made some great statements about mankind, and left most of his movies relatively open-ended. He was clear that cinema was nothing but a reflection of life and the ending should not be smooth like a Bollywood love story. He wanted the knots of life to remain knotty. 

Sen was brilliant in Ek Din Pratidin which was released in 1979 about an office going woman reaching home late, triggering total panic in a chawl like house with everyone watching the late arrival from office. It was like some holding a mirror to typical Bengali middle class values and relationships. Sen’s Akaler Sandhane, which got released the following year was a great one in which a film crew lands up in a village to shoot the great famine of 1943, only to realise the famine continues to exist after four decades. 

I loved his Calcutta 71 that was ruthless, reflecting the tumult of the Naxalite movement that had gripped the city, trigger happy cops killing scores of brilliant students who had joined the movement to usher a radical change in the society. Sen did not play along the movement, he also questioned its relevance, especially around the time when the Naxalites killed government officials, jute mill managers and even traffic constables. For him, that was totally unnecessary and took the zing out of the movement.

For the last decade and half, Sen rarely ventured out to the television studios to talk about films, he would – however – care to talk to those who cared to visit his home, and discuss movies, and his favourite subject: The growing divide in India between the poor and the rich. Sen was crestfallen when his wife, and partner in many movies, Geeta Sen, died in 2017. He would rarely talk, probably he didn’t know death would come home without warning.

This story by Shantanu Gura Ray was first reported here

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