In an uncompromising quest

In an uncompromising quest

Mrinal sen: sixty years in search of cinema
Dipankar Mukhopadhyay
HarperCollins, 2009,
pp 316, Rs 399

It has been seven years since Mrinal Sen made a film. His last film, Amaar Bhuvan (This, My Land) was in 2002. Since then, the ageing maestro has been lying low, presumably not able to undertake the physical rigor that filmmaking demands of a director. Sen, along with Satyajit Ray and Ritwick Ghatak, forms the trinity of great Bengali filmmakers that took Indian cinema to great heights. Both Ray and Ghatak are long gone, the latter’s cinematic genius recognised much after his death. Sen, quite literally, remains the last link to the golden period of Bengali cinema, which saw Bengal speak for India at international cinema platforms. If Ray was the master of the narrative in true Hollywoodean style, Ghatak was the enfant terrible, and Sen the maverick, who never compromised with his beliefs for the sake of aligning with market demands. Dipankar Mukhopadhyay’s book brings alive that very Sen, recreating his journey as a filmmaker whose convictions about how he saw cinema was unwavering come what may.

This is actually not a new book, but a revised version of the author’s earlier The Maverick Maestro that came out in 1995. But it still makes informative, and in parts fascinating, reading, particularly the portions that go into the details of the famous Sen-Ray squabbles over different visions of what they believed cinema should be. Sen had made a less-than-laudatory debut with Raatbhore (The Dawn) in 1955 after years of pursuing his dream to be a filmmaker even as he continued as a frustrated medical representative, but soon thereafter he found his touch, coming up first with Neel Akasher Nichey (Under the Blue Sky) in 1958, to get local recognition and Baishe Shravan (The Wedding Day) in 1960 that gave him international exposure. The book captures Sen’s life, from the time he was a little boy in Faridpur (now in Bangladesh) to his early struggles and then emergence as a great filmmaker.

The unrelenting principled vision, the struggles, the applause, the controversies — everything about his cinema is captured eloquently in this book, which with Mukhopadhyay’s insight as a government official who worked long years with departments that had to do with cinema, provides for a good study of the filmmaker’s career graph, particularly how he developed his various projects and went on to execute them. And then there are interesting nuggets — such as how he got inspired to develop the title character of his most successful film, Bhuvan Shome, a typical hardboiled bureaucrat, from a railway official of that name who accompanied him on a trip to the Moscow film festival in 1969.

But the most fascinating parts of the book are those that recreate in detail the infamous exchange of words, through letters in the media, Sen and Ray had, first after the latter strongly criticised Sen’s 1965 film Akash Kusum through a series of letters in The Statesman newspaper, and then in 1991, a “private letter” Ray had written to a “friend” criticising Sen, was leaked to an English daily, creating a major controversy. But then, it would be unfortunate if one reads the book just for this bit because it provides in great detail how Mrinal Sen became Mrinal Sen the great filmmaker. For any film enthusiast, this is what makes compulsive reading.