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An auteur, a gentleman

By January 4, 2019No Comments

Source : The Hindu    –    S.Shiva Kumar


It’s very important for the viewer to cultivate himself to be able to understand the film, Mrinal Sen used to say. The legendary director who passed away last week emphatically held that he did not go by the concept of a ‘film for the masses’

Madras, in the eighties was the Mecca for cinematic activities be it the sprawling studios or the processing labs. If stars like Raj Kumar, NT Rama Rao and Prem Nazir lived there for convenience as well as to ward off their legion of fans, the city also boasted the best cinematic obstetricians who helped deliver the dreams of directors of the calibre of Satyajit Ray and Mrinal Sen. Hotel Palmgrove, conveniently located, reasonably priced and boasting the best idlis in town was preferred by visitors. If you sat in the lobby you could bump into a range of celebrities from ‘Kokila’ Mohan who literally lived there to Somayajulu and Mrinal Sen. Mrinalda’s preferred lab was Gemini which was right next door. He was popular among the hotel service staff not because they’d watched his films or tipped them heavily but treated them with empathy and chatted with them like a childhood chum. They knew he was a famous director though. “They say he’s more popular abroad,” said a waiter, which was true. I was visiting Mohan when a waiter I knew mentioned that Mrinalda was staying with them.

I knocked on his room door that was ajar and saw Mrinalda tapping away at his typewriter. He offered me tea and engaged in small talk but I sensed trepidation as he postponed my request for an interview. It was on my third visit that he asked me if I’d watched any of his films. Blaming lack of opportunities I confessed I’d watched only ‘Ek Din Prati Din’ and found it intriguing. I beamed when he said he sensed a passion for cinema and it was my persuasiveness that made him relent. His demeanour was disarming as he lit a cigarette, sat cross legged and asked me to shoot. Before I could start he put his hand on my shoulder, smoke curling onto my face and asked, “What do you think of Kamalahasan?” I told him. “I love that boy’s acting. I’ve watched ‘Aval Appadithan’ and ‘Kokila’ and feel he performed remarkably. Commercial cinema will not affect his talent.” I did mention this to Kamal later. Mrinalda answered a range of questions candidly. “I want to share my views with my spectators. I show the reality around me. This is what I convey through my films. Nobody need agree but it is enough if I can raise a debate. I want to feel the atmosphere in which social, political and moral issues can be discussed freely, frankly and intelligently. That’s precisely why I make a film,” said an emphatic Mrinalda.

His films did not point fingers or offer simplistic solutions but made us ask ourselves tough questions. I asked him how he rated Satyajit Ray. “He’s the person who set the ball rolling. Cinema had not achieved much till he made the great ‘Pather Panchali’. It was fantastic. I’m enormously impressed by his body of work and have also been critical of some of his work,” he said. I knew he liked the interview when he gave me his address ’14, Beltola Road’ and asked me to post a copy.

The interview appeared unedited in a Mumbai tabloid and a couple of weeks later my friend Manivannan, the director who later turned character actor, waved a Tamil weekly in my face with a sheepish grin. He’d got the interview translated and published. I told him we should have taken permission but he smirked and said, “They can sue me but this interview deserves wider readership.” Manivannan was keen on meeting Mrinalda, so the next time he visited, I forwarded the request. Mrinalda invited me to watch the ‘first copy’ of ‘Kharij’ which is a rare privilege, like being in the labour room to watch the birth of a creative baby. As I was leaving his room Mithun Chakravorty, his protégé who was shooting nearby, dropped in. I beamed when he told Mithun, “He looks like a kid but asks very interesting questions.”

One of my most cherished memories in my journalistic journey is Mrinalda sitting between me and Manivannan to watch ‘Kharij’ in a bare empty auditorium in Gemini studios. Since the film had not been subtitled yet, he patiently translated every single line spoken. It helped that his films are more visual than verbose. The film was a searing take on the moral dilemma of a family after their under aged domestic help succumbs to carbon monoxide poisoning. Manivannan was touched by the great man’s humility as much as the film’s social sensibility. ‘Kharij’ went on to win the Jury Prize at Cannes.

“How do you manage to know every time I come here?” asked Mrinalda, when I visited him a couple of years later. I looked for a trace of annoyance but perceiving none told him. His favourite waiter was my informer. He laughed and unhesitatingly acceded to my request for another interview. His ‘Khandar’ had received mixed response from critics and he was in Madras to get the print of a film he’d made for Doordarshan processed. “I’ve developed a close relationship with the people here,” he said. I told him critics felt he’d mellowed and was not as vociferous as before. “I don’t agree. What you see in me now is an extension of what I was ten years ago. Now the anger is internalised. A superficial view of my films will make me appear mellowed. You may notice despair,” he said. “You may find me pessimistic on the surface but I’m now talking about inner strength, trying to dissect myself instead of going in for wishful thinking which most of the so-called political films indulge in. For instance, in ‘Kharij’, when the servant boy’s father returns from the crematorium to meet his employer one expects him to slap him. Instead you and I got the slap which perhaps we can’t swallow but had the man been slapped you would have felt happy and allowed the status quo to continue. My business is to make you suffer, feel bad about the whole thing and look at yourself. The slapping would have been wishful thinking much in the genre of Amitabh and Co.” I pointed out that the whole exercise of trying to stimulate people’s conscience seemed defeated since his films did not reach the masses. He sucked deeply at the cigarette, sighed and said, “I appeal to the sensitivity of people. I need educated audiences like a writer needs an educated reader. It’s very important for the viewer to cultivate himself to be able to understand the film. I do not go by the concept of a ‘film for the masses’. That’s dangerous. I would like a large number of people to watch my films but I have to be pragmatic. I explore situations in my films not exploit them.”

I lost touch with him over the years. His visits to Madras too were few and far between. Whenever I visited Hotel Palmgrove for a regular fix of their ‘idlis’, the staff remembered him fondly and never failed to mention that they’d not seen him spend as much time with others as he did with me. I hope he finds his favourite brand of cigarette wherever he is.


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