MRINAL SEN: ALWAYS BEING BORN
Mrinal Sen’s demise at 95 has drawn the curtains upon India’s New Wave filmmaking that had been fuelled by a departure from conformity and a rebellion towards intellectual emancipation. Now is an opportune moment to flip through the pages of perhaps his most unplanned script, Always Being Born, his own memoir. Excerpts:
"I am a filmmaker by accident and an author by compulsion," Mrinal Sen would often reflect. An agent provocateur, a part of the esteemed Ray-Sen-Ghatak triumvirate of the 1950s & 60s, the era of radical chic, his spark of rebelliousness remained ignited and he kept that fire of protest burning. His films triggered debates that defied the frontiers created and guarded by conservatives. Commercial disasters didn't deter his auteur of New Wave, as he created his own benchmark and persisted, ploughing his lonely furrow - ekla chalo. When asked by a young publisher to script his memoir, Sen had said with his usual literary brilliance, "Could you suffer me if I were to contradict myself in every third line?" – perhaps still not wholly embracing his dynamism that would live on for generations. Here are some excerpts from Always Being Born, Mrinal Sen's memoir, published by Stellar:
By accident, a maker of films, I am what I am. My city, mercilessly maligned and dangerously loved, in a way, is a state of my mind. Good or bad, yes or no, they know me as an iconoclast. Among them, some are of the opinion that I am always out to attack cherished beliefs and traditional institutions without any cause. Only to sound important and look likewise. I am not quite sure if, what they say, is true. If it is so, why then, only the other day, just a few years back, when they decided to rename my city, theirs too, I opposed? They say, it was a name given by the one-time colonial masters. I say, so what! I ask, is that how you want to fight the colonial legacy?
... My city, they say, was born in 1690. They say, he was one called Job Charnock, who began with a beginning. In the beginning, there were the heaven and the earth and also the stinking malarial swamp. True, one afternoon in August 1690, a big commotion was raised in the busy market at Sutanuti, now on the northern flank of the city. The people panicked and saw a fleet of foreign ships approaching the ghat. And, true, 'a huge white-skinned man,' in tight-fitting trousers and leather shoes, looking rather old, was found leading the fleet. As it came closer, he was immediately recognised as British, and certainly not a pirate. He came and settled at Sutanuti, always interacting with the local merchants and natives. He lived among them for two-and-a-half years and could not survive the hostile climate any longer. To complete the long story short, his wife too, pretty and young, and allegedly, an Indian, died four years later. She was buried in the same tomb where her husband was laid to rest. Soon after a memorial was built, still considered to be the oldest surviving monument in the city. All these are the well-researched compilation of our grand old man, Khushwant Singh, the untiring columnist and novelist of wide repute who, curiously enough, knows the art of multiplying enemies, even at his age. I remember releasing this book of Khushwant, Kalighat to Calcutta (which carried a foreword by me), in my city in January 1990, on the city's tercentenary celebration. But to me, all these are hardly any proof to evidence that the huge, white-skinned man, called Job Charnock, was the founder of a city with Sutanuti, Gobindapur and Kolikata forming into one single settlement.
...The knowledgeable people of my city still love to remember the unkind words that their colonial masters and their aides spoke from time to time about this problem city. They still remember because of the inconsequentiality of such texts. However, a highly controversial and, indeed, a multifaceted intellectual, Nirad C Chaudhuri, the author of the powerful book, The Autobiography of An Unknown Indian, and of a good many books of high repute, might have altogether contrary views. Anyway, to quote from the colonial masters:
*Lord Clive, the founder of the British India: "The most wicked place in the universe."
*Sir George Trevelyan: "The place is so bad by nature that human efforts could do little to make it worse."
*Rudyard Kipling: "The city of dreadful nights."
*Winston Churchill: "I shall always be glad to have seen it for the reason that it will be unnecessary for me ever to see it again."
And in 1975, a couple of months before Emergency, Günter Grass, who, much later, in 1999, got the Nobel Prize, and who once made a big noise with his mighty Tin Drum, and, indeed, my hot favourite too, came for the first time, stayed for a brief period, met a few people including a poor me. And such was the extent of his shocks that in his novel on the trip, The Flounder, his character Vasco not only misquoted me, he likened the city to God's excrements. Understandably, I had plenty of reasons to be angry.
To tell a blatant truth, I had initially no interest in cinema. And, true, I had encounters – once or twice, to start with, and I watched them 'wide-eyed' and 'open-mouthed', just for the wonder of the talking-pictures. Later, I accompanied my friends or family members and saw more than half a dozen films or more. I never counted the number, because, for reasons I never cared to analyse, the viewing impression did not last long. Even when I came to the big city, I failed to be an addict; I was not even a regular filmgoer. There, in the city, I had various other things to get involved in. One such involvement was reading. Reading what? What not? I say. Nothing in particular! All that I could catch hold of minus any particular direction, minus any specialisation — history, philosophy, sociology, politics, religion, literature, plays, poetry, art, et cetera. Reading a couple of essays by Karl Marx one week, and Friedrich Nietzsche's play, Thus Spake Zarathustra, the week following.
Which was why, perhaps, I barely had any academic discipline, or any direction, for that matter. All in the Imperial Library now called National Library. One day, by accident, I bumped into a book, yes, on cinema and its aesthetics – titled Film – written by one Rudolf Arnheim, a gem of a written text. Partly I understood, partly I was confused. In three-four months, I read the entire stock available in the Imperial Library on aesthetics and sociology of cinema. Having read it all, I felt I had been adequately educated. That was the time when I started haunting the city theatres, watching films of different genre, but feeling uncertain if the stuff was all worth viewing. Gradually, with exposure to world cinema through various channels, through foreign consulates, and, later, through Calcutta Film Society, I became a whole-time activist. Then I turned my hand to writing on aesthetics of cinema, on its philosophy, its social relevance and the need to evolve a new language. New Cinema!
I went into hiding until I made my second film – Neel Akasher Nichey (Under the Blue Sky) – which, in spite of my reservations on several counts, was received generally with a certain grace. Even Nehru liked the film and remembered it for quite some time. Most possibly, he liked the film for its content, which unequivocally espoused that our struggle against colonial rule was inseparably linked with democratic world's fight against fascism. More so, because the story and its setting dated back to the mid-'30s, when militaristic Japan attacked China. The singer-producer, Hemanta Mukherjee, was immensely happy as the audience gave its verdict. They liked the film very much.
Funnily enough, since the government files, particularly in this part of the world, move at a snail's pace, the concerned officials of the Information & Broadcasting Ministry suddenly sat up three-long-years later, after a fairly successful run of the film, played havoc with the files, made them move from one ministry to the other and straightaway banned Neel Akasher Nichey. This was around the time when, following the growing tension over the border issues of two neighbouring countries – India and China – in the late '50s, the conflict turned violent in late 1962. Fortunately, the skirmish did not last long, and the thawing in relations started soon after. The ban was most probably imposed precisely at this point of time, with shelling at the border and the process of thawing in Delhi and Beijing. But the officials lost no time rushing into the situation with amazing zest and got totally confused about the years of fascist aggression in the mid-'30s – which were the years depicted in the film – and the border conflict and the eventual thawing in 1963.
It, however, did not take long to take up this ridiculous issue on the floor of the Indian parliament. Hiren Mukherjee, the Communist MP, made an appropriate speech in the presence of Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and Defence Minister VK Krishna Menon. They also got terribly annoyed with the official order and the ban was withdrawn immediately. It lasted only three months, perhaps the shortest ban like my father's disbarment in the early '30s. He was not allowed to practice for six months as punishment for protesting against Gandhi's arrest. My father appealed and the case was fought in Calcutta High Court, and Sarat Chandra Bose, the elder brother of Subhas Chandra Bose, defended him. When the case came to High Court, it was immediately withdrawn, just three months later.
We came to a sequence. Bhuvan Shome, the tough bureaucrat back to his own world! We did not quite understand how to get to grips with the scene. Back to his own world, he would be an unhappy figure of ridicule, not a figure of fun. It was not as simple as I just said. Not much to explain but feel. I looked at Utpal Dutt. I went up to him. I took him aside. Then recalling my own past when I was a medical representative, I told him that funny story of mine at Jhansi hotel in 1951, how I shut myself inside the hotel room, how I stood before the mirror, stripped myself, made faces, shouted madly, and how finally I broke down, cried with convulsive sobs, and three days later I resigned.
(Courtesy: Jyoti Sabharwal, Publisher, Stellar. Excerpted with permission from Always Being Born, published by Stellar)