Throughout his career, Mrinal Sen has always revelled in counterpoints. When films were in danger of being reduced to a monolith of escapism, Sen, with a deft touch, provided a memorable counterpoint with Mrigaya. His films drew happily from existentialism and neo-realism with an open-ended approach to cinema. As an author though, he does not hold his punches. In a masterly tribute to Charlie Chaplin, Sen not only traces the journey of the ultimate tramp from the slums to stratospheric heights but also infuses the account with a personal touch. It all begins with the name of the book.
The word ‘my’ denotes a level of endearment, a level of communion not easy to attain for lesser mortals. Over the next 160-odd pages, Sen goes on to provide enough evidence why this account of Chaplin has the warmth of the personal and the perspective of a professional.
The best comes, rather unsurprisingly for those familiar with Sen’s craft, in the overview. He not only unravels the phenomenon that was Chaplin but also exposes the parallel world of the common man, the people who laugh, those who laugh and think, and Sen says, “people laugh and think and grow and judge”.
Meeting with Gandhi
Small, tiny anecdotes fill in the blanks as the author juxtaposes Chaplin’s story against the backdrop of the two World Wars, the Great Depression. And of course, his contemporaries, which included such formidable names as George Bernard Shaw, H.G Wells, Winston Churchill, and of course, the biggest of them all, Mahatma Gandhi who left an indelible imprint on Chaplin.
Following a meeting with Gandhi in London — the meeting itself was a result of Chaplin’s perseverance even if Gandhi had initially dismissed him as “only a buffoon” — Chaplin called him “a realistic, virile-minded visionary with a will of iron”. Chaplin, called the “world’s hero” whose art was “rooted in the life of the working people” was a man often in need of appreciation, even approval. For all his accomplishments, he had very human failings and misgivings.
At the premiere of “City Lights” in London, he was nervous how the likes of Shaw and others would react to his take on Hamlet. He had no reason to be nervous, as it turned out. At the end of the show, Shaw exclaimed, “Long before Mr Chaplin became famous, and had got no further than throwing bricks or having them thrown at him, I was struck with his haunting, tragic expression, remarkably like Henry Irving’s.” Such moments shaped Chaplin and as Sen delightfully notes, “That was how he gained millions of admirers, although, to use his words, ‘I made a few enemies in America — that is all’.” Sen’s penchant for ironies burns bright, right through the book.
Talking of Chaplin’s birth in a slum somewhere in the south of London, he cheekily points out that Chaplin shared his birth year (1889) with that of Hitler! Chaplin’s early years were, inscrutably, hard and tragic. His mother was often ill or in asylum for treatment, his father squandered money on his drinks, and died early. Chaplin sang in parks and streets. Another matter, with the passage of time, he would take the street to the screen, and drench the world in tears even as they laughed along with him. Gaga and jigs, slapsticks and satire... all went on merrily. Then “people laughed”, thought, grew and judged!
Sen uses a similarly beguiling approach to relate this very human tale. He even reserves space for those who differed. Among them was the great Satyajit Ray. Ray felt a silent Chaplin spoke a million words. Sen quotes him, “Today one can actually question whether the introduction of words into films was not in fact an introduction of an impurity undermining the direct visual impact of the medium... When Chaplin eats his shoes in The Gold Rush, he performs an act which is not only funny but is also rich with overtones of symbolic meaning conveyed by purely visual means.” Sen, respectfully yet elaborately, disagrees with Ray and goes on to talk of a venture like Battleship Potemkin to tell us that sound indeed conveys a million emotions. All this is done with a degree of scholarship befitting a man regarded among the greatest Indian filmmakers.
Sen leads the reader by the hand, almost like a grandpa walking the little ones down memory lane. At times, his wit is trenchant, leaving many a bruise. At the end, this book, to borrow a line from the story of Hetty, is “sad, sweet” with “rapidly recurring memories”. Times for a rewind, folks!
(Ziya Us Salam is a feature writer with The Hindu in New Delhi)