With his classic “Khandahar” being screened at Cannes this year, filmmaker Mrinal Sen stresses the need to preserve classic Indian films, especially as the retrospective of his films was cancelled last year due to non-availability of good prints.
With a special screening of his “Khandahar” at the classic section of Cannes last week, Mrinal Sen must be a happy man. The octogenarian director was in a relaxed mood the evening before he left for Cannes. Gills Jacob, President, Cannes Film Festival, has officially expressed his pleasure at the filmmaker being present at Cannes after a long gap.
Taking a break from sending e-mails, he smiled, “Last year, I really was depressed. The retrospective of my Calcutta Trilogy – “Calcutta71”, “Interview” and “Padatik” - at Cannes was cancelled due to the non-availability of good prints. And video projection of films is not permitted. I am very grateful to the Prime Minister for specially instructing the I&B Ministry to preserve and restore the prints of a large number of my earlier films.They were restored with digital and Dolby effects at the National Film Archives and Govind Nihalani personally supervised the restoration of ‘Khandahar’.”
Tea is a must at any meeting with the filmmaker whose glory rests lightly on his shoulders. Munching a biscuit he continued, “I don't rank my films as my best, second best ...But ‘Khandahar’ was different. It was an experiment with Premandra Mitra’s masterpiece, Telenapota Abhishkar. I wanted to try cinema of a different kind after the political films of the 1970s – ‘Ek Din Pratidin’, ‘Kharij’, ‘Aakaler Sandhane’ ...In ‘Khandahar’, I was exploring the idea of projecting an aspect of human relations, which is everlasting despite separation. It is creativity which connects this gap of separation and that is brought out by the black and white close-up of Shabana Azmi shot by Naseeruddin Shah in the climax. It would be wrong if I don't mention the international quality lighting effects created by Tapas Sen and K.K. Mahajan’s brilliant cinematography. Both are no more and not by my side to share this moment of glory.”
When asked why Indian films have not made it to the competitive section of Cannes for the last two decades, Mrinal Sen answered thoughtfully, “I really don't have an answer. I have not seen many Indian films of late. The only films that moved me to some extent recently are ‘Kaalbela’ and ‘The Japanese Wife’. There must be some big lacunae in the films and so they fail to connect with the intelligentsia. They do not attract the creative minds at the competitive section. After all, cinema is a medium beyond mere entertainment, which the majority of our film makers do not understand.”
He is known to admire European and Japanese cinema. So is he averse to Hollywood? Raising his eyebrows, he said, “This is an impertinent question. I have always admired the works of John Ford, the earlier Hitchcock, Sir David Lean and Billy Wilder. Films like ‘How Green Was My Valley’, ‘Rebecca’, ‘Dr. Zhivago’ and ‘Sunset Boulevard’ are very special. I do not support the dirty game played at the Oscars at times and I personally feel Hollywood should concentrate more on content than form. Even Francis Ford Coppola and Sir Richard Attenborough also think along the same lines.”
Mrinal Sen has worked with many actors from Bikash Ray, Kali Banerjee, Utpal Dutt to Mithun Chakraborty. He has also extracted splendid performances from Aparna Sen, Suhasini Mulay, Simi Garewal and Smita Patil.Why did he never work with Bengal's icon Uttam Kumar? Smiling, his answer came, “In my first film ‘Raat Bhor', Uttam Kumar did have a role. According to me, that film was not a great cinematic achievement. Later after Uttam Kumar became a star, he was keen to work with me and said so after watching ‘Interview’. ButI never had the right script for him. So I did not cast him. I do not believe in wasting talents.”
Regard for peers
He smiled again when reminded of his competition with Satyajit Ray, Ritwik Ghatak and Tapan Sinha and confessed, “We shared a deep silent regard for each other and it was a healthy competition.I still feel Ray's ‘Aparajito’, Ghatak's ‘Komal Gandhar’ and Sinha's ‘Khaneker Atithi’ are some of the best I have seen in Indian cinema. After them I consider Adoor Gopalakrishan India’s most talented director.”
The question of poor quality prints bothers him. He explains, “This is something that hurts me. The Academy Of Motion Pictures took special initiative to preserve Ray's film prints. Tragically, five of Tapan Sinha's memorable films have been lost. The conditions of prints of films directed by Pramathesh Barua, Ajay Kar, Rajen Tarafdar and other Bengali stalwarts are in very poor conditions; I doubt if all can be restored. This is due to the total apathy of producers, distributors and the state government too. As a film maker I strongly feel prints of classics in every language should be properly preserved and maintained. They are national treasures.”