Mrinal Sen, the contrarian | Interview with Kunal Sen on his book ‘Bondhu’, about his filmmaker father

Mrinal Sen never accepted the rigidity of any political ideology, says his son in his book ‘Bondhu’

Updated - August 28, 2023 12:05 pm IST

Published - August 24, 2023 04:38 pm IST

Bengali director Mrinal Sen (extreme right) with actor Dimple Kapadia (centre) on the sets of his 1993 film ‘Antareen’.

Bengali director Mrinal Sen (extreme right) with actor Dimple Kapadia (centre) on the sets of his 1993 film ‘Antareen’. | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

Bondhu (Seagull, 2023) is Kunal Sen’s first book. ‘Bondhu’ in Bengali means friend. That’s how Kunal addressed his father, renowned filmmaker Mrinal Sen, who would have turned 100 this year. In a riveting debut, the Chicago-based author offers an intimate portrait of his father at home and in the world. Edited excerpts from a conversation:

Mrinal Sen began with IPTA (Indian People’s Theatre Association). Why or how did he veer towards cinema?

His interest in cinema was largely accidental. He was a voracious reader in his student days. One day he came across a book on film aesthetics and was immediately smitten by the idea of making films.

Most of his friends from that period — Ritwik Ghatak, Salil Chowdhury, amongst others — came to the same conclusion and were itching to jump into it but did not have the know-how, connections, or means to make it happen. They also shared a common ideology: that of making the world a fairer and better place to live, and believed films could be a way to talk about such ideas.

Would you say that your father made films primarily to assert his leftist leanings?

No, I would not characterise it that way. First, politics for that generation had little to do with power and control, and was more of an idealised perspective of making the world a better place. Only in the late 60s and early 70s did his films become explicitly political and carry a leftist message. After that phase, most of his films still retained a political perspective, but were not about politics. The only common thread throughout his career was his responsiveness to time and a deep desire to experiment thematically and formally.

Was he disillusioned with the ideology at some point? You have written in the book that he was rather critical of Russia after a visit.

His leftist convictions were deep but never partisan. He refused to become a member of the Communist Party simply because he did not like the tendency of the party to discourage and disallow any contrarian thinking. Therefore, while he believed in the basic tenets of Marxism, he never accepted the rigidity of any political ideology. So, when he visited the Soviet Union for the first time in the mid-60s, he was disillusioned by the coercive nature of its society. However, it didn’t shake his conviction in the Left ideology, but only in how it manifested itself in specific political movements.

Mrinal Sen and Kunal Sen in Cannes, 2010.

Mrinal Sen and Kunal Sen in Cannes, 2010.

The book doesn’t paint Sen as a hero. You say that in personal life, he was self-centred, loved attention and only cared for what mattered to him though he never imposed his ideas on you. Did this impact his relationship with his peers?

Are there any real heroes? I just wanted to be truthful and not see him through the lens of a fan. I have been fortunate to have seen many extremely successful people at close quarters, and if there is one common trait among them, it is their self-focused personalities. I now believe this is an essential characteristic of being very successful. Without that focus and conviction, it is hard to achieve what they can achieve. I don’t think this side of him affected his relationship with his peers. Each lived in their own bubble, and at some level, they understood each other.

You also write about the unique Bengali propensity to create camps by pitting one against the other. Objectively speaking, what makes your father’s cinema different from that of his contemporaries such as Ray and Ghatak?

Mrinal Sen (left) and Satyajit Ray.

Mrinal Sen (left) and Satyajit Ray.

The interpersonal relationship between the three of them could have been much better without the interference of the people surrounding them. I strongly believe each of them could have benefited if they spoke more often. It is remarkable that they all lived in the same city at the same time, and yet could not directly benefit from it.

There are a couple of ways my father’s films were different from Ray’s and Ghatak’s. He was most keen on formal experimentation and, unlike most artists, never settled down after discovering a pattern that worked. Throughout his career, he never made more than three or four films in a row before trying something distinctly different, even when he received considerable critical acclaim for the earlier style. I believe he was also more reactive to his surroundings and his time than the other two.

Tell us about his friendship with Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

They first met in 1982 when they both served on the jury at the Cannes Film Festival. They had similar tastes in films which brought them closer.

Gabriel Garcia Marquez (left) and Mrinal Sen.

Gabriel Garcia Marquez (left) and Mrinal Sen.

That year there was a Cuban film in competition. My father did not care as much for the film, but Marquez was keen to see it receive some recognition. He told my father he owed it to his dear friend Fidel Castro. Marquez was hesitant to bring it up during the jury meetings because of his well-known connection with Castro and wanted my father to raise it. Reluctantly, he suggested if the film could be given special recognition as a representative of Cuban cinema. This proposal was immediately rejected since the festival recognises individual work, and not the collective output of a country.

Immediately after he came back from France, the Nobel Prize for Marquez was announced, and my father was delighted. A few years later, both my parents were invited to spend a few weeks at a Havana film school. Marquez was also there at the same time. This was when they spent long hours talking about many things. During this time, Marquez also suggested my father make a film with his work. He was gratified but did not feel he understood Latin American life well enough to do justice to it.

Many years later, my father received a rather sentimental letter from Marquez, a sort of farewell note. Later it was revealed that many of Marquez’s friends had received the same letter, which was fake, perpetrated by a Mexican ventriloquist. They never met again.

The interviewer teaches literature and film at FLAME University, Pune.

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