The greatest quality of Mrinal Sen who passed away in his Kolkata residence on December 30 was that he did not allow any dividing line to exist between the common man/ woman and himself.
As a journalist, I must have interviewed him more than a dozen times, the first having been in January 1971 and the last in May 2010 at his latest Padmapukur residence where he breathed his last. Between these two residences, he also lived in a flat on Beltala Road, hardly a five-minute walk from where I lived and mostly, he would open the door himself.
Between these, we would often meet at closed door screenings and film festivals and the minute I approached him, he would flash his wonderful smile and say, “Here comes my girlfriend who puts on so much lipstick that I cannot even kiss her,” in front of everyone embarrassing me terribly.
But that was Mrinal Sen for you and for everyone who knew him. As long as he was mobile and his feet were active, he attended almost all functions he was invited to, private screenings of films of all kinds, condolence visits of some of his colleagues passed away, lamenting that most of them were younger than he was and he was still around.
He opened the door of his Motilal Nehru Road flat himself and welcomed me as the appointment had been fixed earlier across the phone. I was just cutting my teeth in journalism and I was commissioned to interview him by Mr. Ramachandran, the founder-editor of Film India. The living room crowded with furniture and books, files and portfolios was filled with eminent personalities from films who were yet to make a name for themselves. They were – K.K. Mahajan who was his cinematographer, one of the best alumni of the Pune FTII, Kumar Shahani, actor Anup Kumar who was related to him and his wife Gita Sen busy serving puffed rice, hot potato fritters and cups of tea to everyone.
I was surprised to discover that one of the most outstanding and famous filmmakers Indian cinema has produced had absolutely no airs. Any halo around his head did not exist and he began to speak to me as if he had known me for a long time. The interview was focussed on his under-production film Calcutta ’71 but he had this uncanny habit of moving away from the subject and talking about everything under the sun that made my carefully constructed questionnaire redundant.. My knowledge of his films was limited to a few famous ones –beginning with Bhuvan Shome his first film in Hindi. But his Hindi was terrible and he said so himself. In fact, one of his greatest gifts was to crack jokes at his own expense.
Few Indian filmmakers can boast of around a dozen books written on him in two different languages. Mrinal Sen is one of them, while the others are Satyajit Ray, Ritwik Ghatak, Adoor Gopalakrishnan and a few more. Ray, Ghatak and Sen have a few things in common though their approach to filmmaking, their style and their signatures are vastly different. They come from the same backdrop, Bangladesh (East Bengal), were born around the same time (the early 1920s), and had the same interest – to create new spaces and worlds through the art, craft and language of cinema.
Sen stopped making films after Amar Bhubon which was diced and quartered by the media, he went on to remain the lone survivor of the triumvirate of Bengali cinema, the three who, through their films, transcended boundaries of culture and geography and language, to place Indian cinema on the international map.