On following Mrinal Sen’s filmography, one notices a change around the 80s. From sharp socio-political commentaries to self-introspection, there is a gradual shift from looking outward to looking inward. With his earlier films, he earns for himself the title of being a ‘political filmmaker’, while his later films situate themselves within the spaces of the home and the family, exploring relationships and ideas of morality – a shift that can perhaps be captured most prominently via the two of his trilogies, the Calcutta trilogy of the early 70s and the Absence trilogy of the late 70s rolling on to the 80s. ‘More recently, however, I have been thinking of films which draw their strength from normal events,’ Sen says in a 1981 interview with Udayan Gupta, ‘…events which don’t have any particularly exciting quality, but which are part of everyone’s daily existence. That’s what I have attempted to do in my latest film, Chalchitra. I feel that the more we try to find a dramatic cohesion of incidents in life, the more we realise that life is built of non-events. Why shouldn’t we make a film about that?’ In an interview taken much later, in 2001 by Samik Bandopadhyay, Sen reflects on his own shift. He talks of the landslide victory of the Left Front government in the 1977 West Bengal elections – even though he had once spoken about the importance of being a partisan, his ideals do not exactly match that of his surroundings – ‘I deliberately underscored the inherent flaws in our inherently flawed selves. And when people asked me why I was making films like this, I said that it had now become imperative for us to recognize ourselves. Identify the faults. Understand the lapses.’ It is thus essential to note that what are generally known as his ‘less political’ films are not so at all. They are still a reaction to his times, only with a shift in perspective.
Around 1986-87, Mrinal Sen made a series of twelve short films in Hindi for Doordarshan, titled ‘Kabhi Door Kabhi Paas’. Aired once a week, these were stories of human relationships, stories not very typical of Sen, but each of them brilliantly crafted and leaving the viewer with a sweet (sometimes, undeniably, lump-in-the-throat) aftertaste. During the lockdown in 2021, Kunal Sen, the filmmaker’s son, did the world a great service by uploading ten of these twelve shorts on YouTube. These are converted from a low-resolution VHS copy his father had couriered him abroad, while the original tapes at Doordarshan had apparently been reused to record some other program. Sigh.
Yet, the beauty of these films is such that they can almost distract the viewer away from the horribly poor video and audio qualities, and they make for a lovely watch. I watched almost all episodes in one sitting, and doing this makes you feel the uniqueness of each tale with even greater effect. Barring two, which were written by Sen himself, all the films are adaptations of Bengali short stories. Most of them point towards a changing India – the massive sweep of change affecting every sphere of life due to the liberalization of the economy is still a few years away, but the winds have begun to blow, from the way young men and women interact with each other, to the kind of model employee desired by private companies. Every film has a story to tell which is distinct, not to mention a stellar cast. Even though Sen doesn’t experiment much here – the storytelling is simple and linear – each film attempts to build a certain tension and deliver a climactic end.
Many of these films explore the intricacies and complexities of relationships. Dus Saal Baad (After a Decade), starring Girish Karnad and Aparna Sen, is a beautiful take on past love. Sen’s character pays a surprise visit to Karnad’s home, offering no explanation – they had been lovers in the past, and she had heard of his wife’s demise. Perhaps a flicker of hope had been kept alive in her heart after all these years, only to find that the wife was still very much present, in every corner of his home, even though she was long gone.
Shawl, starring Priya Tendulkar and Dilip Dhawan, tells a slightly opposite tale. There’s a mild chill in the air, and the husband asks for something to keep himself warm. Finding nothing suitable, the wife brings out a shawl – as they speak, we understand it is the shawl of her ex-husband. As the story gradually progresses, what could’ve been a relationship turned sour, is saved because of the way they understand each other.
The titular film, named Kabhi Door Kabhi Paas, is the only one where Sen experiments with form. It stars Anil Chatterjee in a solo performance, who narrates a story to us. The camera never moves out of the room, and even though Chatterjee tells us a tale of the past, there are no flashbacks as one might expect. The film stands out because the monologue is so powerful – the story that is told plays in my mind, almost like a film in itself. For a brief moment, the cinematographer comes on screen – not new for a Sen film – making the presence of the camera felt, driving home the point that the actor is narrating his story for an audience.
Aparajit (The Unvanquished), one of the two stories by Sen himself, is a melancholic tale of an elderly couple waiting for a phone call from their son settled abroad. It’s the son’s birthday, a day he’s supposed to call his parents. They don’t have a phone at home, so they expect a call at the neighbour’s. The story is not an old one – the son doesn’t call – but a lot of Sen’s own life becomes part of the film. As the old couple slowly realises that the son won’t call, and console each other believing that he must be caught up with too much work, they sit together to re-read an old letter from him – it has been long since he had written to them. There’s a distant sound of an airplane flying across the night sky above their humble residence. They have perhaps read the letter a hundred times, but the husband once again reads it aloud to his wife. He had written to his mother after watching the screening of Satyajit Ray’s Aparajito at his university’s film club – in the film, Apu had left for the city, and when he returned to the village for his mother, it was too late. Long back, he had watched the film with his mother and remembered how she had cried. As he rewatched Aparajito with his friends abroad, most of whom were planning to settle there, he had understood the film in a new light. He wouldn’t be like them, he promised to return to his mother.
Sen’s son, too, had written a similar letter to his mother once. A letter that had made him choke while he read it out to his wife. In some way, this film was an ode to their own emotions, and with that, a beautiful tribute from one great filmmaker to another.
My favourite film in this series is Aajkal (Modern Times). A couple gets acquainted with a female friend of their son (a very young Piyush Mishra). In a delightfully narrated tale, the parents almost plan out their son’s marriage, only to realise that they are simply friends with no romantic feelings toward each other. As the husband and wife share a good laugh about it, they understand that the times are changing, and relationships between young men and women do not always mean romantic love anymore.
While uploading these films, Kunal Sen pointed out that they mostly deal with man-woman relationships – something that Mrinal Sen didn’t focus much on in his oeuvre as a filmmaker. The names that first come to one’s mind are Antareen (1993) and Khandhar (1984), both brilliant adaptations of short stories, by Manto and Premendra Mitra respectively. These proved Sen’s finesse as a filmmaker handling this subject, and Kabhi Door Kabhi Paas, thankfully for us, gave him ample scope to explore more of it. I had a lovely time watching them, and I hope you do too. Some days, I cannot thank the internet enough.
From the ind.igenous desk.
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