Nandita Das on Mrinal Sen: ‘My friend, philosopher and guide, in a...

Nandita Das on Mrinal Sen: ‘My friend, philosopher and guide, in a way few have been’

Nandita Das,
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Nandita Das with Mrinal Sen

I dreaded the day I would have to write Mrinalda’s obituary. Last November, when I saw him looking so frail, I knew the feisty maestro was going to leave us soon. But even if you know the day is coming, nothing ever prepares you for it. It came as a shock when I heard it first from a journalist who contacted me to get my “reaction”. How does one summarise a 20-year association in a single quote, that too when the news had still not sunk in? While one journalist profusely apologised for intruding at such a moment, one complained that despite it being a Sunday, she had to work as it was “breaking news”! The death of someone close, when it comes as part of the “news cycle”, makes you realise how alienating our way of life has become.

For me, no trip to Kolkata was complete without meeting Mrinalda. I cherished every one of them and there were many. I last met him on November 11, 2018, when, with my son, I went for the Kolkata International Film Festival. He looked very frail but held my hand tight the whole time we were together. There were long affectionate silences that were broken by a few conversations he had with us. He asked about my film, Manto, about my son’s school and even cynically bemoaned that the Festival had not invited him for the Opening Ceremony. While he knew he could not have gone for it, the disrespect seemed to have pained him.

Before leaving, we took some photos. Little did I know that they were to be our last ones together. It was always heartbreaking to say goodbye but sadder to see him fade away into silence – a man of many words, many ideas, and even more actions, was now sitting alone at his dining table.

Image: Nandita Das

I have known Mrinalda for more than 20 years. He was always honest to the point of being blunt, but not without a sharp sense of humour. His wife and true life partner, Gitadi, was always there by his side, as his strength. Many of the evenings with them were filled with stories that he shared. Often, they were self-deprecating and made her look better than him. She would smile and give a counter-story dismissing his flattery. Their banter, unconditional affection and mutual respect affirmed my faith in true love. Over the years our living room conversations moved to the dining table, and then to their beds, when their health deteriorated. When, almost two years ago, Gitadi left us, Mrinalda lost the will to be the person he had always been.

From the time I had known Mrinalda, he would say to me, “I am going to do a film with you. You remind me of Smita (Patil), not just as an actress but as the person she was.” It was in 2002 that I finally got to work with him on his last film, Aamaar Bhuvan. It was set in a Muslim family, in a village in Bengal. It was a love triangle of sorts, where there was no animosity between the two brothers and Sakina, the character I played. The conflict was subtle but the solution challenged our core values. Fifteen days before the shoot, I got a call from Mrinalda saying that his funding had stopped because the investors did not want to put money in a film about a Muslim family! That seemed incredulous, more so as the religion of the characters had no bearing on the story. But this was soon after the Gujarat riots and communal fear and bias was in the air. I told him that having a Muslim setting was not a reason to shelve the project. I wasn’t surprised when he said, “Okay, we will make the film with whatever little money we have but know that I won’t be able to give you your fee.”

On the set of Aamaar Bhuvan. Image: Nandita Das

Next, we were in a small village in the 24 Parganas district, in a village called Taki. I had gone to shoot for Aamaar Bhuvan soon after doing Mani Ratnam’s Kannathil Muthamittal. Doing what we call “regional films” has made me travel to places I would never have seen. I got to eat a wide range of food and meet an even wider range of people. But the two directors were as different as they could be. After a gruelling and disciplined shoot from 6 am to 6 pm, I went to one that had a far more relaxed schedule. When I reached, I found that the whole village was somehow involved in the film! Five of us – Mrinalda and the main cast and crew – stayed in a small guest-house. In front of it was the River Ichhamati and across, on the other side, was Bangladesh. Mrinalda used to say the sun rises in Bangladesh and sets in India! This had a special resonance for him as he was born in Faridpur, which is now across the river.

On and off the set, Mrinalda shared many stories of his life and his times with actors like Soumitra Chatterjee and Shabana Azmi and directors such as Jean-Luc Godard and Satyajit Ray. He was passionate about everything, including the fish we would eat for dinner! He always spoke his mind freely and believed that his films must move the audience to action. And they did. He was one of the few for whom art and the artist were not separate.

Aamaar Bhuvan, his last film, after being premiered at the Kolkata International Film Festival, had a very small theatrical release. Together, we went to the Cairo Film Festival to receive our respective awards – me for acting in the film and Mrinalda for the Lifetime Achievement Award. That was the last time the film was probably seen on the big screen. While it has been shown a few times on television, there is no trace of its theatre print. Since then, I have been trying to find it, but to no avail. It is tragic how little we respect our great masters!

Aamaar Bhuvan. Image: Nandita Das

He lived simply all his life and chose the same in death. He had made it clear to his family that he did not want any fanfare. A filmmaker of his stature today would get a gun-salute and draw crowds of people offering wreaths, bouquets and pranams. He wanted none of that. His loved-ones honoured his wishes and Mrinalda’s last journey saw people thronging and marching along in silence. He wanted to depart like any other common person.

When I reached his house, it was eerie without Gitadi and him. But I went, not only to see him for the last time, but also to meet his only son, Kunal Sen, who has his father’s integrity and mother’s quiet strength. Kunalda called him “Bondhu” (friend) and he was a bondhu to many. Though not to all. He had little patience for the bigots and the hypocrites.

For me, he was my friend, philosopher and guide, in a way few have been. A true tribute to him would be to continue asking the hard questions that prick our conscience and tell stories of “ordinary” people who are increasingly becoming invisible. That reminds me of what he said after watching my performance in Adoor Gopalakrishnan’s Four Women – “You are extraordinarily ordinary! A Malyali in Kerala and a Bengali in Bengal.” I was glad to be called ordinary in the way he saw it.

An era has ended with Mrinalda. While I did not meet him often enough, there was solace in knowing someone like him was there. Selfishly I would have wanted him to live forever, but to see a man like him fade day by day, would have been even more difficult. Today we need to celebrate him and his works. All his life he fought many battles, told many stories and gave so much of himself to so many of us. Now he must rest in peace.

On the set of Aamaar Bhuvan. Image: Nandita Das
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