Understanding My Times: An Interview with Mrinal Sen (Web Exclusive)
by Gary Crowdus
In the early Seventies, when I was working at the New York office of the Tricontinental Film Center—a film distributor specializing in films from Latin America, Africa, and Asia—my Tricontinental colleagues and I met with Mrinal Sen, who was visiting New York with 16mm prints of several of his films, which we screened in order to consider them for distribution in the United States. Although I remember that we were interested in acquiring at least one or more of the films, including Bhuvan Shome, I do not remember now exactly why we were unable to do so—I think it may have been the prohibitive expense of producing English-language-subtitled 16mm internegatives from which distribution prints could be struck.
While Sen was in New York, I tape-recorded an interview with him, with the aim of either eventually publishing it in Cineaste, which I had founded a few years earlier, or perhaps incorporating it into a press kit in the event that Tricontinental was able to release one or more of his films. Since we were unable to do so—not the first or only time that pre-release costs prevented Tricontinental from acquiring significant films for distribution—I filed away the interview transcript. The publication of Nafis Shafizadeh’s review of Mrinal Sen’s Montage: Life. Politics. Cinema (Seagull Books, 2018, distributed by the University of Chicago Press) in the Winter 2018 issue of Cineaste led me to believe that perhaps this very old interview, conducted fairly early in Sen’s career, might still be of some interest to our readers.—Gary Crowdus
Cineaste: Were you a film critic before you became a filmmaker?
Mrinal Sen: No. My subject in college was physics. I was also involved in the student movement, and that was how I developed myself. I lived in a very political atmosphere, during a period when India was ruled by Britain, right from the mid-1930s. But I was not a regular filmgoer. I had no special interest in film at all.
After I left college in 1942, I got interested in sound recording. One day I just walked into a studio, where I was put in touch with the maintenance department. But my work only involved soldering capacitors and condensers. I didn’t like that job at all, so I left. But I thought it would be a good idea to educate myself in the techniques of sound recording, so I started to read about it.
The biggest library in Calcutta at the time was the Imperial Library—today it’s called the National Library—and I started reading about sound recording. One day, by accident, I pulled out a book called Film as Art by Rudolf Arnheim, which was the first book I read on film aesthetics. That was in 1943 and I was ecstatic. I never realized that film could have a philosophy of its own. The second book I read was Cinema as a Graphic Art by Vladimir Nilsen. I didn’t understand everything in it, but it was fascinating, and that was how I learned about the aesthetics of the cinema.
I immediately went to the Friends of the Soviet Union, an organization that during the war showed the early Soviet films—including Pudovkin, Donskoi’s Gorki Trilogy [The Childhood of Maxim Gorky (1938), My Apprenticeship (1939), and My Universities (1940)], and Nikolai Ekk’s Road to Life, their first sound film. My first article—entitled “Film and the People,” a title I borrowed from Ralph Fox’s book The Novel and the People, a Marxist analysis of literature—was published in the organization’s journal.
I was considered a reasonably good writer, so I continued writing about film, and I became a religious reader of books on film, such as Eisenstein’s Film Form and The Film Sense. I tried to look at Indian literature and life in the way Eisenstein wrote. Intellectuals on the left were quite intrigued because they hadn’t realized that film could deal with such things. I became a regular contributor to the cultural journal of the Communist Party of India. I started writing regular articles of a radical nature—such as “The Dialectics of the Cinema”—for the next two to three years. But you can’t make a living by writing in India—particularly when you write for the radical journals because they won’t pay you anything—so you have to do odd jobs.
I was loafing about most of the time, but I needed money to exist, so I did all kinds of odd jobs—I worked in a print shop, I was a medical representative, and an instructor in a private institution. During this period I developed a sort of resistance to Indian films, because my interest in films was primarily academic. Around 1947–48, however, the film society movement started in Calcutta. I didn’t have enough money to become a film society member, but my friends used to take me along with them. Incidentally, Satyajit Ray was the founder/secretary of the Calcutta Film Society.
Unlike me, Ray had an interest in the cinema right from the beginning. He had had private exercises in script writing; he used to see a film, for instance, and then go home and rewrite the entire script. About the same time, in 1948–49, Calcutta became very hot politically. The Communist Party, which had been banned, went into hiding. Some militant agrarian movements were active at that time, and, even without knowing anything about making films, we considered making clandestine films. Once in a while we got a few copies of foreign cinema journals, so we had heard about the Italian neorealist movement.
I remember my first script was for a twenty to twenty-five minute film, which I called “The Struggle of the Land,” I thought we could shoot in a village more or less under the control of the agrarian movement. We were going to shoot it as a silent agit-prop film to show to the villagers, but our plans had to be abandoned. The idea was very romantic because we weren’t affiliated with an organization that could give us the protection, not to mention processing the film and showing it, and so on. So, it was not possible at all. I had to destroy that script because that was a time when quite often our homes were raided.
So, I went on writing, and in 1953 I wrote a book, in Bengali, about Charlie Chaplin. I had other interests, too, including translating a posthumous novel by Karel Capek. In 1956, however, I found a producer who said to himself, “This is a man who could do something along the lines of what Ray is doing.” As a result, that year I made a film called The Dawn (Raat Bhore), but it was very bad, a disaster. I immediately convinced myself that filmmaking was not my cup of tea. I continued doing odd jobs, and remained unemployed much of the time, but then I got into another film in 1959, called Under the Blue Sky (Neel Akasher Neechey). That was the film that gave me a place in the film industry. But I think it’s too sentimental and I wouldn’t want to be remembered for that film. My third film, The Wedding Day (Baishey Shravana, 1960), is a film for which I still have some love; it’s the first film of mine that was shown in a foreign country. Since then, I have been making films, mainly narrative films, but I have always tried to bring in the social scene. In other words, I tried to understand my own times, which is something I’ve attempted to do in all my films.
But I soon saw that my films could reach only a minority audience—the discriminating public, including students, intellectuals, and a few others—so it became difficult to get another producer. I made good films and indifferent films, about which I felt quite miserable at times. Then, in 1968, with money from the government’s Film Finance Corporation (FFC), I made a film called Bhuvan Shome. The FFC was designed to help make better films, but their money was generally available only to rich people, because they were the only ones who could produce a guarantor—you had to guarantee that the money would be paid back. That is what rich people could do, but they hardly ever made good films in India. Ray made a few films with FFC money, but he was only the director, not the producer.
I got the money to make Bhuvan Shome free of any encumbrances, no mortgaging of property, no checking or double-checking on my inspiration, with no strings attached. I made the film in Hindi, which is an all-India language, because basically I make regional films in Bengali. The film became quite popular and after that the FFC’s policy changed, and they started to give money only to those producers and directors who could make offbeat films, but who didn’t have enough money to make them. In their official report, in the fact, the FFC refers to “a pre-Bhuvan Shome period and a post-Bhuvan Shome period.” So, it was in a way a landmark film, and since then the FFC has contributed a great deal to stimulate the filmmaking climate.
Cineaste: Have your films helped other directors make similar political films?
Sen: To be very frank, no, not yet. I started making overtly political films in 1971, dating from Interview, although Bhuvan Shome also made a political point, but obliquely. But my entire approach was gradually beginning to change and I could see it in one of my earlier films. In 1965 I made a film called Up in the Clouds (Akash Kusum), which was about a young man who wanted to be a social climber, but it wasn’t possible for him since you had to combat monopoly capital. By the end of the film, he has grown a little wiser. Everything in that film was limited to a middle-class milieu, but I could see that technically and stylistically I was moving in a direction that eventually culminated in Interview.
After making Bhuvan Shome, I was able to create a clientele of my own all throughout India. A wider audience would see whatever film I made, in whatever language. I could see that a new national audience was growing, which was very vocal about my films. Although I could also see that I was multiplying my enemies, I felt I could, however dangerously, go ahead.
Most Indian films are bad, and discriminating spectators just dismiss them. But starting with Interview and later films, those viewers who didn’t like my films became angry, saying, “These are anti-social films.” I take such comments as compliments, because they lead me to believe that perhaps I have been able to make my points well enough. But then I also saw that young people became more vocal, more articulate, about them. Up until today, however, even though Calcutta is a very hot city, politically speaking, I thought that there might be some young Calcutta filmmakers who would at least make somewhat political films, that they would be able to assess situations politically, but it’s sad to see that there’s not one single filmmaker like that in Calcutta today.
Cineaste: Have the Indian political parties, especially the Marxist-inspired ones, which can be very sectarian, been able to inspire filmmakers?
Sen: What you say is partially true. The cultural branch of the Communist Party in India was very strong during the war. Afterward, we had an organization called the Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA), a very large, all-India organization that used to produce brilliant plays. They changed the entire face of drama in the country. We all belonged to that group but before independence, in 1947, it was easy for our people to take a side, because we had one common, very clear-cut enemy, but after 1947 it became very complicated. The cadres of the IPTA were composed of middle-class people and their interests started clashing. We thought we might be able to bring that sort of IPTA atmosphere into the film industry but filmmaking is a very expensive proposition, and it was very difficult for us to develop such an aggressive institution.
Today, I find the most interesting films are not being made in Calcutta, but in Bombay and in the South. Two films were recently made in Bombay, but both shot in different places, by two new directors who had previously made documentaries and who made their first feature films. One of them, called Hot Air in English, deals with the minority community in India. The story takes place in 1947 and for the first time in the history of Indian cinema, this unpleasant subject was raised. It offended many Hindus but some bitter truths needed to be told and it is a very good film.
Another film, Seedling (Ankur, 1974), was also made in the South. It’s also a very good film and became even more popular than Hot Air. It captures the social scene, although I feel the director [Shyam Benegal] had too much of a middle-class approach. When you show an exploiter in the guise of an industrialist or a landlord, but the climax of the film reveals that this man is a womanizer, that is a middle-class perspective. The fact that he is a womanizer is only secondary; his primary exploitation is economic. It’s a very well made film and by Indian standards it’s considered to be a very different film, but it suffers from this middle-class approach. This is something that many of our plays and our films suffer from.
But things are developing. It’s a good sign. I don’t know what’s going to happen in the future, but it’s very clear that the Indian film scene today is not the same as it was before. Change is coming, although things are not developing at a rapid pace. We have to engage in continuous battles because we are threatened with the possibility of complete extinction; we never known when we’ll be thrown out of the industry. It’s unfortunate, for example, that 16mm techniques haven’t really developed yet in India.
Gary Crowdus, the founder and editor-in-chief of Cineaste, worked in film and video distribution for more than forty years, beginning in 1971 with the Third World Cinema Group (which soon changed its name to the Tricontinental Film Center), and subsequently with The Cinema Guild from 1980 to 2004, and with Icarus Films from 2004–2008.
Copyright © 2018 by Cineaste, Inc.
Cineaste, Vol. XLIV, No. 1