The battle of the maestros

The battle of the maestros
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First Published: Thu, Aug 20 2009. 09 37 PM IST

Maverick: Sen on location at a temple inside the mansion where his film Khandahar is set. Mrinal Sen’s Personal Collection / Courtesy HarperCollins India
Maverick: Sen on location at a temple inside the mansion where his film Khandahar is set. Mrinal Sen’s Personal Collection / Courtesy HarperCollins India
Updated: Thu, Aug 20 2009. 09 37 PM IST
Film buffs of Calcutta often comment that there are only two common factors between Ray and Sen—their height and complexion. Their environments could not have been more different. Sen comes from an average middle-class family uprooted from Bangladesh, while Ray is a blue-blooded Calcuttan, representing one of the most cultured and aristocratic families of the metropolis. Sen studied science while Ray, after an initial grounding in economics, switched to fine arts. As a film-maker also, Ray belonged to the Hollywood school—a fact which he proudly proclaimed almost till his last breath—while Sen picked up his craft from European cinema.
Maverick: Sen on location at a temple inside the mansion where his film Khandahar is set. Mrinal Sen’s Personal Collection / Courtesy HarperCollins India
Ray has always been a traditionalist while Sen is an eternal maverick, who refuses to conform to any norm. Ray is a master of literary narrative, while Sen’s strength lies in episodic structure. As sensitive artists, both have been influenced by contemporary events and trends, but the end-products have been totally different—like Punashca and Mahanagar. ...
... It must be difficult for the present generation to believe that these two extremely different men used to be good friends at one time. Ray drew the cover of Sen’s book on Chaplin and Sen was a regular visitor to Ray’s Lake Temple Road flat where they discussed cinema for hours together. Sen was overwhelmed by Aparjito, which he still considers Ray’s best film, but, ironically, did not like Paras Pathar, which he told Ray in so many words. Ray did not think very highly of Baishey Shravana but later changed his mind, and during the Second International Film Festival in 1965, while he was functioning as the chairman of the Jury, he asked Sen to arrange a special screening of the film for some of his friends. He introduced Sen to his friends like Lindsay Anderson, Madam Kawakita and some other important film personalities. Ray and Sen advised each other about the suitability of actors and actresses. For Punascha, Ray released Kanika Majumdar, who was his discovery, while, after talking to Sen, he cast N. Vishwanathan in Kanchanjungha. ...
... In his film Bhuvan Shome, Sen paid his respects to his illustrious contemporary by showing his photographs on the screen while talking about the glory of Bengal. Ray was quite elated and told Sen that he would return the compliment by giving him a role in one of his films. Sen retorted that he could have been fitted only as a ghost in Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne and Ray had missed the chance. But Ray did not like Bhuvan Shome, as he made it clear in his book Our Films, Their Films.
After the book was published, Sen received a request from a Calcutta weekly to review the book in its columns. After some hesitation, Sen agreed to do so. Referring to Ray’s criticism of Bhuvan Shome, he wrote:
“We made efforts to be inventive, and almost with ‘youthful’ defiance we broke away from the moth-eaten conventions, which in our country, have been eating into the vitality of cinema: The film, however, became an accidental success. The critics made favourable comments, the people liked it, the people and the critics considered it offbeat. Understandably, we were happy... For whatever its worth, Bhuvan Shome was accepted, so they say, for a certain freshness in approach. And that is all.”
Sen amended Ray’s summary by calling the film ‘Big Bad Bureaucrat Chastized by a Charmer’s Cheek’. The review came out under the title, ‘His Book, My Comments’. Ray rang up Sen and Sen claims that he still remembers the conversation vividly after all these years. It went something like this:
Ray: I read your piece. You have considerably embarrassed me.
Sen: Did you notice the mild dig I had at you?
Ray: That is why I say you have embarrassed me.
Sen: Manikbabu, I would still like to go to your place like I did in those bygone days, and talk matters over with you directly. But with all these people encircling you, it is not possible.
Ray: I can understand that.
Sen: Tell me, don’t you feel lonely sometimes?
Ray (after a pause): Terrible....terribly lonely.
That was the most intimate conversation they had in many years. Yet, the relations remained somewhat frosty. The distance between Bishop Lefroy Road and Beltala Road is only a few kilometres; but these two men might well have lived in two continents. ...
... Ray was particularly unhappy with two of Sen’s recent films—Ek Din Pratidin and Ek Din Achanak (Suddenly One Day). Reacting to Sen’s famous comment that he himself did not know what had happened to the girl during the night in Ek Din Pratidin, Ray angrily said, “Never before has the maker showed such ignorance about characters authored by him. I suspect Mrinal does not know why the professor disappeared in Ek Din Achanak.” This private letter to a personal friend, written in June 1991, was leaked to a national daily without Ray’s permission in October. By that time Ray was a sick man and it was no secret that his days were numbered. Sen was visibly shaken by this unexpected accusation, but kept his cool and on insistence from various quarters and also from the press, came out with an extremely dignified response:
“I do not want to enter into a debate on aesthetics and the art of narration for fear of disturbing Ray’s mental peace which, on health grounds, he needs as much as his daily drugs. Making films and writing scripts and music for himself and his son involve considerable tension. Why add more?”
However, Sen couldn’t resist a joke by quoting Jean Cocteau’s famous description of Victor Hugo—‘He was a mad man because he could never forget he was Victor Hugo’. But in spite of his levity and his refusal to join issue with the dying maestro, Sen was deeply hurt by those insensitive comments. He never thought Ray would take his remarks concerning Ek Din Pratidin so literally and would not understand what he really meant—that he does not believe in the omnipresent and omniscient role storytellers have been assigned in cinema. But there was no more scope for a dialogue with Ray on this issue, as Satyajit Ray passed away on 23 April 1992, barely six months after the letter raised a storm.
Throughout Ray’s last illness, the Sens were in constant touch with the family of Ray, and were the first to arrive at the nursing home after the sad news was announced. Till the funeral, Sen was seen moving around with a vacant look in his eyes. He looked lost and forlorn. Almost two decades ago, he had asked Ray about his loneliness; suddenly the same loneliness enveloped him. As he stood before Ray’s dead body on that hot April afternoon with Ray’s imposing frame soon to disappear for all time to come, he realized there was no one left who could inspire, enthuse and provoke him to scale higher peaks.
Excerpted from Mrinal Sen: Sixty Years in Search of Cinema by Dipankar Mukhopadhyay.
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First Published: Thu, Aug 20 2009. 09 37 PM IST