Mrinal Sen would have been a hundred today. The legendary filmmaker’s centenary is being marked by screenings in Kolkata as well as announcements of projects based on him and his work (including the Srijit Mukherji-helmed biopic Padatik, starring Bangladeshi star Chanchal Chowdhury). The occasion has also resulted in a memoir, written by his son, Kunal.

Bondhu is a deeply felt chronicle of Mrinal Sen as well as his wife, the actor Gita Sen. Kunal Sen takes readers back to his parents’ formative years, the hardscrabble circumstances in which Sen made some of his most well-known films, and the cultural-political milieu in which Sen worked. Kunal Sen includes numerous anecdotes that shed a rare light on his father’s private self.

Kunal Sen writes: “If we ask someone to draw a personality profile of my father by looking at his creative output alone, it may look something like this: a grave and serious man, thoughtful and intense, perhaps a little angry. However, anyone who knew him closely would probably also mention that he was an exceptionally humorous individual.”

Mrinal Sen, Kunal Sen, Kunal Sen’s wife Nisha Ruparel-Sen and Gita Sen. Photo courtesy Kunal Sen.

The book includes a dispassionate analysis of the factionalism that created unhealthy rivalry between Mrinal Sen and his peers Satyajit Ray and Ritwik Ghatak. Bondhu provides an insider’s view into the cultural ferment that fuelled Bengali cinema but also possibly limited its horizons.

Kunal Sen writes: “Be it the support for a football team or the way a particular dish should be cooked or how a song should be sung, we indulge in strictly binary choices. If you belong to one side, you must oppose the other with all fury.”

Sen, who is 68, lives in Chicago, where he works as the Chief Information Officer at the Encyclopedia Brittanica and Merriam-Webster. He has founded the website, which includes a complete list of the films as well as behind-the-scenes photographs. Sen’s role as the sole flame-keeper of his father’s legacy has become even more important with the demise of his parents (Gita Sen died in 2017, Mrinal Sen the following year).

Bondhu has been published by Naveen Kishore’s Seagull Books, which has produced several scholarly books about Mrinal Sen over the years, apart from republishing his autobiography Always Being Born. Bondhu adds further layers to the director of some of the most important Indian films, including Bhuvan Shome, Interview, Chorus, Padatik, Kharij, Ek Din Pratidin, Khandhar and Ek Din Achanak.

In an interview, Kunal Sen discusses his motivations for writing the memoir.

Bondhu is an evocative, insightful account of a remarkable man and a remarkable career. What was your writing process?
I’m not a writer. I enjoy writing and I write essays, but I have never considered writing a book. When Naveen Kishore asked me, I was very hesitant.

One thing I knew I would never do was talk about the aesthetics of my father’s films. No matter what I say, it wouldn’t be credible. People wouldn’t trust me to be objective. So I wondered, how do I write something that is meaningful, for people who may not be familiar with my father’s work and still find it interesting?

I wrote over about a year. My main earning comes from my career, plus I have an art practice. My father’s legacy also puts a bit of work pressure on me, in the form of constant requests for events. So I decided not to write a chronological book, since there have been other biographies. I completely understand the need for such scholarship, where you collect all the details, but my personal taste is for insightful rather than factual books.

I decided to collect the anecdotes and string them together thematically. It did create a problem for me and the editors. There were plenty of repetitions, which had to be cleaned up.

Gita Sen with Kunal Sen in Santiniketan. Photo by Mrinal Sen/courtesy Kunal Sen.

One of the most striking qualities of Bondhu is its honesty, which is unusual for books written about personalities by family members. You are unafraid to revisit the things you didn’t like about your father, or the subjects on which you disagreed.
I have never thought otherwise – that was our relationship. We were always very honest within the household. Being self-critical was part of how we grew up.

Besides, if I only say good things about my relatives, I won’t have credibility. It is better to honest and open, but not slanderous. That is the only way you will trust what I am saying.

It was also a part of my parents’ legacy. I am fortunate not to have been explicitly influenced by them. In typical Leftist households, there is a lot of indoctrination that happens before the children can even understand anything. I reacted to that negatively.

My parents never wanted it either. My father was self-absorbed, but there was also no attempt to mould me. He was self-critical too. He would be defensive about his films if he felt the person had an agenda behind the criticism or wasn’t smart enough. But he was always open to intelligent criticism.

The most moving sections have to do with your family’s living conditions – the lack of a steady income, the number of modestly-sized rented apartments where much of Mrinal Sen’s greatest films were created. Yet, there is no bitterness in you writing, rather a sense of equanimity.
My parents and my uncle, [the actor] Anup Kumar, tried to protect me from the poverty. I understood the full extent of it only much later on.

Everyone I knew was also in the same boat. It’s not like I was living among the affluent and felt deprived. If anything, I was around people who had even less. So I almost felt privileged for what we had.

Plus, I am writing this book so many years later. Looking so far back, if there was any bitterness, it has been plugged. If you think about both of their lives, there was little to be bitter about since ultimately, it all worked out. When you are successful, you can justify almost everything.

You moved away from Kolkata as a young man to pursue an education and career in the United States. Did your distance better help you analyse the intellectual culture in Calcutta in the 1970s and 1980s?

Probably. When I lived in Calcutta, it seemed to be a fast metropolis. When I look back, I see that it has the qualities of a small town, where everybody knows everybody else.

There is also the privilege of age. But even when I was young. I was appalled at these comparisons between Ghatak and my father and Ray and my father. I could see how they were all getting affected and biased by their environment. A poisonous atmosphere can distort the perspectives of very wise people like my father, like Ray.

Mrinal Sen with Satyajit Ray. Photo courtesy Kunal Sen.

Satyajit Ray and your father famously quarrelled through letters published in the Kolkata press about Ray’s negative views on Akash Kusum and Bhuvan Shome. But they were friends too. How did you view this unsavoury episode, and Ray himself?
Ray was a very private person. He wasn’t easily approachable. There was a wall of eminence around him. I cannot say that I knew him personally. But I don’t think the negativity that was there was built into their mindsets.

At some level, despite Ray’s tremendous eminence, he perhaps felt a bit annoyed that people were also saying good things about my father. That was his sole domain, and perhaps there was some sub-conscious annoyance that he had to share it. When I think of those letters, I still don’t find any reason why he did it. That was probably the effect of the people around him.

My father himself was extremely respectful of Ray, but not his later films, especially the ones made at the end. Aparajito remained one of my father’s most favourite films.

With Ritwik Ghatak, my father had a serious problem – he couldn’t take the melodrama of his films. I can’t say whether it was my father’s influence or I developed it on my own, but melodrama didn’t work for me either. All art forms ultimately try to manipulate our emotions, but it has to be done in a way that I can’t catch it.

Among the things you write about is the poor state of preservation of Mrinal Sen’s papers, which you have attempted to address by setting up a website in his name. What do you hope the centenary celebrations will achieve?
I set up the website around 10-15 years ago. I had the grand plan of putting up a lot of material other than photographs, but it seems less and likely. We didn’t maintain his things very well, and most of them are gone.

With regard to the centenary, the most important thing is to show his films. The National Film Archive of India in Pune has some restored prints. The films are not out of copyright but many of the rights holders are untraceable. Most of his films were produced by independent producers, many of whom didn’t produce more than one film since they lost money. Most of them are no longer in business.

If I could organise something myself, I would like to make his films available without going through too many hoops. And also have serious conversations, with substance rather than emotion, since he made serious films.

Kunal Sen.

Also read:

Why Mrinal Sen’s son called him ‘Bondhu’, or friend

Mrinal Sen on his acclaimed film ‘Bhuvan Shome’: A ‘burlesque and inspired nonsense’

Mrinal Sen versus Satyajit Ray: The war of words that lasted nearly 30 years