What I Learnt From Mrinal Sen About Filmmaking, and Being a Good Human

Suhasini Mulay, who played the female lead in 'Bhuvan Shome', Mrinal Sen's first Hindi film, recounts her experience of working with the renowned director.

Mrinal Sen, the renowned film director, passed away on Sunday at 95, a year after his wife Geeta Sen died in 2017. For me, both Mrinal and Geeta are inseparable – I have not seen a couple so much in love for such a long time. The last time I met them, in October 2016, both of them were unwell, lying in adjoining beds. Geetadi more ill than Mrinalda, but still managing the house, managing the show. Mrinalda met me with a smile and said, “Ay Geeta utho, dekho ke eshechhe (Geeta wake up. See who has come)”. Geetadi had her eyes closed and said, “Jaani Suhas eshchhe or awaaj chinte pere chhi (I know it’s Suhas, I can recognise her voice).” I was meeting them after eight years.

Their home in Calcutta – as it was known then – was a haven when I was working there as an assistant director in 1975-76. At that time, Calcutta was not a friendly place for a young woman trying to make it on her own; and Geetadi and Mrinalda’s house was one place I could run for cover and moral support – and also a free meal.

Geetadi was an actor of some caliber. She had made her mark in Utpalda’s plays Angar, Kallol amongst many others. She has also acted in Mrinalda’s Calcutta 71 and Akaler Sandhane. Her work in Khandhar as the bed-ridden woman was superb.

Mrinalda loved to gossip and indulge in the famous Calcutta institution of adda. His rule for gossiping was, “Everybody who is sitting in this room right now is good. No guarantee what will be said once your back is turned.” Mrinalda was a wonderful, warm human being, with strong convictions, strong views and a stronger sense of fun.

I was in the last year of school, preparing to take my Class 11 finals, when my mother phoned to tell me the well-known film director, Mrinal Sen is coming to meet me. ‘Would I please wear a clean frock and look presentable?’ she asked. As my mother seldom made requests like this, I knew it had to be important. It was 1968.

Mrinalda came and described a film he wanted to make on a Bengali story and asked whether I was interested in acting in it. I asked what my mother had said. When he said she was alright with it, I agreed, only wanting to know the role he wanted me to play. Mrinalda looked surprised and said, “Gauri, the main role.” I told him I had never acted in a film before, so he could try me for a day or two and if I did not work out, he should find someone else – I was unfamiliar with what happens behind the scenes, the size of the crew etc.

Mrinal Sen. Credit: YouTube

I later learnt that Uma Krupanidhi (now Uma Da Cunha), who at that time worked for Lintas, had recommended my name. I had done a successful Pears soap campaign and acted in an ad film for them. Mrinalda had seen the photographs and the ad film, and thought that I might fit the bill.

Thus, during the two-month preparatory leave before my exams, I was shooting. I took a train to Bombay. My first memorable memory of Bhuvan Shome is the first flight from Bombay to Bhuj, where I met my co-actors Utpal Dutt and Shekhar Chatterjee.

Till then, it had not occurred to me to ask who my co-actors were. That is when the nerves set in. I had seen and admired Dutt’s and Chatterjee’s plays, Angar, Kallol and Manusher Adhkare. Both were stalwarts in their field. I had even stood outside Dutt’s green room to get an autograph.

I met Mrinalda that night and asked him if he was sure if I could do the job. He told Utpalda what I had said. Utpalda gave his booming laugh and told me to just be myself.

The first day of the shoot was terrible. I kept forgetting my dialogues and Mrinalda kept reassuring: “Very good, excellent. One more take.” When I asked Utpalda what Mrinalda meant by “one more take,” he explained that everybody had to do the same thing again from the beginning. I soon got the hang of it.

The rest of the shoot turned out easy, but I still had trouble learning dialogues. One time there was a particularly long dialogue, and I kept stumbling on one line. Utpalda asked me what the matter was. As I started speaking, he took away my dialogue sheet and asked me to remember what my lines were supposed to convey. I tried to explain what it was, and found myself saying the dialogue verbatim except for the one line I stumbled over, which to me made no sense. “Aha! That is not for you. It’s for me. That line is the cue for my dialogue. That’s why it does not make sense, because you are mugging your lines and won’t read the full scene.” Lesson learnt.

It was Mrinalda and Dutt’s first Hindi film, and the first as a cinematographer for K.K. Mahajan, who had then just passed out of FTII. Mrinalda insisted on speaking Hindi to all of us, but particularly to Mahajan (KK).

A still from Bhuvan Shome

Mrinalda to KK while framing a shot of Utpalda shooting with a 303 rifle. “KK iska ped kaatna.” Translation: “KK frame the shot till the waistline, and cut above the legs”. Translating Mrinalda’s Hindi instructions became a game, as did correcting Utpalda’s grammar and syntax.

Most of the film turned out to be an easy shoot. Largely because I was blissfully unaware/ignorant about the camera, and also because everybody was highly tolerant of me. One scene, however, was particularly challenging – one where I sit on a buffalo and move away into the sunset.

Also read: Mrinal Sen: Always on the Edge

The buffalo, however, refused to move unless bribed. So I sat on the buffalo and asked it to move – but no such luck. Then I sat on the buffalo again and hit it with a stick. No luck once again. Ultimately, since the light was fading, KK warned Mrinalda that we would not get the shot unless the buffalo moved for this last take. So again I sat on the buffalo, hit it with a stick and the owner of the buffalo held a pan with its feed, only then did it move.

Mrinalda was so thrilled with the shot that he decided to take another one, much closer to the buffalo this time. So again I sat on the buffalo, hit it with a stick, the owner pulled the pan with the feed. The camera came on, spooking the buffalo with its noise, which then dived into the bushes and ran away.

I was studying in Canada when Bhuvan Shome released, and when I returned to India, I got a job working as the fourth assistant director to Satyajit Ray in his film Jana Aranya in 1974-75. At that time, Mrinalda was editing his film Mrigayaa. His Hindi-speaking assistant director, Soumendra Batra, was not well and had to go back to Bombay. I worked on the film in the postproduction stage. That is where I again met Mrinalda and Geetadi. By then I had done a course in filmmaking and had a completely different perspective of Mrinalda as a filmmaker. I was re-introduced to him as a person.

It was the Emergency. Calcutta was in a turmoil and many of Mrinalda’s friends were in jail. I met a man deeply disturbed by the political situation around him. Mrinalda was more disturbed by seeing many stalwart people bend down and compromise with the powers that be. He was stunned that so many people bent their knees and so few stood up to be counted. Later when these people made ideological statements, Mrinalda would listen politely, smile and move on. He decided to make what he called “political films”. The problem was that when he consciously made ‘political films,’ they did not work. He was a political animal and his work sang his politics in every film.

Mrigayaa was a veiled film about the Emergency, where people had to revisit their roots in Adivasi India and the bones of their ancestors to find freedom. I learnt a lot from him, then. Learnt a lot about filmmaking and learnt of how to be a good human. Geetadi was always there to bring Mrinalda to ground. His anchor.

I will miss Mrinalda a lot and Geetadi even more. As I said, to me they are inseparable. Hope they found each other again.

Suhasini Mulay is an actor and a documentary filmmaker.