Mrinal Sen (1923-2018) - He wore his fame lightly, says Shabana Azmi
Shabana Azmi pens a personal tribute to the giant of world cinema, Mrinal Sen, who passed away on Sunday
I cannot separate the man from the filmmaker. He was like his films, a bundle of paradoxes - strong but gentle, urbane but rustic, both a creator and an iconoclast who was very sensitive and very human.
He was deeply invested in the world around him, and did not hesitate to question his own frailties through his films. That's what made his such a strong voice. I remember a very moving afternoon during the making of Ek Din Achanak. Mrinal da was in an unusually quiet mood. When I asked what was bothering him, he said, "Perhaps the character [played by Dr Sriram Lagoo] disappears in the film because he has come to terms with his own mediocrity. Maybe it's time I face my own.
Shabana Azmi with Mrinal Sen
"I didn't say anything, only sat by his side holding his hand. I knew he needed quiet time. Mrinal Sen was by no means mediocre. But the fact that he had the courage to question himself, with objectivity, made him who he was. I drank back the tears that had filled my eyes, and quietly started humming a tune. We sat there, hand-in-hand, for what seemed like an eternity.
He loved his wife Geeta, and would always look for her approval. He'd often get impatient when it took its time to come. Theirs was a beautiful relationship. They depended heavily on each other, but both had strong individual identities. When I last met him earlier this year, he could speak very little. Geeta di's name came up frequently. It was obvious hers was the presence he missed the most.
He wore his fame lightly, but when attacked, would fight back tooth-and-nail. That's what kept the child in him alive, I guess. Mrinal da was an extraordinarily important filmmaker, because he had a maverick streak that made his films edgy and unpredictable. Most of the times, they worked. Sometimes, they didn't. But they could not be ignored. His body of work is prolific. Kharij, Ek Din Achanak and Khandhar are my favourites. I loved working with him in all three films - Khandar, Genesis, and Ek Din Achanak. I consider Khandar to be the film in which I made the least number of mistakes. The protagonist, Jamini, is a character I love deeply, and, strange though it may seem, saw a lot of Mrinal da in her - her vulnerability, self-respect, her refusal to be a victim.
I was traumatised when Mrinal da decided that my last shot in the film Khandar - where my face appears to be embedded into the ruins - would be shot first. I protested, but he would have none of it. In hindsight, I think that is what helped me internalise Jamini. It was a risk, but it worked owing to his confidence that he could pull it off! I was surprised to discover that, on the outside, I may have a gregarious front, but there is also a shy Jamini in the recesses of my being. I'm thankful to Mrinal da for helping me discover that.
I am deeply saddened by Mrinal da's loss. But I seek consolation in the fact that the last time I met him will be the one I will always cherish. I was asked to give him the Filmfare Lifetime Achievement Award and was warned he was frail and uncommunicative. I approached him with some trepidation, but was delighted to find that not only did he recognise me, he also hugged me warmly. We spent time holding each other's hands in silence, as we had once done.
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