Sense of Sen
Saibal Chatterjee

Always Being Born: A Memoir
by Mrinal Sen
Stellar Publishers. 310 pages

This book is much like an early Mrinal Sen film. Provocative, non-linear, constantly moving forward and backward in time, tilting at imagined and real sacred cows and flitting in and out of an introspective mode, it pulsates with energy and is packed with wonderful vignettes of a life well lived. But the ultimate effect that this "something like an autobiography" has on the reader is more akin to what the more composed films of his later years had on their viewers.

Always Being Born is an insistent dialogue between the past and present – not unusual coming from a filmmaker who believes in always living in the present even as he clings on to the eventful past. But as Sen himself avers, even when he casts his mind back to what has gone by, he invests those memories with a contemporary resonance. That is precisely what makes this book such a fine read: it reveals as much about the filmmaker’s life as it does about the historical and cultural context in which he crafted his films, some of them true masterpieces of the cinematic art.

What exactly does Always Being Born tell the reader about this octogenarian iconoclast? It reveals a mind that is forever ticking. It unveils the soul of a rebel at ease with himself, his environs and his work. It discloses a spirit that does not ever flinch from courting controversies. Sen quotes the Danish physicist Niels Bohr in support of his approach to life and films: "Truth attains a quality only when it becomes controversial."

This freewheeling, self-authored chronicle of Mrinal Sen’s life does not mince words although it does reflect a certain mellowing down that has occurred with age. The book does not quite begin where most memoirs do – in the beginning. It begins with Calcutta. Sen prefers to call the "mercilessly maligned, dangerously loved" city that has sustained his creativity for five decades by its original name because he belongs "to a small minority of no-changers".

Calcutta, of course, occupies an important place in his life and, therefore, also in the book. "Over the years," Sen writes, "with this love-hate relationship growing steadily, my city had been acting… both as a stimulant and an irritant." He talks about the city as if it were a virtual member of his family consisting of actress-wife Gita, son Kunal and daughter-in-law Nisha (who live in faraway Chicago but are in constant touch through emails), as if it were a constant presence influencing him, his work and his thought processes.

His growing up years in Faridpur (now in Bangladesh), his relationship with his six brothers and five sisters (the youngest of whom drowned in a tragic accident), the stories about that formative phase that he heard from his mother, his family’s proximity to the well-loved Bangladeshi poet Jasimuddin, the impact of inexorable historical developments on his family, the years that he expended on working as a sales representative of a pharmaceutical firm, among all the other things that led to the making of the maverick, find mention in this lively account of the life and times of one of India’s greatest ever filmmakers.

Sen is best when he narrates his encounters with the gifted and the famous on his innumerable jaunts around the world. He refers to the days that he spent with celebrated German writer Gunter Grass and his wife in his Calcutta apartment, but loses no opportunity to berate the litterateur for the haste with which he tended to judge the city.

He also refers, tongue firmly in cheek, to the time he and Gabriel Garcia Marquez came close to a collision when they were on the jury of the Cannes Film Festival in the early 1980s. It happened because Sen liked a Cuban film by Humberto Solas, Cecilia, while Marquez had strong reservations about it. Yet the latter wanted Sen’s help in ensuring a Special Jury Prize for the film as a sort of recognition for Cuban cinema as a whole. The proposal was obviously destined to die a natural death.

The memoir unfolds in the manner of a film jumping back and forth from one vignette to a brief flashback and presenting little scenes vividly recalled and recorded. At the centre of the book, of course, lies references to the evolution of his filmmaking career, but they do not pan out in any particular chronological order. Just as well. The whimsical structure of Always Being Born makes it read more like a finely etched piece of fiction even though every word in it is drawn from real life, from personal experiences, from the womb of memory. Ignore the typos and the occasional lapses into verbosity and you have a memoir that is as lively as any you have ever read.