“Padatik,” a birth centenary homage to Indian auteur Mrinal Sen, is in post-production and is aiming to launch at a major film festival this fall. Sen is probably India’s most revered filmmaker after Satyajit Ray.
Sen was born on May 14, 1923 in Faridpur, British India, now in Bangladesh and died in 2018, leaving behind a glittering array of work, most of which are considered landmarks of Indian cinema, including “Neel Akasher Neechey” (1959), “Baishey Shravana” (1960), “Akash Kusum” (1965), “Bhuvan Shome”(1969), “Interview,” (1971), “Calcutta 71” (1972), “Padatik” (1973), “Mrigayaa” (1976), “Ek Din Pratidin” (1979), “Akaler Sandhane” (1980), “Kharij” (1982) and “Khandhar” (1983).
Sen worked in what was an extraordinarily fecund period for Bengali-language cinema, based in the eastern Indian film stronghold Calcutta (now Kolkata). His contemporaries included the globally lauded Ray, Ritwik Ghatak and Tapan Sinha. Like Ray and Sinha, Sen was also feted at the world’s major film festivals, winning awards at Cannes, Venice and Berlin. In addition, Sen was accorded the Dadasaheb Phalke award, India’s highest film honor.
“The overarching influence of the Holy Trinity [Ray, Ghatak, Sen], as well as Tapan Sinha has been huge right from my childhood,” “Padatik” director Srijit Mukherji told Variety. Mukherji debuted with “Autograph” (2010), which was an homage to Ray’s “Nayak” (1966) and he says that the film-within-film portions of the feature draw from “Akaler Sandhane,” his favorite Sen film. “How the blurring of the line between reel and real can create dramatic and terse moments on celluloid is something which ‘Akaler Sandhane’ very definitely drives home,” Mukherji said. The filmmaker adds that “Akaler Sandhane,” “Kharij” and “Khandhar” have extensively influenced his body of work at a subliminal level, “Which is why on the centenary it was gurudakshina, a sub-continental tradition of paying tribute to one of the masters from whom you’ve learned your craft.”
Though he had roots in neorealism, Ray was considered a proponent of the classical school of filmmaking. Sen was anything but and used every technique at his disposal, often raw and edgy, to tell angry, urgent and political stories.
“He was, in a lot of ways what you call nowadays an indie filmmaker, a person who cocked a snook at conventions, bargained with producers to reduce his budget instead of increasing it, because he knew that with the increased budget would come increased interference. He took a camera and went onto the streets, had absolutely spontaneous, impromptu organic shooting methods,” Mukherji said. “Whenever I do guerrilla shoots on the streets of Kolkata or any city in the country, actually, a part of me celebrates Mrinal Sen – because that is something which is essential to his filmmaking, handheld camera, fourth wall breaking, guerrilla shoots, impromptu sequences and passages.”
Mukherji based the “Padatik” script on Sen’s journals, articles, essays and letters; books by Shiladitya Sen and Dipankar Mukhopadhyay; personal anecdotes from the upcoming memoir “Bondhu,” by Mrinal Sen’s son Kunal, who also contributed many more details of his father’s life; and personal accounts and oral history from discussions with film studies professor Sanjoy Mukhopadhyay, film collector Debasis Mukhopadhyay and actors who Sen had worked with, including Dhritiman Chatterjee, Mamata Shankar and Anjan Dutt.
In “Padatik,” Sen is played by noted Bangladeshi actor Chanchal Chowdhury. Mukherji had noticed the actor’s work in streamer Hoichoi’s original series “Karagar” and reached out to him. Prep time was limited because the idea was to get the film ready in time for Sen’s birth centenary. “Just being a lookalike is not enough for a biopic, especially one of a legend like Mrinal Sen,” Chowdhury told Variety. “My quest was to convey the sense of Sen’s inner man. I took up that challenge.”
The actor says that getting to know the real Sen, especially his ideals and principles, during his research for the role was his biggest reward during the process of making the film. “People may know Sen’s films, but not necessarily his principles and it was our responsibility to convey the sense of the creator to the audience,” Chowdhury said. The actor praises the efforts of the film’s producer Firdausul Hasan in bringing the project to life.
Hasan previously produced “Aparajito” (2022), a fictionalized biopic of Ray, and “Mahananda,” a fictionalized version of the life of author Mahasweta Devi.
“I am here driven by my passion and it’s not always that I make films for money. Film is my identity, I should make a good film that will have archival value,” Hasan told Variety. “For me film is not only entertainment, for me film is also art and culture.”
About “Padatik” Hasan says, “Visually people will experience Sen’s struggle, his life, his philosophy, his approach towards film, his hardships, his relationship with Ray and Ghatak,” Hasan said. “And people will be able to see that we have created that era, they can go back in a time machine and see how things were at that time.”
The “Padatik” team’s ambition is to reestablish Sen’s rightful place in the pantheon of Indian cinema in the year of his birth centenary.
“Unfortunately, in India, even in Bengal, he’s fast receded from the public memory, his effect has not been as long lasting or not that celebrated as Satyajit Ray,” Mukherji said. “I’m hoping that Kolkata and India will wake up to his films and recognize the person who started the Indian New Wave.”
“The great thing about him was the way he celebrated the city of Kolkata and enshrined and documented the political history of the city and in fact, the country is incredible,” Mukherji added. “He is socially and cinematically one of the giants of Indian cinema, a status, which should be celebrated, more so because this is a centenary, and I hope this film will be a small step in that direction.”