A surreal experience had unfolded at the near-empty Padmapukur flat of Mrinal Sen on his first death anniversary. That was exactly a year back on December 30. Dusk had just settled in and people – both known and unknown – had walked into the legend’s flat in the presence of the director’s son and daughter-in-law. In between sharing memories, Kunal and Nisha had gifted away his possessions, happily relinquishing their rights of inheritance and willingly turning personal possessions into public property.
A year has passed since then.
A difficult year, to be precise.
A raging pandemic had pressed the pause button on many other plans of donating his belongings. Apart from some of his awards, two “treatments” of his films that he had never made have survived. There was a diary of sorts that had details like laundry bills and travel dates. There were some letter exchanges that Kunal was personally annotating before he could distribute them as well. Most of his things are going to the University of Chicago archive since they have a great archiving infrastructure. “I could not deliver them yet because of Covid-19,” says Kunal from his Chicago residence.
And that flat? The one which was witness to 15 years of Mrinal’s intellectual brainstorming?
What happened to that?
Last year, three prospective buyers had expressed interest in it. But that was just a few months before the pandemic upended all plans.
Now, it lies unlocked.
With emptier walls. Throbbing with memories and perhaps layers of dust on windowpanes and cobwebs that haven’t been dusted for months. And the lone huge sepia-toned photograph of the master director that hangs in the dinning space.
Has that been gifted away as well?
Kunal hasn’t been to the flat for exactly a year now. Some things are still there, he says. The big photograph will go to the Film Heritage Foundation. Currently, it still hangs on that wall, awaiting in silence and loneliness the transfer of ownership. The two cots in the master bedroom that were once used by Mrinal and his wife were set aside for some relatives. “I am not sure what condition they are in,” he says. Cyclone Amphan had blown away two windows and it took him a while to find someone to fix them.
Last year on this day while gifting away the personal belongings, Kunal had said his connection with his parents will now be at a “conceptual level”. Having been through a pandemic and following the mandates of physical isolation, is processing bereavement painfully difficult? Or has it given more time to recollect, pause and remember things that had earlier gone unnoticed? “Neither — just good memories,” he says.
Sharing those good memories was the best memorial service that could have been organized for the legend on his second death anniversary – a day when Kunal wasn’t in Kolkata. On Facebook, he shared a never-seen-before family video that was shot on a trip to Madhupur during his childhood. He annotated it nicely, mentioning how in the 60s, Bengali middleclass families followed a trend of going on a ‘change’ during the winter months to some place in Bihar. The pace was slow and days began with “leisurely walks to the marketplace” followed by “aimless explorations, afternoon naps, long walks, books and satisfying meals”. A two minutes forty seconds duration was shot during one such winter trip in 1966-67 to a small town called Madhupur. “It was me, my parents, my grandmother, three of my uncles, and the only dog I ever had – Piku. Just before this my father bought an 8mm movie camera from a tourist who was apparently trying to replenish his cash reserves. I bought a roll of film and took it with me. The shots in this film roll was captured either by me or my father. However, since we didn’t have a projector to view the results, it remained unseen until a few years ago when I saw an advertisement for a company that converts 8mm films to video. This is what came out of this badly damaged film. Over the years, death has taken away everyone who were part of this trip, except me. The last to go was my father, who died exactly two years ago on this very day,” he wrote.
Did the director ever get to see this video? “I think he enjoyed it, but towards the end his reactions were subdued,” Kunal says. Though soundless, this video is an invaluable document. Not only because of its nostalgic content but also the documentation of life and living during the 60s. While most of the video follows little Kunal scampering around before riding a horse-drawn carriage, one frame has a shot of Mrinal lighting up a cigarette. Looking radiant in all frames, Gita’s video throws up a pleasant surprise when she is shown playing a game of cricket.
Has he ever wondered what if his parents were alive during lockdown? How would he have dealt with the fear of being parked in Chicago and unable to fly down to meet them? Kunal admits that he thinks about it “all the time”. So many people he knows had to go through “that nightmare”. “It is strange to say so, but I am glad that we didn’t have to face that situation,” he says.
Pandemic has made loss an almost-household story. Yet, it is difficult to map the emotions surrounding this loss. The other thing that it has done is to make each of us confront some truths of life head-on. One among them is the importance of letting go. The other is the art of holding on by stringing together unfinished sentences punctuated by memories and memoirs.
Views expressed above are the author’s own.
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