Who is Gita Sen? Rather, who was Gita Sen? Some Bengalis know her as the wife of the great filmmaker Mrinal Sen. Some know her also as an actress who featured in a few films directed by her husband. But beyond West Bengal, few people know who Gita Sen was, how she looked, what kind of a lady she was. Film festival buffs might have chanced upon the quiet, smiling and petite, sari-clad lady beside the charismatic personality of Mrinal Sen, and concluded that the lady in question might be his wife. But sadly, few beyond those who frequented the Sens or knew them closely, were acquainted with this gracious lady who perhaps wilfully quit acting, first on stage, then in films directed by men other than her husband, and finally, even in her husband’s films.
Fans and admirers of Mrinal Sen will remember the slender woman in elderly roles in films like Chaalchitra, Calcutta 71 (1972), Chorus (1974), Ekdin Pratidin (1979), Aakaler Sandhaney (1980) and Khandahar (1983). She also acted in Ritwik Ghatak’s Nagarik when she was not yet married to Mrinal Sen and later, in plays produced and directed by Utpal Dutt under his banner Little Theatre Group. She did an outstanding cameo in Shyam Benegal’s Aarohan in which she plays the widowed mother of a daughter and follows her to Calcutta where, worried to death about the fate of her young daughter, she collapses and breaks down.
Gita Sen’s career as an actress preceded Mrinal Sen’s entry into films. She stepped back to evolve into a solid support system for her husband, as he grew from fame to fame, and her son who went to the US for higher studies, and reached the top of his profession as chief technical development officer for Encyclopaedia Britannica, and is settled in Chicago with his wife Nisha.Says the Sens’ only child Kunal, “My mother grew up in extreme poverty. Her father, a freedom fighter, fell ill while in jail, and the authorities did not want the inconvenience of a dead political prisoner on their hands and released him towards the end. He was around 35 then, and died soon after. Ma was the eldest daughter and had to take responsibility of her mother and two younger siblings. She was just 15. That is when she started working, among other things, as an actress. She had to survive on favours from relatives and friends, and developed a keen sense of adjusting to everyone and everything. Even after she got married, my father had no income, and she once again had to keep everyone around her happy. I think this developed a deeper than usual sense of responsibility towards her family at the expense of her own wellbeing.”
Gita Sen and Mrinal Sen were very close. She was always there beside him, be it the visit to Tiananmen Square in Beijing soon after the student revolution in China, or at Cannes, or Locarno or Venice or at the dozens of festivals within India. She talked a little, smiled a great deal and was simply dressed in a sari. Theirs was an inter-caste marriage, very unwelcome at that time. Besides, Mrinal Sen was jobless.
Did she regret having quit films? Kunal has no definite answer. “I don’t think she had any regrets or felt particularly bad that she was not acting. She just assumed this to be her proper role. In the process, she made my father even more dependent on her. My father and I enjoyed the comfort of being looked after, and rather selfishly enjoyed the benefits without pausing to think whether things could have been different. It remains a mystery why my father did not think of casting her until Calcutta 71. For some reason he never thought of her as a film actress, but I do not think it was a conscious thought. She got offers from almost all major film directors of that period, and she would either reject them, or agree, but back out at the last moment. I think we could have seen more of her talents if she was a little more self-centred, but it is hard to say how that could have affected our family life.”
Her passing away on 16 January 2017 at the age of 87, after a cerebral attack was a major piece of news in every national and local paper, followed by a beautiful tribute paid to her by leading stars and directors who had worked with Mrinal Sen. This included a photographic exhibition of which she was the central figure. Why, then, was she not celebrated, acknowledged or recognised when she was alive except as the wife of one of the greatest filmmakers of India?