It would be convenient to label Iti Mrinalini autobiographical. But the director herself says that though there are tiny incidents picked out of her real life experiences, Mrinalini, the character and the events in her life are pure fiction.
Tiny Aparna Sen touches are scattered beautifully, generously but almost unobtrusively throughout the film, at times so subtle that you hardly notice them. The hurried ‘temple marriage’ Mrinalini’s lover and filmmaker Siddhartha Sarkar (Rajat Kapoor) organizes to appease Mrinalini because he is a happily married man is captured in a few, silent shots, Mrinalini’s face filled with an uncertain, shaky smile. The click of the media’s hidden camera is heard on the soundtrack as the visuals freeze and turn Black-and-White when Mrinalini and Siddhartha take their daughter Shona on a trip to the Zoological Gardens in Alipore. The camera cuts to the ageing Mrinalini looking at the old news clippings, tearing them and throwing them into the bin. The simple and innocent way in which the growing Shona tells Mrinalini, on a trip to the beach that she knows who her real parents are touches a deep chord somewhere. Top star Mrinalini openly insulting a famous producer by rejecting his offer because he once replaced her in a big film with another star is filled with the aura, air and arrogance only a star is capable of.
After Shona’s death, Chitan Nair (Koushik Sen), a famous writer who is a very close friend of Mrinalini, brings her to visit Meera, his wife in Pondicherry, crippled of arthritis at a young age. Mrinalini has never met the woman before. Meera opens her arms to welcome her from her wheel-chair. Mrinalini walks up to her and collapses on her lap, breaking into heart-wrenching tears. As Meera softly runs her hand over her head, the soundtrack fills up with muffled sobs of the grieving Mrinalini. This is one of the most moving moments in the film. Just before the climax, the ageing Mrinalini takes her German Shepherd Begum out for a walk. She finds the newspaper slipped under the door. She picks it up to glance through the headlines that scream of bomb blasts in the Eastern parts of the city. She keeps it on the chest by the door, steps out and pulls it shut. It is a prologue to what happens in the end. But it is so subtle that one can easily miss it.
The late Somak Mukherjee’s expressive camera moves back and forth through time, place, people and backdrop without losing sight of the main subject – Mrinalini, and the people who matter differently to her at different points of her life. Siddhartha who is rather indifferent to Shona, takes out his wallet once after he learns of her death in an air crash. The front pocket shows a picture of his two sons. He digs into the back pocket to ferret out an old, jaded and almost spoilt Black-and-White still of Shona as a little girl spread over his chest. The camera catches the back of his head in close-up, and we get to see the picture from over his shoulder. It is an eloquent, point-of-view perspective pregnant with meaning because the sound track is silent. In one scene, the camera backtracks from a sudden, confusing close-up of a fish aquarium to show a very young Mrinalini whispering and laughing and being made love to by her first love Abhijeet (Saheb Bhattacharya), a Naxalite shot down by the police soon after. The actual scene of Saheb falling to gunshots is captured in long shots, slightly out of focus. The US-returned director Imtiaz Choudhury (Priyanshu Chatterjee)’s increasing interest in a new and rising star (Ananya Chatterjee) is suggested with the camera closing in on his hand rising from the girl’s waist up to her bare back at the premiere of Mrinalini’s comeback film, Born of the Sun, directed by Imtiaz.
The costumes of each character are designed with care to reflect the time they functioned in, the places they belonged to and the professions they were in. So the 1970s star Mrinalini as a young woman is always attired in a sari, while Chintan Nair wears khadi jackets with his hair combed back and stubble on his chin. The older Mrinalini is more colourful in ethnic saris and jewellery who suddenly creates the ‘look’ for her comeback as Kunti within a few minutes and her director Imtiaz is stunned.
There is a clear throw back to the fire incident during the shooting of Mehboob’s Mother India. The fire spread out threatening to swallow Nargis, who played the title role. Sunil Dutt, playing her son in the film rescued her from the fire and saved her life. In Iti Mrinalini, in a studio fire while shooting Born of the Sun, Mrinalini is caught in a real fire and rescued by her director-co-star and lover Imtiaz. When she regains consciousness, she asks after her dresser Kamala-di she is close to. But Kamala never comes out of the fire. We see her faded photograph in Black-and-White gracing the wall of an inside room later.
Most of the walls in Mrinalini’s spacious apartment are filled with a popular sketch of Charlie Chaplin, a big poster of the Beatles in Black-and-White, and a huge blow-up of Marlyn Monroe. Over time, the other walls fill up with Mrinalini’s portraits at different points of time caught in different angles and different ages. In brief, director Aparna Sen has spared nothing to make this film the most lavishly mounted production of her directorial career.
The characterizations derive a lot of their drama, their strength and their conflicts from the excellently woven script that tends to go awry towards the end. Konkona as the young Mrinalini gives another award-worthy performance. Her less-than-beautiful screen presence suits the character to a tee as not all successful stars begin in films by virtue of their looks. She fills in the varying shades of the character with a masterful performance. Koushik Sen’s Chintan Nair with his pronounced South Indian accent comes next in terms of control and restraint in a portrayal that could easily have gone haywire. Rajat Kapoor suits Siddhartha Sarkar’s dual personality with his suave sophistication very well enriched with his lines dubbed by Anjan Dutt. Saheb tries to do his best in a sketchy role while Priyanshu as Imtiaz is self-conscious at some points. Aparna Sen as the older Mrinalini is more glamorous than her younger counterpart, more mature and more in pain. But it is Aparna Sen the screen actress we have known who keeps peeping out from behind Mrinalini the actress in the film. She sounds tired, lonely and lost which is appropriate. But she also appears self-conscious at times, which is not.
The brief cameos are well done specially Kamala-di and little Shona whose names do not feature in the credits. Rita Koiral as Moti the maid, Locket Chatterjee as Siddhartha’s intelligent and understanding wife, Gargi Roy Choudhury as the famous yester-year star Rani who cleverly cuts Mrinalini out of the cast of Durgesh Nandini, Suzanne Bernert as Julia, Mrinalini’s brother Ronojoy Mitra’s wife is touching while Sirjit as Ronojoy is the sole sore point - like a block of wood, sans emotion or expression.
Debajyoti Mishra’s musical score with one fast Latino number that is also the title song of one of Mrinalini’s early films, one Tagore song and one poem of Sunil Gangopadhyay set to music is meaningful, melodious and poignant.
So what is wrong? The film gets too soppy and sentimental along the way as the narrative comes back to the sad, tearful Mrinalini trying to write out her suicide note. It is too pessimistic a film for Aparna Sen. The screenplay plays her out as a victim thoughout the story underscores her as a willing ‘victim’ at times. Her relationship with Siddhartha was a consensual one and so was her brief affair with Imtiaz. So why should she paint herself a martyr? Not like Aparna Sen at all! It needs stretching one’s imagination a bit too far to find the young Mrinalini quoting WB Yeats and Tagore from memory though one never learns anything about her academic background or her love for reading. The closure is both defeatist and pessimistic, something that is unique in Aparna Sen’s directorial oeuvre. But then, extending Chintan Nair’s philosophical outpourings that ideal love brooks no expectations and gives freedom to the one loved, Sen too deserves the freedom to explore spaces within cinema she has never explored before.