Features & Opinion

The ‘Deaths’ in Iti Mrinalini

By Amitava Nag • Published on August 9, 2011

The deaths hence of Iti Mrinalini are laden with self-indulgence, big philosophies and prophecies. Somehow in between, life slipped through. This is the reason why the film and the deaths within it almost always fail to connect. The tragedy of absence – in individual and in collective society is narrated in thin air and dissolves.

[D]eath is a paradox – it announces an absence yet it is profound and revered in religions. It is a bonding which marks a distance – between us and within us. This relativism of death makes it an abstraction of separation – intrigues longing and masquerades as permanence.  Death therefore essentially links memories to absolutism and in turn rejects itself. In Hindu philosophy of re-birth and the circle (and cycle) of life, however, death is only a beginning of a new life, and memoirs don’t hold much significance as such since anyway only the soul changes the body on rebirth –

“A man acts according to the desires to which he clings. After death he goes to the next world bearing in his mind the subtle impressions of his deeds; and after reaping there the harvest of his deeds, he returns again to this world of action. Thus, he who has desires continues subject to rebirth.”  Shukla Yajur Veda, Brihadaranyaka Upanishad (4.4.5-6)

Separation, absence, death and longing have been the favourite subjects amongst creative persons; from novelists to poets, artists and film makers. Arthur Koestler, noted author, wrote before his own suicide: “If the word death were absent from our vocabulary, our great works of literature would have remained unwritten, pyramids and cathedrals would not exist, nor works of religious art-and all art of religious or magic origin. ” Or, the famous Norwegian artist Edward Munch accepted, “Without anxiety and illness I should have been like a ship without a rudder.”

In cinema as well, the concept of absence marked by death has been symbolic in representation. Ingmar Bergman is one such director who toyed with this idea of death in conjunction with religious metaphors, Michelangelo Antonioni on the other hand narrated death with non-communication and painted the canvas red. Back home Ray’s Apu Trilogy holds death in substance and as sustenance for life, Ghatak epitomized nostalgia as a death of self and persistence of memory. Aparna Sen’s latest film Iti Mrinalinidealing with death and its role as precursor of life in absence hence, is not a new or a striking endeavour. In this short scope we will try to see how death and absence played key roles in defining the philosophy of this narrative.

There are three physical deaths in the film – the one of Abhi, Mrinalini’s college boyfriend who was a Naxalite, in the later part that of her dresser Kamala and in between, her only daughter Sohini who died in a plane accident. Of these, the first and the second mentioned here have been shown as incidents which have importance in Mrinalini’s life but just as a loss of a close acquaintance. The love relation with Abhi was so minimally shown on screen (apart from their dubious love-making scene) that it or he, never become important for us to notice. On the contrary, Kamala had been a steadfast support, muted in her presence yet meaningful in her duties. She for once at-least advised the young Mrinalini to give up her case with Siddhartha, the married film director.

The death of Sohini aka Sona – Mrinalini’s daughter with Siddhartha was a blow to love-torn Mrinalini. It took a screen time much longer, is set up poignantly and is sure to catch your heart. It follows the proverbial “five stages of grief” from Denial to Acceptanceand is probably the ‘only’ natural instinct that any common audience can relate to (most of the others – the extra marital affairs and the mandatory heart-breaks therein due to peer rivalry etc can be dismissed by the general audience as something related to the ‘film world’ only). This is the phase where Chintan Nair, the novelist friend of Mrinalini plays the vital cog – he is a support one rarely finds in life.  Though, question can be raised whether he could have been the same if his wife were not crippled with Arthritis? If we choose to ignore that question, the loss of a child through accidental death brings us to this death paradox. This loss, attenuated by a visit to the Nair-couple reaches Mrinalini exactly where? From the narrative we come to know that she left cinema after Satyajit Ray’s demise. How did she manage, cope and sustain life in between? Did she defeat it with her remembrances of him? This is all unknown. Because Aparna Sen chose a jump from that time to the fateful night when she opens her life to herself and the box of pictures.

This is where the film started with – the fourth death. The death of self – the mind and the soul happened, it seems long back. With suicide, Mrinalini wishes to part with the mortal remains. It is interesting hence, on the eve of embarking to this journey better unknown to all, she herself tries to conquer death with her nostalgia. Is it a funeral to the self only since there is probably no one who will subvert Mrinalini’s absence in their lives by her joyful memories? It could well be. The prelude and the establishing shots cannot but make the audience remember Max Ophuls’s Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948) – like Lisa (a charming Joan Fontaine), Mrinalini (a tired Aparna Sen) also pens her suicide note. We are soon riding the flashback train with Mrinalini’s nostalgia from the turbulent 70’s to her becoming a top actress and the controversies. Interspersed, the aged Mrinalini tears up each time the suicide note. This conquest of the desire to die is from within – helped by the pictures, paper cuttings which all bring in nostalgia.  However one observation can be – the emphasis of the screenplay to show Mrinalini as a victim. It can be argued, in few cases with her men, she was a ‘willing’ victim. This shallows the depth of her emotional turmoil with them or in-spite of them. Associating tragedy inflicted by patriarchy is such a clichéd currency that it seldom sells now. In the context of Indian cinema two films which come rightly in mind are Guru Dutt’s epic Kaagaz Ke Phool (1959) and Shyam Benegal’s Bhumika (1977). Even though Guru Dutt had harped on the longing bells to the extent of self-destruction and the death of a relationship (marital in this case), the film is a tribute to the cinema of the 40’s and 50’s of Bombay. Bhumika on the other hand is a cut-above representation of the early Indian film industry and a woman’s journey through it – tragic yet unrepentant.

The deaths hence of Iti Mrinalini are laden with self-indulgence, big philosophies and prophecies. Somehow in between, life slipped through. This is the reason why the film and the deaths within it almost always fail to connect. The tragedy of absence – in individual and in collective society is narrated in thin air and dissolves. The final scene where we find Mrinalini deciding to forego her decision of suicide (since she got a message from Chintan that he is coming – for another philosophical journey?, may be) but eventually lying dead from a gunshot when night is killed by the morning; the sun becomes trivial in interpretation.

Only the longing, the unending quest and the feeling of loss due to Sona’s death is over-encompassing. How to give enough to those who survive, not for us only – the living but more so for those who are so ceremonious with their absence as well.  If only the film showed us some glimpses of this herculean journey of the unfortunate!

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One Response to “The ‘Deaths’ in Iti Mrinalini”


    This is an insightful piece – perhaps the most insightful so far as Iti Mrinalini goes which, unlike Aparna Sen’s general ouovre, lacks the power, the optimism and the note of hope her films are signatured by. I have perhaps been one of her greatest fans – as director – not as an actress – but this film has led me to some serious rethinking. Wonderful article Amitava and I must admit that I lack the academic inferences you do so am more impulsive and reflective and momentary than you are. Wonderful indeed!

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