Akash Kusum (1965)
Director: Mrinal Sen; Writer: Mrinal Sen, Ashish Burman; Producer: R.D. Bansal; Cinematographer: Sailaja Chatterjee; Editor: Gadadhar Naskar; Cast: Aparna Sen, Soumitra Chatterjee, Subhendu Chatterjee, Haradhan Bannerjee, Sova Sen, Sati Devi, Prafullabala Devi, Gyanesh Mukherjee
Duration: 01:36:02; Aspect Ratio: 1.302:1; Hue: 92.117; Saturation: 0.000; Lightness: 0.318; Volume: 0.187; Cuts per Minute: 6.601; Words per Minute: 63.065
Summary: After seeing Truffaut’s Les Quatre Cents Coups (1959) and Jules et Jim (1961) early in 1965, Sen felt inspired to make this bitter-sweet romance set in Calcutta. The lower-middle-class Ajay Sarkar (Soumitra Chatterjee) finds himself having to pretend to be a successful businessman in order to win the hand of Monica (Sen), the daughter of an affluent family. In the end he is exposed as a con man, his own business dealings go wrong and the romance comes to grief. Sen later said that he wanted a film that would ‘physically look youthful’, scripting in his street scenes, extensive use of still frames, voiceovers, and emphasis on unrehearsed sound effects. It sparked a major debate in the press between Burman, Sen, Satyajit Ray and others about notions of topicality, with Ray arguing that despite the ‘modish narrative devices and [s]ome lively details of city life’, and despite the film-makers’ belief ‘that they have made an angry film about struggling youth assailing the bastion of class’, the hero’s behaviour in fact ‘dates back to antiquity’ (cf. Sen, 1977). Ray later continued his tirade against what he thought was the French cinema-inspired ‘new wave’ of the 70s (cf. New Indian Cinema).
Release date: 16 July, 1965 (Sree, Prachi, Indira)
New Cinemas Project
The name 'Akash Kusum' ('Up In The Air') is also a Bengali idiom which roughly translates to 'castles in the air'. The title is an allusion to the protagonists impossible dreams and aspirations and his attempts to achieve the impossible. The story, written by Ashish Burman, is extremely quixotic in the most literal sense of the term: the protagonist through the course of the film resorts to the the most outlandish and fantastic of situations much in the manner of Miguel de Cervantes' 'Don Quixote'. One of Sen's most controversial films from his early days, the film is important because it marks a shift in form and content in his oeuvre which would culminate in 'Bhuvan Shome' four years later.
One of the most important influences behind the film was the French New Wave, especially the first films of Francois Truffaut: 'The 400 Blows' (1959) and 'Jules et Jim' (1962). Mrinal Sen himself has spoken at length about the influence of Truffaut and his films on his vision and on the conception of 'Akash Kusum'. Consequently, many New Wave techniques are seen in the film, used frequently and indiscriminately, hitherto unprecedented in Indian cinema: newsreel footage, photographic stills, freeze frames, panning shots, rapid changes of scene, irony and sarcasm, reference to other films and also to elements from popular culture, voice-over narration. Many of these techniques can be seen in the opening sequence itself when the protagonist Ajay is introduced to Monika.
Ajay is a singer but his attitude reveals it is a means to an end and not something he has ever taken seriously. Instead, he is keen on making his name in business. At the same time, he is also a compulsive liar, not by habit per se, but by the need to keep up appearances.
It becomes apparent that Ajay has fallen in love with Monika after their first meeting. Many of his fantasies, throughout the film, are depicted in freeze frames to demarcate them from the harsh reality he inhabits.
The song he sings is Rabindranath Tagore's 'Sonar Horin Chai' ('I want a golden deer, no matter what anyone says'). It alludes to the impossible dreams he harbors, which are especially brought to focus by his abject living conditions and financial state.
Phani (Gyanesh Mukherjee), a contractor and middle-man with whom Ajay has gone into business.
Ajay has trouble dealing with his financial condition, leading him to lie or make up a series of fanciful stories. This extends to almost every other person he meets. Like here, he tells Phani that there are too many people in the house so they would have to talk in the nearby tea-stall.
He has lost some money he had invested through Phani in the business venture he has been trying to set up in collaboration with the older man.
Their conversation regarding the business is heavily laced with innuendo - the entire discussion makes it seem they are dealing in contraband goods or something similarly illegal. The business, as it is eventually revealed, involves the buying, repair and reselling of scientific precision instruments in the local market. The furtive nature of the conversation (the tight close-ups whenever they are discussing the financial or logistical aspects) ominously foregrounds the unstable and unreliable nature of the arrangement.
The local wastrel, listening in, is a recurrent figure in the film. They are both similar people in similar predicaments who have taken different approaches to the squalor in their lives - Ajay in his fits of speculative fantasy and the other man as the local rowdy. The 60s were turbulent times for the middle-class in Bengal with the Independence, Partition and the crash of the Nehruvian dream piling on one another. Sens's objective had been to make a film about the youth of the time, angry and battering against the class-barriers. The two men here, represent two very different aspects of this phenomenon.
Monika comes in search of Ajay and chances upon him writing autographs for fans. He has admitted before that he does not consider singing as a serious calling, so his popularity is all the more ironical.
It is entirely possible that his claim is fabricated - a background in classical music would automatically elevate his class position within the artist community. His singing career is inconsequential to their conversation; they are both more concerned with his business.
An example of multiple cinematic devices used to create an effect of deliberate artifice: the entire sequence has the dialogue mostly off-camera with the person in the frame silent or listening, along with a series of fluid pans and close-up shots. About the use of multiple such devices Sen has remarked: "I made Akash Kusum in 1965. It was all about the 'exploits' of a modern young man, in a desperate bid to overcome the problems of wealth or the lack of it. It may be broadly defined as a comedy. The evident innovations in Akash Kusum were done mostly out of necessity and partly out of sheer playfulness. And, at times, also to shock the conservative Indian audience." [‘An Uncertain Journey’, edited version of a paper read at NIAS, Bangalore, 1994 (From, ‘Montage – Mrinal Sen: Life, Politics, Cinema’, Seagull Books, Calcutta, 2002)]
Ajay cannot obviously give them his address. Considering what one has seen of his living conditions, it would entirely expose his lies (the sudden zoom mimics the jolt he receives at this unexpected development). The need to maintain appearances prompt him to fabricate a new set of things, about his home.
Ajay's friend Satyan (Subhendu Chatterjee in his first film role); he comes from an class-position completely contrary to Ajay's; this, in fact, foregrounds their easy camaraderie. Satyen is aware of Ajay's aspirations of moving up the class gradient and his many ideas to achieve the same.
It becomes evident that the phone number he has given to Monika (in fact, it seems he gives the same number to everyone) belongs to Satyen. Ajay's plan, evidently, is to pretend all this property belongs to him in order to impress Monika, till he can make it true after the success of his business. It is an incredible set of wagers, reckless and audacious, in his quest to overcome the class barrier.
Ajay's mother is content with him holding down a simple job and earning a basic salary while he does not wish to work for someone else. It is a contrary set of worldviews, which further explains why Ajay feels so out of place in his own surroundings and fabricates the reality he wishes to inhabit.
Ajay had been laid off from his previous job; unemployment and its effects on the middle-class youth, especially in the socio-political scenario of the 60s and early 70s, is a theme Sen would return to in 'Interview' a few years later.
The reference to the wealth of the city cuts to a shot of the race-course, a quintessential symbol of urban excess, where a race is in progress, and freeze frames of the betting stands.
Phani's motives are unclear; while he has assured Ajay of there not being a single glitch in their plans, there is a constant indication in his dealings of there being something amiss. He persuades Ajay to not try out any of the other suppliers lest they offend the one they have fixed.
Ajay is petrified by the prospect of being noticed by Monika on the street; to him it seems to jeopardize all that he has carefully concocted about his life. His desperation to hide is thus both comic and also symptomatic of how he is caught up between appearances and his reality.
Monika is reciting from W. B. Yeats' 'The Stolen Child' (1889). The poem, inspired by Irish legends, is about fairies beguiling children and luring them away. Guile is intrinsic to the narrative of 'Akash Kusum' thematically. Ajay calls right at that moment and gives an entirely fictionalised account of the encounter on the road earlier.
References to popular culture, cinema, and even particular films, is an intrinsic element of the New Wave. The two make plans to watch 'Divorce: Italian Style', the iconic 1961 Italian comedy by Pietro Germi starring Marcello Mastroianni. The choice of the film is significant - 'Divorce: Italian Style' is considered one of the finest satires of Sicily's male-chauvinist culture, and has numerous comic scenes of the protagonist (Mastroianni) dreaming about the most fantastic scenarios of murdering his wife - the comparison with Ajay's incredible schemes is quite evident.
Many of the things Ajay makes up are purely to satisfy his need to project a certain image of himself, like the mock-consultation of his diary to see if he can schedule the film with Monika.
Shringar (the erotic) is the focal theme of Kangra paintings with the Bhakti cult as the driving force and the love story of Radha and Krishna as the most oft-cited source. The cinema hall foregrounds an interesting space: both private (Monika making plans for chinese food with Ajay) and public (the crowd watching the trailer on the erotic Kangra paintings, the old man shouting at the couple for being distrubed).
The business venture involves repairing precision instruments (voltmeter/galvanometer) and supplying them to schools and laboratories, especially when foreign import of these goods were banned at the time. All the conversation regarding the business till now has revealed one crucial point: Ajay himself is not entirely aware of the objects they are dealing with and most of the major decisions regarding this are taken by Phani. This, along with him pressing Ajay for more money, arguably for the men working on the machines, only serves to further intensify the doubts against Phani's motives.
Their bone of contention is a local girl who is apparently goring around with a boy from another locality. For the unemployed youth of the locality, who spend their days in the local club involved with the smallest of things that happen around them, such matters would often be of grave significance, concerning questions of morality and honour.
With Satyen as financier, Ajay has finally opened a small office for his venture. It is almost a half-office with Ajay having to share his telephone with another.
Satyen is skeptical about the machines, especially since they were marked for disposal before being repaired. Ajay, unfazed, is expecting that the laws of demand and supply will necessarily ensure that this business will boom due to the ban on export and import. He asserts that his is not a 'speculation business' even though that what it resembles. The two men exhibit two necessarily contrary worldviews - the speculative and the pragmatic - as underlined by Satyen's teasing comment that unlike the rest of the world Ajay luck's is not restricted to his forehead (in Bengali the word for forehead, 'kapaal', also stands for luck or fate) but encompasses his whole being.
The roof is somewhere in Dalhousie Square; the spire of the Armenian church is visible right in front as the camera pans. It is the quintessential office hub of the city, at least the only one for the longest time. As the centre of commerce and business in Calcutta, it is the perfect setting for Ajay's incredible dreams of buying the whole city. This is the world Ajay wishes to inhabit, and eventually, own.
The entire rain sequence is made up of a series of photographic stills with the background sound of rain. While it is deliberate New Wave artifice that Sen adopts here, it must be noted that the photographic still itself, much like all the other innovations of the New Wave, was born partly out of necessity - for example, reducing the cost of certain crucial outdoor shots or the unavailability of specific requirements for the shot.
The conversation also makes it pretty clear to Satyen that Ajay had lied to him in the previous scene about the lunch invitation. Having figured everything out after the awkward phone conversation with Monika, he plays a prank on Ajay much to the latter's embarrassment.
This sequence was shot in Indian Handloom House, opposite New Market. Ajay offers to buy the third sari for Monika and has to immediately think of an elaborate ruse of having lost his wallet in order to avoid the situation, without upsetting her. His attempts to impress her have only managed to add more lies to his already extensive list.
'Amar mon bole chai go...jarey naahi pai go' written by Rabindranath Tagore; it translates to 'My heart desires, what is beyond its reach'. While it highlights the nature of Ajay's impossible desires, it is also a mutual confession of their love for each other.
Another series of photographic stills is used in the sequence. Their sojourn has an idyllic quality, a happy memory so to speak, especially for Ajay; the use of photo stills serves to foregrounds this. One major criticism against the film had been the over-use of the New Wave techniques Sen had seen in Truffaut's films. Sen has admitted to the charge but has generally defended his stand: "I was one of the few spectators who saw Truffaut’s films for the first time in India. I was ecstatic. I was struck by the ‘youthfulness’ in approach. I was thrilled. I had an Ashish Burman story with me – a story about a desperate young Calcuttan, everything happening in Calcutta in the midst of vibrant metropolitan milieu. I immediately jumped into a project: an incorrigible dreamer in a desperate bid to break the wealth barrier, the sprawling city serving as a fascinating locale. Infected by Truffaut’s ‘youthfulness’ (that is how I looked at Truffaut initially), I then went in for a film which would physically look youthful and would at the same time make a serious socio-economic point. Perhaps one could see in Akash Kusum an overdose of Truffaut, but I have no regrets." (Excerpts from Mrinal Sen’s interview by Sumit Mitra, from ‘Views on Cinema’, Ishan Publications, Calcutta, 1977)
Ajay admits that his only musical talent is that he can imitate a song very well; it is the closest Ajay comes to any sort of a confession in the film. He attempts to apologize, almost as if for every other thing he has lied about.
Ajay's friend Prakash, at whose wedding he had met Monika. In fact, his close-up in a freeze frame is one of the first shots of the film. His arrival will prove to be a turning point in the narrative; there are indications of it here when he walks in on Ajay talking about some of the machines he has sold being sent back with serious complaints.
The difference in cigarette brands is an interesting insight into the double lives Ajay is leading. He buys Gold Flake (traditionally a more expensive brand) for guests while smoke Charminar (a filter-less brand which had been immensely popular in the city, especially among the youth, because of its low cost).
Strangely enough, the conversation leads Ajay to tell Prakash everything about the elaborate ruse he has created. He goes so far as to admit that the whole set-up is fake, though he still hopes to make it all true once his business is successful.
Satyen has begun to grow increasingly cautious about the whole set-up, especially Ajay's deal with Phani. This leads Ajay to brand him a Communist for trying to explain that the time of small-scale business is over due to the rise of national and multinational enterprises. In fact, Satyen's words, more than being that of a communist, are of a pragmatic businessman who is well-aware of developments in the global market.
Besides, as it has already become evident, Satyen is also displeased with how Ajay has built up his whole relationship with Monika on a series of lies. This is the first time in the film that Satyen, who has known everything from the beginning, explicitly calls Ajay out on his actions.
Elated at getting the money, Ajay attempts to share his vision of the future with his mother; the distinctly domestic image, of home, hearth and prosperity, is rendered more ironical by the fact that Ajay still refuses to see that all his plans for his business have consistently started to get tangled up.
Ajay is seemingly torn between his desire to reveal everything to Monika and his fear of the consequences. Mrinal Sen has suggested that the exploration of aspirations and desire in the film is almost exclusively from Ajay's vantage point; what he desires and wishes to possess in life shapes every other character in the film. Consequently, as pointed out by the dream he relates to his mother, Monika is very much an intimate part of his web of fantasies and her function in the narrative is limited to just that. Her constant interruptions whenever he tries to speak and confess can then also be seen as his own inability to give voice to his guilt.
Monika's parents have come for tea and Ajay has hosted them in Satyen's apartment, passing it off as his own (the first shot of the sequence is that of the name on the door being changed).
Satyen has unexpectedly arrived early and his presence at the tea party makes the situation both comic and heavy with irony - his obvious awkwardness, Monika's questions and Ajay desperate attempts to manage the situation while trying to show off his imaginary wealth.
Having met Monika, Satyen's opinions regarding the injustice Ajay is committing towards her has only strengthened. Ever the pragmatist, Satyen has been the only voice that has constantly warned Ajay of the futility of his endeavors; he remarks that she belongs to a different class, a reminder that will soon become very crucial.
As Ajay had feared, as soon as Satyen's mother arrives, she gets to know about Monika when the latter calls in her presence. Despite his desperate and preposterous attempts to hide the truth, it has become evident that things have gradually begun to slip out of his control.
A crucial sequence in the film: Prakash, who is a relative of Monika's family too, comes to her father for advice and inadvertently reveals everything about Ajay. The nature of the revelation in the narrative is crucial; with his ruse revealed by a third party, the narrative leaves Ajay no room for a confession as will become apparent very soon.
For Monika's father, Prakash's revelations make matters even more complex because she is in love with Ajay.
A desperate Ajay has been visiting Phani but is insulted and turned away. There have been indications right from the outset that Phani's motives are not entirely above board and the fight with him and his older son on the road is the final nail in the coffin, highlighting the fact that Ajay's dreams of a big business have failed spectacularly.
Monika's father has found the lighter that Ajay had claimed to be his; realising that this is the perfect opportunity to verify everything he has learnt from Prakash, he takes the lighter to Satyen's apartment to return it to Ajay.
Much like the two previous instances, even this time Monika interrupts Ajay. However, it is no longer Ajay's inability to own up but the inevitability of indictment that does not allow his confession. Her father, having learnt everything, is the one who furnishes the accusations: Ajay is a con-man (the Bengali word 'thok'), a cheat ('jocchor', literally, a person who cheats at gambling), and an impostor.
One major criticism of the film had been regarding the overtly sentimental final sequence when Ajay comes to Monika's house hoping to meet her and is turned away by each and every one of them. Satyajit Ray had written a critical piece on the film in the newspaper The Statesman, stating that while the entire film is quixotic and comic the overtly sentimental and serious end, in attempting to make a serious point, is entirely counter-productive. This led to a two month-long debate in the editorial of The Statesman, between Ray, Sen and Ashish Burman, the author of the original story. Sen and Burman defended the end, stating it went with their exploration of the life of a lower middle-class youth in that particular socio-political scenario. Sen has remarked on his stand: "In 1965, a big controversy was raised over Akash Kusum ( Up in the Cloud), where the protagonist, a modern young man of much less than modest living, wanted to cross the wealth barrier. His was a desperate drive to change his lifestyle. He put up an innocent bluff to a young girl he chanced upon. Frequent meetings forced him to pile up the bluffs. His friend, well placed in life, cautioned him. He turned a deaf ear. At the end, the young man grew wiser, but not without paying heavily for all that he did. I presumed it would be great fun watching the film and I framed the film in a manner that it would end up in despair." (‘Always Being Born: Mrinal Sen, A Memoir’, Stellar Publishers Pvt Ltd., 2004). Satyajit Ray's final reply in the debate is well-known in Bengali film history; he wrote a long lampoon of the story and the film, ending with: "Distraught hero turns up at girl's residence to make clean breast, is turned out by father. Contemporary finale with boy and girl waving sad farewell. Contemporary moral: A crow-film is a crow-film is a crow-film." (Film Polemics, ed. Sakti Basu & Shuvendu Dasgupta, Cine Club of Calcutta, 1992)
The final scene, where they are waving farewell to each other, ends with a direct reference to Truffaut's 'The 400 Blows'. The final shot is a freeze frame of Monika and the camera zooms in on her face, looking into the camera, much like the iconic last shot of Truffaut's film.