Director: Mrinal Sen; Writer: Mrinal Sen, Mohit Chattopadhyay; Producer: Government of West Bengal; Cinematographer: Ranajit Roy; Editor: Gangadhar Naskar; Cast: Arun Mukhopadhyay, Sreela Majumdar, Bibhas Chakraborty, Jayanta Bhattacharya, Sajal Roy Choudhury, Reba Roy Choudhury, Nilkantha Sengupta, Nimai Ghosh, Arijit Guha, Sumati Guha-Thakurta
Duration: 01:30:45; Aspect Ratio: 1.333:1; Hue: 53.242; Saturation: 0.050; Lightness: 0.302; Volume: 0.107; Cuts per Minute: 12.947; Words per Minute: 44.406
Summary: Named after the mythical hero Parashuram who avenged his father’s death by raising his axe 21 times, killing the king’s men with every blow, an axe-wielding dispossessed peasant (Mukherjee) arrives in the city and finds shelter in a hovel in an abandoned cemetery together with a beggar (Bhattacharya). Parashuram is haunted by his encounter with a tiger and is prone to fantasies of heroic actions although he lives in fear of authority and petty criminals. Into the world of the destitute a young woman appears, Alhadi (Majumdar), deserted by her husband. She and Parashuram live side by side for a while but then she leaves, presumably because she feels strong enough to look for a better life. The lonely Parashuram sinks into his fantasies and ends up madly wielding his axe against the darkness overwhelming him. The film developed partly from an earlier play, Jagannath, adapting Lu Xun’s Ah Q, staged in Bengal with the film’s lead Arun Mukherjee. While Arun Mukherjee won the Nation Award 1979 for Best Actor for his role, Sen's long-time editor Gangadhar Naskar also won the National Award for Best Film Editing for his work on the film.
Release date: 5 December, 1980 (Globe)
More than anything else, 'Parashuram' is interesting purely because of the historical moment that it inhabits, a striking moment of transformation for Mrinal Sen's cinema. The plot, focusing on a landless drifter from the village who is caught in the trappings of the big city, has elements from Sen's earlier films - especially the thematic concerns with the disenfranchised and their shared histories of oppression and violence. After the Calcutta quartet, Sen's next films 'Oka Oorie Katha' and 'Mrigaya' had been particularly about the rural poor, the peasants and the tribals who face discrimination and everyday violence that is entirely invisibilised in the mainstream. Consequently, there is a thematic bridge that is apparent here: one such man from the village, landless and penniless, has arrived in the big city and is caught up in its deceptive allure, seeking to eke out a new way of living. More importantly, through this outsider protagonist, Sen's film moves yet again to the city, a site where the third phase of his cinema will majorly be articulated. The opening sequence, where the protagonist is beaten up and thrown out of his job for alleged theft - something that is immediately proved to be false - sets the tone for the rest of the film. Class antagonisms are made obvious from the very first sequence and though the rest of the narrative refers to these antagonisms in different ways, at times implicit and at times quite directly, it is the individual living in the fringes of society and bearing the brunt of these oppressive forces that is the focus here - quite unlike the middle-class protagonists of Sen's earlier films.
The choric episode with theatre veteran Nilkantha Sengupta is significant, especially because of the immense influence on Mrinal Sen of the political theatre of time. Arun Mukherjee was a leading figure of the group-theatre movement in Bengal, with his highly stylised and often controversial productions. His play 'Jagannath' was particularly a strong influence on the making of 'Parashuram'. 'Jagannath' had been a loose adaptation of 'The True Story of Ah Q' (1921), a novella by Lu Xun, considered a masterpiece of modern Chinese literature. While the novella had been a biting satirical study of Chinese society of its time, 'Parashuram' uses elements of it in order to frame its narrative of a dispossessed farmer forced to migrate to the big city. The satire is displaced onto the other classes who are implicated in the exploitation of the lower classes in society (the rich man in the opening sequence, for instance). The film uses theatrical elements like the chorus of travelling performers who explain the context and also make critical observations, much in the manner of street theatre, or the use of found spaces and folk idioms as in 'Third Theatre', popularized by playwright Badal Sarkar at the time. Using such a mix of elements the choric episode foregrounds the central concern of the film - a narrative of the 'many' 'naked and hungry' people who inhabit the metropolis, in found spaces and the streets - much like the theatrical conventions used to narrate their story.
The film was produced by the Government of West Bengal formed by the Left Front coalition, and was based on a government sponsored study, which is important considering the context is the plight of the pavement-dwellers; it is thus replete with critical interventions regarding both governmental policies and the nature of poverty and exploitation in the urban metropolis. In Sen's career, such subversive interventions are not new. We have previously discussed this in the context of 'Bhuvan Shome' and its financing by the Film Finance Corporation (FFC). The original report, incidentally, was never published. ('Interview: 2001', ‘Montage – Mrinal Sen: Life, Politics, Cinema’, Seagull Books, Calcutta, 2002)
It would be important to remember here that we don't ever know the real name of the drifter protagonist. He is given the name 'Parashuram' by the old pavement dweller (Bibhash Chakraborty), because of his axe. He remains an unknown outsider throughout the film, defined purely by the myth of 'Parashuram', an incarnation of Vishnu.
The historical and political context is particularly interesting. In 1977, after the bloody and violent first half of the decade and the Naxalbari uprising, there was a new government in Bengal under the Left Front. However the new government could not overturn everything that had come to pass in the last decade. Sen recollects in his memoirs: 'Hopes mounted, so did excitement. But the leaders in power had no magic wand with them to work miracles; and so they could not wave away the ghost of inherited liabilities and continued to make inroads on the election manifesto. As a result, promises made with pomp and fanfare began to decline. Alongside, new problems continued to pile up. Slowly and steadily, hopes were belied. On the one hand, in some measure, large or small, deep-rooted problems were being solved, on the other, new problems continued to create bigger fissures. Yet, there was no dearth of dreams and dreamers. And, amidst all these, no dearth of self-complacency.' (‘Always Being Born: Mrinal Sen, A Memoir’, Stellar Publishers Pvt Ltd., 2004)
Regarding the film, Sen recollects: 'a friend of mine, Subhendu Mukhopadhyay, gave me a big file, a cyclostyled copy, which he collected from his anthropologist brother, Sudhendu Mukhopadhyay. It was a comprehensive study of the pavement dwellers of the big city. With more than one hundred case histories collected by a group of young anthropologists under the supervision of Mukhopadhyay, the survey was highly revealing, presenting an in-depth study of an aspect of agro-economic scenario of the country. Again, in collaboration with Mohit Chattopadhyay, the script was reality and fantasy inextricably entwined...'(‘Always Being Born: Mrinal Sen, A Memoir’, Stellar Publishers Pvt Ltd., 2004).
The protagonist, Parashuram, is the quintessential outsider, even among the destitute populace he meets on the pavement. They drive him away and the excuse given is that the place has been allocated to someone already; the Bengali phrase 'bili hoye geche' roughly translates to 'has been allocated (to someone)'.
The sequence has elements of theatre, where the road itself is the setting for an absurd little drama. The first long shot where the entire scene can be seen unfolding is repeated often throughout the sequence, intercut with repeated shots of the graffiti on the wall, underlining the absurd and oppressive nature of the event at hand - the disabled old beggar is carried screaming from his hut and dumped unceremoniously; people chase the policemen attempting to drive them away; the protagonist takes advantage of the pandemonium and hides. Sen has called the film a 'fictionalized documentary, based on the report of a sociological survey' (‘Interview: 1980’, ‘Montage – Mrinal Sen: Life, Politics, Cinema’, Seagull Books, Calcutta, 2002). The blending of fact and fiction, a technique epitomised by the Calcutta trilogy and 'Chorus', throws up interesting challenges here as the documentary impulse is constantly undercut by the figure of Parashuram. The mythical Parashuram was a brahmin warrior who slaughtered the families of powerful kshatriyas as revenge for the murder of his father. He is a quintessential symbol of the dispossessed seeking redress; however, here he is a passive spectator, hiding, as the pavement-dwellers are driven away by the municipal authorities. This ironic dissociation between the mythical and real is the driving force of the narrative.
To reassert the irony and absurdity of the situation, the drifter protagonist yells, 'bili hoye geche', when all of the pavement-dwellers have been driven away. All claims to land for these people are purely symbolic. Ruins are persistent symbolic referents in Sen's films - the makeshift pavement dwellings that are razed to the ground and left, the ruins within an old burial ground where the protagonist seeks refuge. The ruins in 'Parashuram' are however unlike the ruins seen elsewhere in Sen's oeuvre - here, they foreground the everyday violence that defines the lives of these people and the unstable state of ruination they inhabit. The preoccupation with death that the burial ground especially evokes is also accompanied by the protagonist having to jostle and fight for a share of the land- even the spaces reserved for the dead are sites of articulation of symbolic rights for the dispossessed. Allocation, rather, claiming ownership to found land, is part of that articulation.
It is here that the references to 'The Story of Ah Q' are most noticeable. In popular iconography, the mythical Parashuram is synonymous with his axe. Here, the titular Parashuram repeatedly refers to how he had killed a tiger with this axe back in his village. However, the tale of bravery and valor is interrupted by the appearance of a rat, a reversal replete with dark humour that heightens the disconnect between myth and reality. The truth of his thrilling tale can never be ascertained and neither is it relevant. It is a way for him to constantly reaffirm his ability to face all odds.
The old beggar ironically compares their ramshackle settlement to mushrooms, given how they have reconstructed the same structure overnight.
Various things reassert that the protagonist is 'different' from the rest. He defiantly cohabits with death in the burial ground, and the mythical Parashuram is repeatedly evoked. Interestingly, the old man's retelling of the legend establishes a thematic link between the myth and their own socio-political scenario, between the Treta yug and the present day. The structures of oppression and the nature of violence in this history has remained the same. The tale is invested with a touch of wistfulness, of a vengeful messianic figure who will seek revenge. However, as seen before, when he attempts to assert his bravery, he is often met with skepticism and even ridicule.
A particularly important aspect of the narrative is the sense of a shared community among the squatters and pavement-dwellers, a community born from a climate of similar situations and also shared experiences of suffering. The rat is a recurrent image in this context - the vermin and the human co-exist in this social formation and lead remarkably similar lives. This is foregrounded by the small sequence beside the river- the rotund brahmin, upper-class man, throwing money while men fight over the coins in the water much in the way vermin fight over food. The metaphor is quite broad and self-explanatory, with the entire scene marked by an exaggerated and comical tone to underline the nature of exploitation and alienation.
The unknown man on the motorbike, clearly waiting for one of the young women of the settlement, foregrounds the sexual and gender aspects of the community of settlers and squatters. The conversation and the sequence itself underlines the constant threat of sexual violence and exploitation that is inextricably connected to their lives.
Parashuram is seen carrying the posters of 'Satyam Shivam Sundaram', a 1978 Hindi film starring Shashi Kapoor and Zeenat Aman, and directed by Raj Kapoor, based on the duality between the physical and the spiritual aspects of love. Most of these pavement-dwellers would be daily wage-earners, hired domestic help, menial labourers of various kinds and, for the old and infirm, even beggars. The social documentary aspect of the film, based on the anthropological survey, is the most explicit here. Parashuram's daily struggles to sustain himself is seen in the broader context of the struggles of the dispossessed population of the city, an instance of the intermingling of fantasy and reality that Mrinal Sen has constantly stated to be the aim of his films since 'Interview'.
In popular imagination, guests and invitees are assumed to be incarnations of 'Vishnu' or 'Narayan'. The old beggar's comments are heavy with irony. Feeding the poor would be common practices among the rich men of the city as a way to gain divine favour. The comment that as long as they are sitting in the queue and eating ('till death') they will be regarded as 'Narayan', foregrounds the nature of their everyday struggles in a stark, and comic vein.
The scene is reminiscent of the 1933 episode from 'Calcutta 71'. At the same time, it is extremely wishful and darkly comic with the sudden appearance of Parashuram's employer (Arijit Mitra seen in the first scene, driving Parashuram out) who had wrongfully accused and abused him. The comeuppance of the upper-class man, where he is thrown out of the shelter into the rain like a dog (the sound of the yelping dog is edited into the sequence at the exact moment when the man is kicked too) is a reversal of the first scene, harking back to Parashuram's wishful desire in the first scene to teach the man a fitting lesson one day.
To add to the irony, the other settlers have also had to abandon their shanties in the rain and have come and taken refuge at the graveyard - they had earlier turned Parashuram away because all the space had been allotted. At the same time, death being an everyday reality, it does not evoke the same sense of terror that one would associate with it.
Parashuram is not the only one who is the source and subject of myths within the community. Haran, right from the outset when he names Parshuram, is seen as an old seer in the community who can anticipate/predict events; the scene where he is railing at the heavens to bring forth rain foregrounds this further. In fact, the metaphor Haran uses for himself in the next scene is gleaned from the Mahabharat - Arjun had seen the entire cosmos inside when Krishna opened his mouth.
The young woman seen previously, the blind beggar's daughter, has presumably disappeared. One can assume, she has eloped with the man on the motorbike from that previous scene. The defining factor here is the constant evocation of an aspiration for a better life which, in part, has propelled her to take drastic steps and elope. The sense of despair is intensified by the flashback to the floods in their native village that had forced them to migrate to the big city; it foregrounds the generational nature of suffering and poverty.
The disappearance of one woman is counteracted by the unexpected arrival of another. This was Sreela Majumdar's first film role though the film's release was delayed and her first release was Sen's 'Ek Din Pratidin'. She represents the aspirational aspect of Parashuram's journey in the city. Her unexpected arrival in his life brings a sense of hope and joy that is quite evident, especially in a later scene where Parashuram refers to her as his wife while speaking to Haran. Ahladi is practical, and aware of the rules of the hard world they inhabit, which has interesting ramifications for her character; for example, she is aware of the different nature of violence for women, and is not above using that to her advantage. Their scenes deliberately have a wistful, dreamlike quality (the jump-cuts, the background music) which foregrounds her seemingly abrupt and unreal arrival in Parashuram's life.
The sport of boxing is a recurrent element in the narrative, especially important in the light of the very first scene. The suggestion is implicit - since this is a narrative circumscribed heavily by class and its consequent struggles, what is sport for the upper-class becomes a wistful mode of self-expression for the lower classes. Parashuram sees the man practicing and begins to mimic the movements; taken in the context of the earlier scene with Ahladi it underlines his happiness. The associations between boxing and the myth of Parashuram, a vengeful warrior for the dispossessed, will finally culminate in the famous shadow-boxing scene later.
As discussed before, Parashuram refers to Ahladi as his wife when speaking to Haran.
Shreela Majumdar's character, as mentioned before, has interesting undercurrents. She is clearly a drifter who has used her femininity and sexuality in order to survive. When she recounts her past life, it is done so in a matter-of-fact way, with sorrow but without recriminations; her words clearly reveal that she expects nothing from anyone. Thus she is silent, even in the face of Parashuram's moral indignation; he is the one who begins the tirade and it is him who resolves it. Sen has commented on her character: 'What I find very interesting is the character of the woman. She changes men three times. But she is possessed of no rage, no hatred, no ill will. And the audience also do not feel any of those emotions towards her. ‘Have you stolen this?’ ‘Yes.’ It is all so simple. So matter-of-fact.' ('Interview: 2001', 'Montage – Mrinal Sen: Life, Politics, Cinema’, Seagull Books, Calcutta, 2002)
With Ahladi missing early in the morning, the first obvious conclusion the two men arrive at is that she has robbed them both and run away.
Ahladi admits that she was taught to steal by her mother, back when she still used to live in the village. Stealing, in such a social formation, is not invested with questions of right or wrong, or notions of ethics. Within a discourse of class and oppression, stealing would be a matter-of-fact act, a mode of survival.
The entire public-childbirth sequence foregrounds the abject conditions most of these settlers face everyday, sometimes even from the moment of birth. Haran's comments, shot in a mid-close up, also mimics a breaking of the fourth wall, and saying the same things directly to the audience who are similarly watching this spectacular incident from within the confines of the theatre.
The voice-over, from a speech being given at a conference (the banner states it is a 'National Housing Conference') on the pavement-dwellers, poverty and development, sets up the entire sequence as a scene from a documentary; in fact, the sequence is reminiscent of the report on which the film is based, with shots of the sprawling and prosperous urban metropolis (the first shot itself with the Howrah Bridge and the shanties in the foreground) offset by the abject conditions of the pavement-dwellers and the other people who make up the city's margins. The speech, both literally and figuratively, lays bare many of the concerns of the film and also the hypocrisy of the urban intelligentsia regarding the nature of class, poverty and oppression in society. Notably, in keeping with the middle class's preoccupation with cultural icons, the speaker evokes Ram Mohun Roy, Ishwarchandra Vidyasagar, Swami Vivekananda and Rabindranath Tagore.
The almost mundane nature of death and its acceptance for these people has previously been discussed. The old man's death is rendered far more tragic by both the manner of his 'disposal' (the government's trucks for disposing of dead bodies abandoned on the road) and by the immediate concerns of the people around him at the time (Ahladi hides his shoe lest the police take that away with the body and Parshuram will be seen wearing them in the next scene; the other woman takes advantage of their absence and rifles through their possessions).
A smuggling racket that chances upon the graveyard and uses it as a safe zone for their transactions. What is interesting is how they treat the squatters living there as almost absent; whether it is within the confines of law or without it, the status of the squatters remains the same.
'Paan' or betel leaf is a symbol of luxury (especially the associations of paan with feudal notions of pleasure and plenitude), while at the same time underlining the makeshift domestic set-up they have constructed.
The brand new sari, irrespective of where it has come from, symbolizes her desire for a better life. This is especially foregrounded by her desire to 'live like a human being', eat, decorate her home, travel when possible, watch films and ride rickshaws - a narrative of desires that also defines the aspirations of the middle-class who are equally implicated within the cycle of oppression and poverty that produces these marginal entities. Ahladi's life, defined by these desires and their lack, is thus one of constant movement, from one place to another and from one man to another (the sound of motorbike that is repeatedly heard near the graveyard), since she knows that the fulfillment of her desires is not possible within the ambit of the makeshift home she has set up with Parashuram.
The only time Parashuram is seen using his famous axe is when he uses it to crush the tin can Ahladi had bought, a symbolic destruction of the dreams he had constructed of a home and family.
The shadow boxing sequence was shot at Wellington Square - a deliberately abstract sequence, symbolizing his fight with inescapable shadowy forces that have surrounded him. Sen recollects about the sequence: 'Fighting against darkness. Then, when the woman has run away with yet another man, the camera moves closer and closer. And suddenly it seems the whole world has come to an end. Things are falling apart. Breaking down. Glass is shattering. He sees a tiny man. And a huge sandbag. The kind with which boxers practice. And there is the sound of tremendous explosions and devastation as he fights with the bag. And finally gets knocked out. Here, there is that strange element. Fighting in darkness. And fighting against darkness. Complete abstractionism. That particular sequence in itself fascinates me.' ('Interview: 2001', 'Montage – Mrinal Sen: Life, Politics, Cinema’, Seagull Books, Calcutta, 2002)
The element of fantasy introduced in the shadow-fighting sequence carries over to the next scene where the chorus of travelling performers (Nilkantha Sengupta) reappear as Parashuram seeks to climb out of the quagmire of the urban metropolis - a city full of the 'hungry', the 'naked' or the 'dead'.
The myth of Parashuram, the vengeful warrior, is meant to remain unfulfilled in the narrative. In a history of poverty and oppression, and in the context of the ruthlessness of urban life, the incomplete myth is symptomatic of the the complete absence of any hope. The protagonist remains nameless to both justify the archetype of the dispossessed warrior and highlight the inefficacy of the same archetype in an exploitative classed society. The final tableau, though celebratory of the spirit of the dispossessed warrior hero, is thus fraught with the internal tension and pessimism that defines much of Sen's later films, especially the loose trilogy on middle-class lives in 'Ek Din Pratidin', 'Chaalchitra' and 'Kharij'.