Akaler Sandhaney (1980)
Director: Mrinal Sen; Writer: Mrinal Sen, Amalendu Chakravarty; Producer: Dhiresh Kumar Chakraborty; Cinematographer: K.K. Mahajan; Editor: Gangadhar Naskar; Cast: Dhritiman Chatterjee, Smita Patil, Sreela Majumdar, Geeta Sen, Dipankar Dey, Rajen Tarafdar, Radhamohan Bhattacharya, Devika Mukherjee, Sajal Roy Choudhury, Jochan Dastidar, Siddhartha Dutta, Reba Roy Choudhury, Umanath Battacharya, Nirmal Ghosh
Duration: 02:04:40; Aspect Ratio: 1.346:1; Hue: 169.750; Saturation: 0.213; Lightness: 0.255; Volume: 0.232; Cuts per Minute: 6.136; Words per Minute: 59.838
Summary: In 1980 a film crew from Calcutta headed by a director (Chatterjee) arrives in a small Bengali village to make a ‘social conscience’ film set in the 1943 famine (setting of his earlier Baishey Shravan, 1960). They stay in a dilapidated mansion inhabited by a woman and her incapacitated old husband. The crew, including star Patil (playing herself), begins to make contact with villagers such as the admiring Haren (Tarafdar), the last surviving weaver, and the local teacher (R. Bhattacharya). The villagers observe the preparations with undisguised curiosity but gradually the voyeuristic implications of a big film crew coming to address ‘local history’ in a village become unbearable to all concerned. Conflicts erupt and the film has to be abandoned. The double time levels involved in the 1943-1980 structure of the tale, with ample parallels between the two periods emerging as the film progresses (e.g. a villager accuses the crew of starting a new famine as they buy up food for the film unit’s lavish meals; or the village notables used to be or are descended from famine profiteers), is further complicated by a village woman, Durga (S. Majumdar) whose intimations of the future disorient the city- dwellers even further. Suresh Chandra’s art direction is particularly notable for the way he orchestrates the encroachment of set-like qualities into the village location, giving the cultural and temporal disjunctions in the narrative a palpably physical dimension. Sen commented that the film made ‘a confession of our incapacities. We speak of the crisis in the arts when we hesitate to confront reality or fail to catch its true bearings.’ The film won numerous awards at the National Film Festival 1981, including Best Film, Director, and Screenplay for Sen and the award for editing for Gangadhar Naskar.
Release date: 12 February, 1982 (Radha, Purna, Prachi)
Though references to cinema and the cinematic apparatus is a common trope in Mrinal Sen, 'Akaler Sandhane' (1981) explicitly addresses the very medium of cinema, its machinery and associated questions regarding memory and history. This is especially significant given the theme of the film: a film-maker goes to a remote village for the location shooting of his film on the great Bengal Famine of 1943. One is aware of the impact of the Famine on Mrinal Sen's sensibilities, both aesthetically and ideologically; one of his most remarkable films before the Calcutta trilogy, 'Baishe Shravan', had been exclusively about the impact of the Famine inside the family. In many ways, thus, there seems to be an aesthetic, ideological and symbolic continuity between 'Baishey Shravan' and 'Akaler Sandhane' which Sen uses to address two important concerns: the disjoint between cinematic realism/naturalism and the reality of continued suffering in a society that is framed by class-oppression, poverty and hunger. This is further foregrounded by the numerous anecdotes we will refer to in these annotations where Sen talks about how filming certain crucial scenes for the film had immense effects on the residents of Sukhariya (named Hatui in the film) where the outdoor shoot took place, constantly blurring the lines between fact and fiction. The film within the film is also named 'Akaler Sandhane', and this is a recurrent device where the filming of the fictional Famine narrative by the fictional film-crew constantly addresses the real narrative of Sen's film, its film-crew and vice-versa. No other film of Sen's is this explicitly concerned with cinema and its symbolic and social ramifications.
The song 'Hei Samalo', a popular Indian People's Theatre Association (IPTA) composition by Salil Choudhury, first recorded in 1948, about the Tebhaga Andolan (the share-croppers of Bengal demanded two-thirds of their own produce from the land owned by the rich gentry; resulted in a violent class with the ruling class that forever changed the course of politicized agrarian movements in India). The Tebhaga uprising gave rise to a popular demand of 'land to the tiller' which became a recurrent trope in many of the IPTA songs of the time. The song is a violent call to the farmers to muster their men and resources in order to protect their crops from being usurped by the village middle-men, the zamindars and the British, leaving them in penury, hunger and death. The song, consequently, refers to various images of peasant struggles and oppression from the ruling classes: 'we swear to our life and dignity, we will not give up the rice we have sown with our blood', 'we will not stock someone else's coffers', 'we have have given up fifty lakh lives, given our women, their dignity', 'we know you, the black mahouts of the white elephant'. The most popular version of the song had vocals by Sabita Choudhury; that is the version used in the film.
This scene, which sets the tone for the critical intervention Sen will pursue in the film, was inspired by an actual incident during the location shoot. Sen recollects in his memoirs: 'When the convoy had arrived at the village, we realized that the word had already been spread that a film company was coming to make a film on famine...I saw how an aged farmer, his body nothing more than a bundle of bones, had suddenly spoken up, rather loudly, almost in jest, “Hey, look, they have come from the city looking for famine. But here, we are the famine; it is present in every pore of our beings.” A cruel taunt and heartless jest! Honestly, never before did I ever meet a man like him, never before I heard the like of him, none of his kind, who had learnt to survive by virtue of their own peculiar logic. The man said it and laughed a guileless laughter. I was shaken. Two days later, when we took our first shot, it was that of an old man, an actor picked up from my own unit, speaking the same line of the aged farmer, speaking the same way and laughing the same guileless laughter. He was made to appear in the film never again.' (‘Always Being Born: Mrinal Sen, A Memoir’, Stellar Publishers Pvt Ltd., 2004)
The constant dialogue between the real and the fictional film is foregrounded also by the ensemble cast and crew, many of whom retain their names. Many of Sen's own technicians, except Sen himself, appear in the film as the crew members of the fictional film. Sen has remarked about the intertexual nature of the film: 'There were two sets of actors in Akaler Sandhane. Those who acted the actors retained their own names and had their role names too. Such as Smita Patil, playing an actress, having her own name(when in 1980) and a role name, playing a village woman during the year of famine(in 1943). Obviously, she and others had to continuously shuttle between two periods – 1980 and 1943. Those who played the villagers had been given their role names. The rest – the technicians and the production staff of the film within the film – were shared by the actors and my own unit members, all retaining their own names. Besides, there were real villagers who played themselves, played bit roles. The only exception was the actor who played the "director". Of course, he had a specific job – that of directing the "film", but remained unnamed.' (‘Always Being Born: Mrinal Sen, A Memoir’, Stellar Publishers Pvt Ltd., 2004)
Rajen Tarafdar, director of films like 'Ganga', 'Palanka' and 'Antarikhha', playing a resident of the fictional village of Hatui, who gets involved with the production.
Dhritiman Chatterjee, who plays the nameless director of the film-within-the-film, is a significant instance of casting, or re-casting. He had earlier acted in Sen's 'Padatik', almost a decade prior in 1973, as the titular urban guerrilla. In both instances, the persona of the actor Dhritiman Chatterjee comes to be closely associated with the directorial persona of Mrinal Sen, especially in a context of self-criticism and stock-taking. The continuities, both real and thematic, albeit unintentional, has been something Sen himself has variously acknowledged. While 'Padatik had been an instance of self-critique from an ideological vantage point, in 'Akaler Sandhane' the critique is also at a formal and aesthetic level.
Ruins feature yet again in 'Akaler Sandhane', made more significant if one recollects how the little family in 'Baishe Shravan' had lived in a hut surrounded by the ruins of their old mansion. The film crew sets itself up in the ruins, partly to accommodate everyone, and also suggesting how Sen might have shot his own famine film, back in 1960. The sequence constantly evokes instances from the earlier film, especially in the cavernous passages and courtyards of the old ruins, and also in the ensuing conversation between the actor (Biplab Chakraborty, whose voice is heard over the voice-over) and the director regarding the pomp and glory of the erstwhile zamindars who used to once inhabit the crumbling palace.
The differences between 'Baishe Shravan' and 'Akaler Sandhane' are also foregrounded in the difference in treatment of the two films. The former had been made under the dominant influence of neo-realism of the time and had only referred to the Famine indirectly, choosing to train its lens within the family throughout. The latter film begins with explicit references to the Famine through historical accounts and photographs being discussed among the fiction crew, and the film-within-film format necessitates the adoption of a hyper-naturalist aesthetic that will constantly refer to the very mechanism of filming and narration.
Sen recollects: 'The entire film unit settled down comfortably in twenty –six rooms in a near abandoned palace. It now turned into an island of abundance totally cut off from the grassroots level reality. It all seemed to be good fun – at times, unit members looked at the photographs of the famine, like a parlour game and at the same time discussed the menu for dinner – whether it should be fried rice and chicken curry or something else.' (‘Always Being Born: Mrinal Sen, A Memoir’, Stellar Publishers Pvt Ltd., 2004)
Gita Sen, as one of the few inhabitants of the ruined mansion, living there with her paralyzed husband. She had previously acted in her husband's 'Ek Din Pratidin'. Sen's preoccupation with inhabitants of old ruins, as living vessels of memory and history, are evident here too.
The last of the weaver houses of the village, struggling to keep their ancestral profession afloat in the face of rising prices and changing demands, tastes and production.
Haren's character is meant to be a bridge between the village and the film-unit; a weaver by profession, he is also a 'jatra' enthusiast who used to excel in female roles (a common occurance if and when women would not be allowed to perform in a 'jatra' publicly). His own past as a performer and his fascination for the film crew helps him get close to the unit when the other villagers are still wary or unsure. The narrative firmly sets Haren apart from the rest of the village - he displays an unlikely knowledge of Hitler, Lenin, Stalin and Marx, much to the director's obvious surprise.
Announcement for a set of public shows (in the model of drive-in theatres, but in a field and with space reserved to park one's bicycles) for the village, showing 'The Guns of Navarone', the 1961 British-American adventure/war film by J. Lee Thompson, based on the eponymous novel by Alistair MacLean and starring Gregory Peck, David Niven and Anthony Quinn (Quinn here is mistaken to be a woman by the villagers who refer to him as 'Queen', the most beautiful actress in the world).
As mentioned before, the script was only loosely followed while filming; consequently, a number of sequences and incidents were developed on the spot and many actual events which took place during filming found their way into the shooting sequences of the fictional film too. In a letter written to his wife from the location (the letter was incidentally never posted and was published about a decade later in The Statesman), about a week before she was supposed to join the unit, he mentions a number of incidents during filming which inspired sequences of the film. Clouds hindering shooting was one such incident. An assistant, Poltu, was given the responsibility of wearing dark glasses and staring at the sun continuously. The way the sequence plays out here, is exactly the sort of difficulty Sen and his crew faced while filming. Sen mentions with great relish the discomfort the producer's agent displayed over the delay in filming and the repeated NGs ('no/not good' shots) caused by the director's insistence regarding shooting in natural unhindered light.
In the letter mentioned above, Sen also remarks on the conception of this scene, especially, the relationship between the paralytic husband and wife and their solitary existence amongst the ruins of their once-glorious past. This scene, especially the wife's comment that only she can understand her husband's lisp, was inspired by a similar incident Sen encountered while filming 'Baishe Shravan' in the village of Mankor about two decades earlier. Sen recalls in the letter: 'But believe me, these aren't my words. They have been borrowed. They were spoken by that lady, in Mankor. It was to me that she said them, when she took me to her husband. The man, lying there, half dead in a room where the light was half shadow. Those were the very words she spoke to me. "You know baba, I am the only one who can understand what he is trying to say."' (‘Montage – Mrinal Sen: Life, Politics, Cinema’, Seagull Books, Calcutta, 2002)
A significant aspect of 'Akaler Sandhane' are the sets of connections between the past and present that are articulated in the film. One aspect of this is of course purely cinematic, what with the memories of 'Baishe Shravan' that are constantly evoked when shifting between the 1980 and the 1943 episodes. Consequently, there are three timelines that work simultaneously: the 1943 Famine timeline, the 1960 'Baishe Shravan' timeline, and the 1980 film timeline. This shift between the three timelines, especially when the shooting sequences take place or when people recall their memories of the famine in the 1980 timeline (for example, when the old woman recalls the glory of their family even during the actual Famine years; or the shooting of a wedding from that period, ironically, in the ruins of the old palace), lends the film a constantly shifting sense of history - these shifts firmly establish the film's preoccupations with the continued nature of the 1943 Famine in the context of contemporary society. Sen remarks in this context: 'As a rule, going back to the past and looking into the present, one is likely to find a logic that connects one another. Whether in Akaler Sandhane or in my earlier films, there had been a running theme through my films. For me, history had never been an irregular series of accidents. I had seen history as a continuous, growing phenomenon, marching almost imperceptibly into the characters of my own time. Akaler Sandhane, as clearly evident, was rooted in the uneasy, uncomfortable, irresistible and inevitable connection between the past and the present. As an example, I could see a connection between the character of Akaler Sandhane, Durga, the village girl with a child and a disabled husband (1980), and the young woman in Baishey Shravan (1960), whose life was embittered as much as her old husband’s in the dreary days of famine.' (‘Always Being Born: Mrinal Sen, A Memoir’, Stellar Publishers Pvt Ltd., 2004)
Radhamohan Bhattacharya, the village head-master, is perhaps best remembered for Bimal Roy's remarkable first film 'Udayer Pathe' (1944) which, despite being made under the aegis of the New Theatres Ltd., anticipated many of the thematic and ideological concerns of the IPTA. A staunchly Marxist critique of class, privileges, labour rights and family, 'Udayer Pathe' is one of the early examples of the sort of cinematic representation of a vibrant political sensibility that Mrinal Sen showcases in his 1970s films. Bhattacharya's character, the grand old-man of the village, is the moral epicenter of the village community and appears at crucial junctures of the film. He stresses on a notion of faith which is extremely important in the context of the aesthetic self-criticism that is Mrinal Sen's preoccupation in the film. At the same time his liberal progressive views on religion and politics can co-exist with a strong sense of tradition. He, typically, does not like cinema, having seen one talkie 'Billamangal' (Bengali, 1932) based on Sudraka's (2 BCE - 5 AD) Sanskrit play 'Mricchakatika' or 'The Little Clay Cart').
The monologue on respect and dedication to the art of acting is a component of the self-critical drive we have previously discussed. For Sen, working from a staunchly Marxist vantage point, the actor's responsibility through craft is to make one aware of the realities of the everyday - a view sen has reiterated time and again. Mention of 'class' is thus crucial, since one aspect of the film (here, both real and fictional) is to interrogate the continuing history of poverty and deprivation that marks society. The lines recited by Dipankar Dey are variations of Raskolnikov's lines from Fyodor Dostoevsky's 'Crime and Punishment' (1917) (the actual lines are: 'I did not bow down to you [Sonya], I bowed down to all the suffering of humanity').
The film-within-film sequence, shot in long takes, are interrupted only by the camera which intrudes into the screen - foregrounding the material nature of the process of constructing cinematic realities. This fits with the critical thrust in the film regarding a film-maker's quest for realism and the cost it incurs. The only other film of Sen's where the camera is seen on screen, to disrupt as well as to herald the arrival of a new cinema aesthetic, is 'Interview'.
famine, game, famine game, photographs, 1943, 1959, 1971
The famine 'game', seen earlier too, besides foregrounding the disconnect between the reality of the film-crew and their quest for realism in art, also proceeds to lay bare Sen's central concerns - the continuation of the 1943 famine conditions in the lives of the people even after so many years. 'Darkness at noon' is perhaps a reference to the 1940 German language novel of the same name by Arthur Koestler, written in indictment of the Soviet Union and the Stalinist regime before World War II.
There is an incident Sen recollects regarding the shooting of the death of the paralytic old man; he has mentioned it both in his memoirs and in the letter written to Gita Sen at the time of shooting. The death sequence was to be shot on location, but the sequence immediately after it, where the woman is dressed in the garb of a widow near a pond, was shot first and greatly distressed the villagers. This sequence was eventually shot in Aurora studios. Sen recalls: 'There was one sequence which I couldn't do here, which I had to do in the studio. It was the sequence of the paralyzed husband in the house, who dies one night during the shooting of the famine film. We had originally thought of shooting that sequence in the house here, in the room here, but then, before that we had to shoot another sequence, in which the widow has to undergo a ritual bath. As we shot the bath near the pond here, I could see that the villagers around, particularly the woman, could not take the sequence in the right spirit. For them, with the superstitions, it was playing with death. They felt very bad about it. And immediately I decided that I should shoot the death of the husband in the studio, away from them. They cannot be ‘corrected’. They will live and sleep with their superstitions. And then, when you ask me about my responsibility as a filmmaker, my social and moral responsibility, I know I cannot ‘correct’ the people about whom I make these films.' (‘Interview: 1983’, Interviewed by Reinhard Hauff, ‘Montage – Mrinal Sen: Life, Politics, Cinema’, Seagull Books, Calcutta, 2002)
This sequence, Sen mentions in his letter to Gita Sen, was inspired by a similar incident while shooting for 'Baishe Shravan' in Mankor. One of the owner of the run-down palace of Mankor, the setting for 'Baishe Shravan', Dulal Kaviraj's wife had suddenly gone into labour and had to be rushed fourteen kilometres away to the hospital in Panagarh. The production team, at Sen's urging, had immediately rushed to the couple's aid. This incident from twenty years ago, remembered in a dream while shooting for 'Akaler Sandhane', inspired this sequence.
Durga's (Sreela Majumdar) character is replete with symbolism; her own life story parallels the stories of the characters of the fictional famine film. This association foregrounds the continuing nature of the famine for the lower and peasant classes of society; at the same time, it also sets up the dramatic conflict around Durga and her interactions with the film crew which will be important later on in the narrative. In fact, it becomes amply clear in the very next scene when the rehearsal for the sequence with Sabitri (Smita Patil) becomes too real and emotional for Durga who cries out in horror and pain, disrupting the shoot. Durga's own home and her family, seen immediately after, reaffirm the deliberately symbolic dimensions of the character.
The presence of the film crew begins to affect the village economy. Food, much of which is sent off to the cities to begin with, starts getting scarce as prices start rising due to the increased demand. The sequence harks back to the prophetic words of the old man when the crew had entered the village; the shoot of the famine film has set off another famine.
The sequence foregrounds the constantly shifting reactions to cinema of the people of the village. The family, not from the peasant class and thus higher in the class hierarchy, is open about its fascination for cinema - a fascination born of knowledge gleaned from well circulated film magazines and journals (the quick shot of 'Anandalok', a popular Bengali film magazine established on 1975). However, that fascination is also restricted to the popular Hindi and Bengali language films with the established superstars of the time (Soumitra Chatterjee, Amitabh Bachhan, Dharmendra, Hema Malini, etc.). Thus, when the father gets to know that the role is that of a woman from 1943 who agrees to trading in sexual favors for food, he takes deep offense to the suggestion, rebuking and throwing them out. The cinematic quest for realism/naturalism is here at odds with the moral economy of the people of the village, equally aided and abetted by prevalent hypocritical notions concerning class, gender and sexuality.
The fallout of the unfortunate exchange with the girl's father over her casting is felt most acutely by Haren. We have discussed how the narrative has firmly set Haren apart from the other villagers right from the outset by his enthusiastic participation in the film crew's daily business. This is complemented by his own predilections towards acting. However, the aforementioned incident and prevalent notions regarding the illicit nature of the profession, though irrelevant to him, produce a stand-off between him and his family.
The impasse between the film crew and the villagers gradually worsens as rumours and allegations begin to make the rounds, pitting the two sides against each other in the contest. At the same time, the hypocrisies of many of the villagers who are leading the charge against the film crew are exposed by the school teacher when he reminds them that their fears regarding how the villagers are being exploited are rather ironic considering many of them come from families who earned their wealth and class prestige from famine profiteering back in 1943. Noted critic Chidananda Dasgupta has noted: 'Seldom has the intervention of the observer in the life of the observed been so drastically constructed and so graphically described. It took a fiction film to expose the realities of the relationship. As the schoolmaster says to the director, ‘You belong to a privileged class. . . you have tried to impose yourself on them.’ In your search for realism, he could have added. The fictional approach enables Mrinal Sen to push the observer-observed, self-and-other divide to its apotheosis, where its roots can be exposed in a way no documentary film or written ruminations of the anthropologist could have. It challenges the film-maker’s pretense to objectivity and lays it bare.' (Chidananda Das Gupta, ‘Film as Visual Anthropology’, Seeing Is Believing: Selected Writings on Cinema, Viking/Penguin, 2008)
Things come to a head regarding casting Durga in the controversial role of the fallen woman. Her obvious desire to go for the audition, questions of morality, propriety and social sanction that hold her back, the director's growing frustration and agitation, all these factors foreground the tense self-critical aspect of 'Akaler Sandhane' that we have previously discussed. In this context, it will be important to note the questions regarding the function, scope and reach of cinema that make up much of that critique; in fact, 'Akaler Sandhane' carries on the auto-critique that had started way back in 'Padatik' by shifting the focus from the ideological to the aesthetic and by replacing the political with questions regarding the role and function of cinema in society. Mrinal Sen has variously remarked how the New Cinema movement as a whole had primarily failed to reach the rural areas, despite the rural and peasant classes being much of its focus. He has remarked: '...there is a strange duality at work in the rural areas, one that seeks political change but rejects political entertainment....This is a situation difficult to fight - an audience which votes for a man who will be fighting for change, for land reform, but at the same time will flock to a film which accents a mistrust in technology and faith in miracles. This is the kind of dichotomy we suffer from and have to fight.' (‘Interview: 1981’, Interviewed by Udayan Gupta, ‘Montage – Mrinal Sen: Life, Politics, Cinema’, Seagull Books, Calcutta, 2002)
With things having reached a head, the teacher, the erstwhile grand old man of the village appears again as the voice of reason. In fact, it is him who lays bare the class aspect of the village community when he calls the people of the unit from a 'privileged class' who have imposed themselves on the lower classes always. The suggestion is thus clear; rather than disrupting the lives of the villagers, the outsiders should leave and finish their shooting elsewhere on studio. The critical intervention that is at the centre of 'Akaler Sandhane' is one that continuously seeks to push Mrinal Sen the director into introspection, and stock-taking - much like how 'Padatik' had sought to question the political aspect of Sen's cinematic language. Sen remarks: 'The film tries to work on many levels. It tries to suggest that the famine of 1943, which killed five million people in one year, continues. The conditions which contributed to that famine are just as valid today. But something else happens when filmmaker walks into the village attempting to recreate the past. He is not prepared for the manner in which the past becomes the present. As long as the reality can be kept at a distance, for the purpose of filming, as a kind of museum piece, he is fine, he feels safe. But at the moment the past becomes the present, the contemporary reality, he tries to run away.' (‘Interview: 1981’, Interviewed by Udayan Gupta, ‘Montage – Mrinal Sen: Life, Politics, Cinema’, Seagull Books, Calcutta, 2002)