Dir.: Mrinal Sen
Akaler Sadhane (In Search of Famine) is a great introduction to the cinema of Mrinal Sen. It was made in 1980 when he was at the height of his powers. The film begins with the arrival of a boisterous film crew in a remote village in West Bengal who plan to shoot a film about the famine of 1943 which killed more than 3 million people. The filming process will interact with and change the lives of the locals and the crew alike. In the hands of a master like Mrinal Sen we get a film that feels fresh and relevant 36 years later as we continue to struggle with images of constructed reality. Films are second only to suicide vests in their ability to make authorities anxious around the world.
Mrinal Sen, the auteur, is the true protagonist of In Search of Famine – in the film itself there is no single character who has the typical lead role, so to speak. Mr Sen is behind the camera of course, but then he too went with a film crew to shoot a film about a film crew trying to shoot a film in a real village. In Mrinal Sens very endearing memoirs Always Being Born, he devotes a fascinating chapter taking us behind the scenes of this film and reveals how he kept incorporating a lot of the real interaction between his crew and the village into the script, turning the shoot into a unique social experiment.What we get as a result is a 360 degree look at the scenario, change can only come when we are able to see well, with clarity and focus, and this film helps us see. In 2016, in this 36 year old film we can choose to see the India of today or even 10 years later.
Mr Sen weaves an intricate tapestry of subplots to drive home the complexity of what he wants to say with this film and it all comes together on the editing table. In one audacious scene the cast and crew play a parlour game of looking at photographs of famine that the young, ambitious and sincere director (Dhritimaan Chatterjee) has brought along for reference. The players are supposed to identify the particular famine captured in the photograph, since the famine of 1943 was followed by 1956 and then 1971. As the crew try to guess the year it gives rise to complex emotions in the viewer. I recalled the words of the filmmaker Girish Kasaravalli who says that images, by nature, are very concrete and it is the job to the filmmaker to mould them into powerful metaphors. This innocent game played by the crew becomes a powerful metaphor for our casual and insensitive consumption of important images and this alone makes the film very contemporary in the age of 24X7 media and internet.
The stock figure of a village schoolmaster appears regularly in Indian cinema and In Search of Famine too has the benign, genial and wise schoolmaster. But Mrinal Sen uses him effectively to serve as a steadfastly neutral conscience keeper who blurts out hard truths despite his intention to quietly watch the roll of history. There are others for whom the arrival of the film crew is an opportunity, like the villager Haren played by Rajan Tarafdar. He had a theatre group of his own once and is a well read intellectual, much to the surprise of the city bred filmmaker. He tries to get a replacement within the village for a professional actress who gets fired for her sullen ways. But the role is that of a prostitute and the idea of a local girl playing such a character is anathema to the village gentry.
Another powerful strand is the story of a young tribal woman Durga (Sreela Mazumdar) , whose husband was maimed in an industrial accident and she now has to run the house. The film unit provides her a temporary job as a cleaner that supplements her meagre income. She strikes up a rapport with Smita Patil, the iconic Indian actress who plays herself in the film as the actress playing a village woman. While Smita Patil is shooting a particularity tense scene where her character falls into prostitution, Durga who is watching the shoot, lets out a heartrending scream of anguish. By this time “action” and “cut” have become part of the village vocabulary, the onlookers know when to keep silent but Durgas cry shatters the peace in the village and opens up the wounds of past famines.
Watching a Mrinal Sen film is to meet the man himself, his films are unequivocal about what they want to say without being preachy, didactic or even unilaterally grim. But they are sometimes very angry, the anger mostly seethes under the surface as the silent revolt of the villagers, who disrupt the shoot with tactics that are somewhat reminiscent of Gandhis non-cooperation. I was seated next to the great man at a film festival once, it was 2009 and I had begun to nurture dreams of filmmaking. He was muttering things to himself , about how his time has come to die. Mr. Sen was already an octogenarian and I felt deeply uncomfortable sitting next to him , thus squandering an opportunity of a lifetime.
Mrinal Sen has been branded a stridently Marxist filmmaker and this pigeonholing has done a great disservice to his legacy as India’s greatest living filmmaker. In his memoir he writes that his is a cinema of provocation and has said elsewhere that he is interested in a leap of dialectics. His outspokenness, both in his art and life, has ensured that in his final years he has been effectively sidelined by the current political establishment. He is 94 years old and when the day comes for the country to bid him goodbye, there will be no grand farewell that marked the passing of his contemporary Satyajit Ray, nothing much that will make the young want to discover his cinema, only silent tears from cineasts around the world. But the truth of his cinema will remain, as scratchy unrestored prints for his fans to enjoy and mull over. Satyajit Ray objected to being labelled the great humanist but humanism is what strongly permeates Mrinal Sens work and perhaps that label would have helped his legacy more. Long Live Mrinal da!
#In Search of Famine swept the national awards in 1981 and won the Silver Bear at the Berlin Film Festival.