Silhouette editor Amitava Nag explores how Mrinal Sen’s groundbreaking film, Bhuvan Shome, ignited India’s ‘Nouvelle Vague,’ blending satire, social commentary, and experimental techniques.
Mrinal Sen who was making films since the mid-’50s shot to prominence with Baishe Shraban in 1960. He followed it up with a series of films that looked at the cracks and crevices of the urban, middle-class nuclear families as a result of the socio-political non attainments in the two decades since the Indian Independence. However, his claim to fame and glory in the National and International scene became permanent with his 1969 film Bhuvan Shome. Along with Basu Chatterjee’s Sara Akash and Mani Kaul’s Uski Roti made in the same year, Bhuvan Shome is credited with invoking a New Wave in Indian cinema.
Incidentally, Mrinal Sen, unlike his contemporaries in Bengali cinema, was the first who ventured out to make films in other languages, albeit occasionally, and without shifting his base away from Calcutta. He already made Matira Manisha in Odia in 1966. It is known that making a Hindi film on a Bengali protagonist based on a story written by a Bengali author (Bonophool) was a conscious decision of Sen to ascertain box office returns from a pan Indian audience. At that time the popular mainstream cinema was also going through a transition of sorts. Both Raj Kapoor and Dilip Kumar were trying to reassess their position as romantic stars – Kapoor changing to Teesri Kasam (1966) and Kumar making ripples only in Ganga Jumna (1961) and Ram aur Shyam (1967). Dev Anand was still holding on to his lover-boy image, but he also expanded boundaries in Guide (1965), and the phenomenon in Rajesh Khanna that started with Aradhana (1969) was yet to happen.
It is in this milieu that Bhuvan Shome burst into Indian cinema and justifiably gets credit for being the harbinger of India’s own ‘Nouvelle Vague’. Satyajit Ray’s Pather Panchali ushered a new era in Indian cinema with thematic realism and congruence where the linear narrative is based on logical structuring and coherent establishment of space and time. Derived from the Hollywood style of editing, this pattern thrives on the continuity of action. Sen was an admirer of the French New Wave, and even in his Akash Kusum (1965) he used freeze frames as a probable influence. In Bhuvan Shome, the experimentations are no longer sporadic. They have now taken a shape and instead of Ray’s continuity of action, Sen creates his own connectivity of themes. In the very first sequence, like in traditional films, there is an establishment of the character of Shome who, we come to know, is a high-ranked Railway officer. But unlike the prevalent ‘establishment sequences’, typically that of Charu in Ray’s Charulata or the adult Apu in Apur Sansar, Sen here takes an ensemble approach to establish Shome. We hear the ticket collector Yadav telling us what type of a character Shome is. The scene is mixed with freeze frames of Shome’s portraits in different angles followed by his soliloquies justifying his actions and further followed by voice-over of a faceless narrator. Through multiple points of view, several angles and using different techniques, the character of Shome is expressed.
There is a documentary-like montage of Calcutta, with clips of Satyajit Ray at work, Ravi Shankar with his music, still of Swami Vivekananda and then suddenly unrest in the streets with political sloganeering and flashing of banners reminding us of the time. In the voiceover, the narrator becomes busy proclaiming that Shome is a quintessential representative of ‘Golden Bengal’ even though he left it a couple of decades back. It is through these contrasts, of creative synergy followed by virulent protests and of cinematic forms and expressions, that the portrayal of the character is achieved.
The voiceover is heard frequently in the film, it is to further drive home a point or two that is otherwise difficult to convey via visuals alone. The sequence ends with a comical animation that gives us an idea of the busy workload of Shome, amidst files, papers, ringing telephone and a swinging door that moves back and forth continuously indicating his hectic daily routine. Waggish as it may seem, we cannot find Shome himself in the animation flick, only the objects of his office chores are shown. He has probably vaporised without quite realising so.
Bhuvan Shome is a multi-layered film. At the surface it is the story of a bored bureaucrat’s yearning for adventure (hunting birds) on the vast landscape of Saurashtra. At a deeper understanding the film is a satirical take on the austerity of Indian bureaucracy which somehow misses the humane details of life. Yet again, it is a chronicle of loneliness and the desire to reach out for friendship — Shome is a widower with a strained relation with his son and no one at work to spend time with or for relaxation. The film also shows, in a canny way, the social divide between India’s rural and urban lives; a theme Sen revisited in a few later films. While in Akaler Sandhane, for instance, the rural seems to be servile, in Bhuvan Shome, the urban is a jester. Not only does he need to undergo training, in both mind and body, by the rural folks including the young girl Gauri and the cart driver but he is disrobed as well and made to wear the traditional local dress to be acceptable to the birds he wishes to shoot!
Shome, who is quite cruel with people around him in the city, finds most of the people in the village quite friendly and helpful even to strangers like him. Therefore, Shome trusts Gauri’s advice with blind faith. He realises the importance of belief and goes back to the city a better man. Bhuvan Shome’s experimentation with form works both at the aural and the visual levels. The cinematography has breath-taking black-white imagery in the deserts of Gujarat complemented with extreme closeups of the characters, in motion or at times frozen in time. There are repeating motifs of overhead shots of railway tracks, carts (both horse and bullock) and the characters in the sand dunes. The background score and the mixing of different sounds – instrumental and mechanical to attenuate the mood of the scenes is seamless. The editing is commensurate with the audio-video craftsmanship with visible debt from French edit patterns primarily in jump cuts and freeze frames. In one scene, to illustrate, Gauri holds up her hands and pretends to be on a swing. The camera zooms in and out on her emulating a swing action.
Yadav, the ticket collector, has charges against him of accepting bribes on the job. Shome eventually finds out that Gauri is engaged to Yadav. She, unknowing of Shome’s identity, vents her anger towards a particular “Shome Saab” who has made her fiancé’s life a hell. On his return from the tour, Shome now changed internally by the innocent freshness of Gauri which she is unaware of, absolves Yadav from his charges. In fact, he transfers Yadav to a bigger station closer to Gauri’s home. Being subtly wry, how Mrinal Sen was, we hear in the voice-over that Yadav has written a letter to Gauri communicating the good news that a bigger junction means even better tips. This twist elevates Bhuvan Shome from a casual drama of wish fulfilment and pretension of the urban middle-class, to a more thought-provoking mockery of human nature.
In the end of the film, after his return, we find Shome in a light mood in his office, singing and dancing, and a sense of liberation engulfs us, only to hear the eerie ringing of the telephone once more. The telephone continues to ring, a sad truth that within the confines of these urban offices we will always be captive. In the final shot a camera turns and focuses on us, the audience. It is probably now our turn to be under the scanner and to face the music.
One upon a time Charlie Chaplin famously remarked about his international character of ‘The Tramp’ — “You know this fellow is many-sided, a tramp, a gentleman, a poet, a dreamer, a lonely fellow, always hopeful of romance and adventure. He would have you believe he is a scientist, a musician, a duke, a polo-player. However, he is not above picking up cigarette-butts or robbing a baby of its candy… He is chasing folly, and he knows it. He is trying to meet the world bravely, to put up a bluff, and he knows that, too. He knows it so well that he can laugh at himself and pity himself a little.” Sen was an ardent admirer of Chaplin throughout his life. He wrote on Chaplin extensively and argued several times the importance of ‘The Tramp’ in contemporary socio-political life. Sen’s Shome was not a tramp. He was neither a dreamer or a poet or even a scientist when the film started off. By the end, like Chaplin’s own definition Shome was chasing folly and realising it as well. He could laugh at himself and probably pity as well. At least a little, perhaps.
A slightly different version of the article is included in the author’s 75 years 75 films: India’s Cinematic Journey (Publications Division, Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, Government of India).
More Must Reads in Silhouette
Mrinal Sen in Conversation with Italo Spinelli
Mrinal Sen: The Man Who Fought Through Cinema
The Presence of Absence in Mrinal Sen’s Films
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A wonderful perspective on a much-discussed film. Well-penned.
Thank you Antara for liking the essay.