Shiladitya Sarkar critiques Mrinal Sen’s powerful Telugu film Oka Oorie Katha which challenges conventions, explores poverty’s pervasiveness, and questions the value of work. Sen’s empathetic portrayal delves into society’s flaws and raises questions about the conditions that breed hopelessness.
Mrinal Sen ruptures the conventional in myriad ways in his Telegu film Oka Oorie Katha. The original story by Munsi Premchand is grounded in the landscape of Uttar Pradesh. Sen transports it to the landscape of Telengana. With this shift, he expands the topography of poverty, making it an all-pervasive phenomenon irrespective of the site where the dehumanising role of destitution plays out to exact its brutal price.
Second, and this is much more important, is the manner in which Sen drifts from the conservative notion of work as an essential concomitant to life. Rather, through his lead protagonist, Sen mocks the notion of work and its necessity.
Rarely in an Indian film has one witnessed such a vicious take on labour, an approach that negates the worth of work into a routine for subjugation, a truth that the rebel Venkaiah alone seems to comprehend, a savage truth that he directs Kistaiah, his son, towards even in the face of abject hunger.
The father and son live in a dilapidated hut. Ensconced within the crumbling walls, Kistaiah is under the constant tutoring of a stubborn, hard-drinking father whose ways of living are in direct confrontation with the society he is yoked to.
The descent into self-denial is what flags off the film.
Daylight breaks in, the first rooster hoots, but Venkaiah doesn’t welcome the morning with the usual rush. He rather expresses his wish to sleep off the day, willing to work only when hunger is unbearable.
The son gives in placidly to the stern diktat.
Kistaiah isn’t much of a decision-maker, a flaw that will manifest cruelly when he follows his father’s decision without a protest in times of an acute family crisis that would lead to the death of Nilamma, his wife, whom he had married against his father’s wish.
The rest of his persona is a pale reflection of Venkaiah, shadowing him in his many acts of thieving from the resources of the rich. While stealing, Venkaiah celebrates with a false bravado, a rejoicing in which the son is a complicit participant.
It’s an unlikely bond, rarely portrayed in Indian cinema. Their relationship neither has the nuances of a stable father-son relationship nor subtle confrontations between ideals of conservatism and modernity (recall Satyajit Ray’s Devi), nor does it mimic the loud, kitschy duels between father and son in the colourful Bollywood melodramas.
The portrait under Sen deviates from these norms and builds a primordial association between a strong father and a weak son, whom he berates and loves with an almost feral-like intimacy and indifference.
Venkaiah doesn’t represent the usual tragic figure, tormented, and defeated under the brutal heels of power in a rural milieu. His choice is deeply political, even if he doesn’t live by the codes of any party or political ideology.
His choice to deny the sacrosanct virtues of labour coincides with the director’s politics of representation.
Sen earned quite a few labels in his lifetime: Marxist, Naxalite sympathiser, director with a Godardian flavour, man with the penchant for putting politics above aesthetic concerns. Above all, a disjointed storyteller whose narrative eschews either easy or happy endings.
Is Sen difficult by choice, experimental by mania, and political for the heck of it?
The resounding answer to such a dribble is a loud no.
If content defines form, then the context of the content also defines the politics of looking.
To a casual viewer, Sen, in most of his films, may come across as a propagandist. There are shades of sloganeering in Oka Oorie Katha, too.
However, it would be a wrong reading of the film if one were to appraise it as another example of a committed, Marxist artist. Sen doesn’t portray Venkaiah either as a tragic figure or as a mouthpiece of the oppressed. Irrespective of the film’s grim tone, he steers clear of any sentimentality to gain the audience’s support.
Venkaiah’s abjectness works rather as a metaphor, one that forces a discerned viewer to question not him but the conditions that breed hopeless rage and bitter truths, twain that fail to condense into a fruitful proactive response.
Under a bleeding sun, when the toils of labour are appropriated by the power of the rich, notwithstanding whether the oppressor is an urban elite or a rural repressor with sticks, the process of subjugation and its reverberations in the lives of the oppressed are an unending cycle. In such a landscape of denial and insult, the bile of a lone, useless rebel is neither redemptive nor liberatory. The ranting and cussing at the citadels of power is a mere momentary release of a subjugated mind.
Sen’s reading of society is much more empathetic than a deterministic interpretation of realism. From that vantage point, he couldn’t have projected Venkaiah as a model of an inspiring rebel.
The film gives Venkaiah space, though, to voice his ironical (and at times comical) outbursts at the citadels of power, and that too from a safe distance.
So, he rants under the cover of night, or as a lone speaker in close-up, where the expressive face of the actor Vasudeva Rao is used to full effect to articulate the repressed anger of a rebel trapped by his society, his moments, and his personality.
The face in close-up dominates the poster for the film as much as it does the screen space. There is a manic zeal in his many moments of howling out against the world at large. Interestingly, the missing incisors give intensity to the wild expression, evoking the rush of a man out to get at the marrows of his oppressor with a wounded mouth.
A chance for domesticity doesn’t curb either Venkaiah or Kistaiah, nor does it redirect Kistaiah towards a conventional way of living after his marriage with Nilamma.
Venkaiah resists the marriage. He warns his son of the consequences of his responsibility. The insistent son weds her against Venkaiah’s choice—a rare independent position contrary to his father’s—but blissfully overlooks his duty towards his wife. While she slogs for the family, the despicable duo whiles away time playing games or idles away doing what their whims dictate.
The shameless Venkaiah fails even in his role as a father-in-law to care for the girl whose hands keep the family alive. Even in moments where there is a slim chance for redemption for Venkaiah, Sen resists the call for tenderness.
The repetitive abuse he hurls at her, on one occasion even raising a stick to discipline her, hardens the man’s image.
As the film approaches its climax, Sen weaves in fragmentary shots to highlight this binary between the slogger and her benefactors.
Nilamma’s plight is foregrounded. In a series of quick shifting shots, we see her busy with daily chores: weaving baskets, husking rice, stitching, etc., while all the while humming a song for the unborn. The use of negative space in the composition of these stark singularities heightens both her fortitude and sense of duty.
Sen digs in deeper to create more fissures between her and the indolent duo. He rips open any idyllic notion of care and sympathy to channel his politics of representation, one that doesn’t hinge on any romantic notions.
In fact, the reverse path would have sunk the film into an overflow of humanness. Sen, the shrewd artist, isn’t revelling in traumatising the audience. He is profiling the character with the politics of representation by investing the narrative with a simple, brutal question: what gives birth to a brute like Venkaiah who sees the naked truth of oppression but is oblivious to the hands that care?
Or is his debasement so complete, sanguine, that the tender side of him has corroded?
The brutality comes to the fore on a night when the father and son are busy thieving while Nilamma is on the threshold of death. Her agonising grunts during labour pain alert them and hurl them back home.
Concerned villages are grouped around her during their absence. They urge Venkaiah to call a midwife. He is reluctant.
Kistaiah prods his father to heed the counsel.
Like a shrewd manipulator, Venkaiah reminds the son of their poverty, their inability to pay the midwife. Like a fatalist, he accepts that Nilamma will be fine. Instead of fretting over her, he advises his son to prepare for sleep. A heartless response rarely equalled in Indian cinema or elsewhere when both husband and father-in-law turn oblivious to the sufferings of a woman who owns the rights to share their heath but not their care or concern.
Kistaiah discovers her cold body the next morning. To prevent the putrid smell of the cadaver, the father and son go begging to gather the money for the funeral.
The money comes, but it distracts them from the duty at hand. In a major shift from Premchand, where the drinking sequence dominates the last part of the narrative, Sen relocates the despicable duo under a tree.
Venkaiah’s hands are full of coins.
Money. In Shakespeare’s words, “Thou Common Whore of Mankind.”
Venkaiah is visibly happy. The touch of coins gives him a fleeting sense of power. The power isn’t to build a citadel. But to have grains enough to fill the stomachs. The power to build a hut that wouldn’t leak in the rain The power to bring “the dead child”—Venkaiah’s words—Nilamma back to life.
Wishes that are washed away under false labour.
Washes that are wasted by labouring under the power of ‘one’ who gets the fruits of the collective
The wishes to be happy again, the way Venkaiah felt while feasting at the party given by the landlord on his daughter’s wedding.
In Premchand’s ‘Kafan’, the last scene at a watering hole becomes a zone to strip naked the duo, who senselessly, in times of tragedy, ignore the immediate to satiate their senses—an overlook that is deeply comical in a profound satirical way, a response that the revellers around them found both confusing and hilarious.
I find the penultimate frames of the film reminiscent of Sen’s signature declarative voice—too loud a shout-out that exposes his ideological standpoint but not his artistic prowess.
The ending is nebulous too, in which Venkaiah’s face morphs into coagulated images, recalling Sen’s penchant for Godardian abstraction.
Irrespective of its occasional shortcomings, the film is not just part of Sen’s impressive repertoire; it is crucial in the pantheon of Indian cinema for the way it makes a personal choice a political one and its representation a matter of politics.
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