40 Years After Release, Mrinal Sen's 'Akaler Sandhane' Is a Striking Mirror to Our Times

Considered by many to be Mrinal Sen's best film, it is a reminder that crises like the present one affects people vastly differently based on their background.

1980, West Bengal

A director and his crew go to a village to shoot a film on the great Bengal Famine of 1943. During their stay in the village for a month at a dilapidated house that was formerly a zamindar’s palace, they discover that there is actually no need to go in ‘search’ of the famine – it is an ever present reality in the villages of Bengal.

Akaler Sandhane (‘In Search of Famine’, 1980), is considered by many as Mrinal Sen’s best film.

It is a film within a film that starts off as a project motivated principally by the idealistic director’s vision, but ends up transforming the actors. It critically examines the relationship between the past and present by taking up a landmark event of British India for investigation and demonstrating that, in the case of India at least, “history repeats itself”.

Three scenes

Akaler Sandhane does not use any overt device to distinguish the two narrative time-frames – the famine of 1943 and a film-shooting about it in 1980. Instead, it effortlessly moves back and forth in time, continually collapsing 1980 and 1943 through the shooting sequences and the lived lives of the villagers. Three such moments in the film are worth highlighting.

‘Spot-the-famine’ contest:

A few days into their shooting, when sudden rains stall their work, the cast gather in a room of the huge decrepit palace to chill out; and over endless cups of tea and cigarettes and planning the dinner menu, they play a ‘spot-the-famine’ contest.

The poster of Akaler Sandhane.

The director shows them a series of famine photographs culled from newspaper offices, archives and personal collections, and asks them to date the exhibits. Since the 1943 famine is the most well-known, quite a few err in thinking that all the photographs are from that period – but they are not.

Almost identical ones are from 1959 (when there was the ‘Food Riot’ in Calcutta) and 1971 (when Bangladeshi refugees flooded West Bengal during their War of Independence).

Another tricky one is a picture thought to be of the Buddha – as a skeletal yogi sitting in the lotus position – which is actually a photograph of a statue belonging to the Gandhara period!

Sabitri & Durga: For a handful of rice

In the ‘film-within-a-film’, Sabitri (Smita Patil in a stellar performance) is the wife of a destitute farmer whose family of four (including the old father and the new-born) has been starving for weeks.

But the men refuse to yield their last patch of land to the moneylender, who pursues them without success. Sabitri then resorts to the only choice left to her. She spends an evening with a contractor from Calcutta, and brings home rice and kerosene oil – essentials that have long vanished from the market.

One Malati, whom we don’t see and who has already turned to prostitution, helps her in this. One is reminded of Sandhya Roy’s character in Asani Sanket – selling herself to an ogre for rice.

Sabitri’s encounter with the contractor is not shown: that is irrelevant. What is not is the husband’s reaction when she is back home late at night. Without her uttering a single word, he knows in his bones the story behind that handful of rice and rages in impotent fury, even as a blank-faced Sabitri quietly goes about her task of putting the rice to boil and comforting her sick infant.

Unable to elicit any response from her, her husband smashes all the utensils in the kitchen and is about to dash the baby to the ground when Sabitri screams and stops him.

Her scream in the shoot coincides with Durga’s in the crowded audience. For the scene Durga (Sreela Majumdar) saw enacted before her eyes was a slice of her own life; and she would herself re-live the scene only days later. 

Durga’s story, though she lives four decades after the 1943 famine, is the same as Sabitri’s: her husband lost an arm in an accident in his factory and has been at home ever since. What she earns as a part-time maid in several houses is not enough for the sustenance of the family.

The coming of the film crew has however temporarily increased her income – as she gets paid for serving tea to the crew and doing other sundry odd jobs for them – and she has even been persuaded by the director’s right-hand man to play the part of Malati in the film. (Debika, the actress who was supposed to do the role, left in the middle in a huff out of vanity, and the director was having a tough time trying to find a replacement for her).

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Though initially extremely shy, Durga decides to take on the challenge of acting, and confronts her husband in a situation identical to that of Sabitri’s. But she ultimately doesn’t act, leaving the director in the lurch.

Sabitri & Durga: No end in sight

The film within the film ends with Sabitri leaving the village alone – after the death of her infant and husband – part of a long line of emaciated beings going to the city in search of food. While the others proceed, she pauses after a while and breaks down in unspeakable sorrow.

Sen’s film ends with a still of Durga, rapidly receding in the background, with a voiceover ending her tale in three lines: “Durga is alone. Her infant died. Her husband cannot be found.” 

Though Durga herself does not say anything, a poem could stand in for her – the poem that Sen had used as a chorus for the stories in Calcutta ’71; and which begins and ends the tale of a Naxal rebel killed in a police encounter:

I am twenty,
In my twenty years, I’ve been walking for a thousand;
For a thousand years, I’ve been walking – pushing through poverty, destitution and death, 
For a thousand years, I’ve been a witness to history – the history of poverty, of deprivation, of exploitation,
For a thousand years… 

A feeling of déjà vu

Watching Akaler Sandhane is to be constantly visited by a feeling of déjà vu. The most obvious comparison that comes to mind is of course Satyajit Ray’s Ashani Sanket (‘Distant Thunder’, 1973).

The poster of ‘Ashani Sanket’.

But there are whole scenes that are reminiscent of others from Sen’s own earlier films – Baishe Srabon (‘Wedding Anniversary’, 1960), Calcutta ’71 (1972) and Chorus (1974).

What is common to all of them – whether they are set in rural Bengal or Calcutta – are poverty and hunger.

It is salutary to remember here that all the three greats of Bengali cinema – Satyajit Ray, Ritwik Ghatak and Mrinal Sen – have dealt with poverty (as have other distinguished directors). The subject is unavoidable for any serious filmmaker in India.

But they differed substantially in their treatment, in the stories they chose to show that poverty. Many of Ray’s films are set in rural Bengal, all of which happen to be adaptations of well-known Bengali novels or short stories. In Pather Panchali (‘Song of the Little Road’, 1955) – the first and most famous of them all – Ray, following the spirit of Bibhuti Bhushan Bandyopadhyay’s novel, depicts a poor Brahmin family without forgetting to portray the dignity of their lives or the beauty of the countryside that surrounds them (seen as they are through the eyes of a child).

In stark contrast stands Ghatak’s ‘Partition trilogy’, which unforgettably records the trauma and destitution of East Bengali refugees in the aftermath of India’s partition. Sen was preoccupied with this theme for a long period of time: an earlier phase of passionate indictments against poverty and exploitation (in the films mentioned above and his ‘Calcutta trilogy’) later gave way to more introspective studies of lower middle-class life and morality, where poverty is either a constant threat or intrudes indirectly (Ek Din Pratidin, 1979; Kharij, 1982). Akaler Sandhane, his 19th feature, belonged to this latter phase.

Akaler Sandhane is an incredibly complex film that works at several levels: it is not just about the relation between the past and the present, but also about art and reality and the limits of representation. The film dramatises another great divide – that existing between the village and the city.

While the past and present may come together in surprising and shocking ways, the gulf between the city and the village remains. For the film crew in Akaler Sandhane, this gulf with the villagers only widens after an initial curious encounter. Their alien and seemingly exploitative presence is at first tolerated and then increasingly resisted as an intrusion by the villagers.

Consequently, the film unit has to pack up and leave for Calcutta, forced to shoot the rest of the film in the studios. What haunts the viewer, however, is not the fate of the conscientious director’s film, but the fate of Durga in the village.

It’s ironic that, 40 years after its release, Akaler Sandhane remains strikingly relevant.

We are facing a pandemic, not a regional famine. But the way the film affects people differently in India across caste and class divides is unfortunately a sad reminder that the the gulf between villages and cities, if anything, has only further widened in this century.   

Rituparna Roy is initator of the Kolkata Partition Museum Project.