The Fasting Buddha in Mrinal Sen's 'Akaler Sandhane'

Mrinal Sen employs the technique of a film-within-a-film format to mirror a distant reality through reel in an entirely different timeframe.

While filming a famine, they have created one…

September 1980. A group of actors is travelling from Calcutta into the heart of Hatui, a village in rural Bengal. Purpose? They are ‘famine seekers’. The unnamed director, played by Dhritiman Chatterjee, is making a film on the Bengal famine of 1943 and has picked this village for the shoot. It’s been almost 40 years and Hatui hasn’t really undergone a path-breaking facelift in terms of its socio-economic condition. The remnants of a famine-stricken past are visible on the faces of the subsequent generations.

As part of the ‘Mrinal Sen Retrospective’, Akaler Sandhane (In Search of Famine) – winner of the National Award(s) for Best Feature Film, Best Direction, Best Screenplay and Editing – was screened on the afternoon of April 21 at the India International Centre, New Delhi in collaboration with Impresario India.

The afternoon was not only about celebrating the craft of a genius filmmaker, it was also about introspection, recognising and acknowledging the timelessness of Sen’s films, and of course – retrospection, perhaps, redemption too.

A few emblematic scenes and themes that lingered even after the film was over are briefly touched upon in this piece.

Recreating famine: a surrogate reality?

As a filmmaker, Mrinal Sen found aestheticism in rusticity, which is probably why the merging of the realities of 1943 and 1980 is seamless.

The atmosphere is carnivalesque in the village. Initially, when the crew arrives, children are fascinated by the sound of the clapstick, they run helter-skelter chanting the film director’s ‘Cut, cut, cut’ like an amusing game. Durga (Sreela Majumdar), a village-woman, is moved by Smita Patil’s (playing herself) portrayal of a village-woman and her struggles at the wake of the ’43 famine.

A still from Akaler Sandhane

Strangely, for Durga, what unfolds in front of the camera coincides with her own off-screen existence. The feudal lords, however, whose ancestors were responsible for robbing the villagers of their lands at throwaway prices during a famine, are squirming. The atrocities of their predecessors are staring them in the face. War contractors, who employed unskilled labourers, exploited village-women in exchange for a handful of rice or less than half-a-pint oil. And these contractors were complicitous with the ‘respectable’ brahmins of the village in the trade-off.

Back then, prostitution seemed to be a solution to fight acute starvation. Surprisingly, the mere mention is giving the exalted brahmins a rash in the present day when a certain Chatterjee (Chattujey), certainly a brahmin, is offended once he learns the director wants to offer his daughter the role of a prostitute in his film.

It’s interesting how Mrinal Sen employs the technique of a film-within-a-film format to mirror a distant reality through reel in an entirely different timeframe. The surrogate reality created for celluloid is dangerously close to the stories of the present inhabitants of the village. It is both stark and dark.

Mrinal Sen and Smita Patil during Akaler Sandhane

Chintamani, the prostitute who transformed a wayward saint

The school headmaster, also the senior-most in the village, who was a witness to the shameful history being filmed about today, is the memory-keeper and the voice of criticism too. A gatekeeper, situated at the threshold of the past bordering on the present, he was in the village when war contractors abused women in the garb of employment.

Women, out of sheer helplessness, acquiesced to keep the home fires burning. On his meeting with the director, the headmaster recounts the story of Bilvamangal and Chintamani. Bilvamangal, an ardent devotee of Lord Vishnu, is attracted to Chintamani, a prostitute. The intensity of his attraction is so colossal that he leaves his own father’s funeral midway, crosses the river with the help of a corpse on a stormy night and climbs to Chintamani’s room holding a snake.

In her rebuke, Chintamani tells Bilvamangal that had this devotion been reserved for his Lord, he would have attained true salvation. A prostitute makes a saint out of a flawed man.

The irony is, a prostitute who once showed a lost Vaishnava the path to redemption, is in search of her own lost dignity, centuries later, in a flawed society that failed her. Perhaps, Akaler Sandhane is a quest for honour and respect too.

In search of famine

What resembled a carnival at the outset is slowly metamorphosing into a sinister beast. Villagers are furious, they are hostile now. The sanctity of their village has been disturbed. In a rather tragic-comic scene, when one of the village-goers meets a crew member at a tea stall, he says how the prices of groceries and food items have shot up because the bulk of goods is either being transported to the city or going to the film unit.

An indifferent man listening in, reclining against a tree trunk, quips: ‘While filming a famine, they have created one.’ This is most telling, the past which was earlier shown crawling into the present has now eclipsed the existing reality. There is a famine-like situation thanks to the invasion by a cinematic microcosm. The village has been woken up, rather jolted to a crude history, now unfolding in all its complexities. One layer opens up many hidden layers.

The fasting Buddha and faces of hunger

So, what does hunger look like, does it have a face? One rainy evening, when there’s no shooting, Smita Patil is scanning a few photographs in a pile and she brandishes them, one by one, in front of her fellow actors, asking them to identify the period in which these black-and-white ‘famine’ photographs could have been taken.

Not all of them are dated 1943. Some of them belong to 1959 and even 1971. What is most unusual is when, in an earlier somewhat similar ‘spot-the-famine’ sequence, Dhritiman asks his team to look at a photograph. Though he conceals the head of the figure in the photograph, the pronounced ribs, a sunken stomach, matchstick-like legs and the meditative lotus posture are enough to give away the identity – the Fasting Buddha (2nd century BC).

What is peculiar is the analogy that the filmmaker draws between the situation of a starving population in rural Bengal in a pre-independent India reeling under famine and Siddhartha’s choice of going without food. Siddhartha, who was born a prince, was fasting out of his own volition. Were people in Bengal also on a path of enlightenment like Siddhartha? How is one’s choice equivalent to another’s crisis?

Buddha’s sunken state is: “…not a symbol of death and resurrection but of self-empowerment and overcoming of suffering by the human spirit.” Maybe Sen was showing the ‘faces’ of hunger which could be universal and not the reasons behind it. 

Girl with the talcum powder: closing scene

Soon, it’s pack-up time for the crew. They have overstayed their welcome and even the director is seen enveloped by a sense of guilt for having used this village as a cinematic prop. Now, this is quite autobiographical given how even Mrinal Sen felt inadequate as a filmmaker who dealt with the social reality of the working class. In an interview to Wilderness Films India Ltd., he says, “Of course, I got involved with their circumstances in which these people lived, but what happens after that? I can only keep telling stories… we exploit their situations, and we go back. We can’t do anything by making a film, there’s no magic wand.”

Girl holding the box of talcum powder. Credit: YouTube

The girl, who is seen in the last scene of the film, is, in fact, a ten-year-old who would come and visit Mrinal Sen every day at the shoot. When she saw them packing up, she asked him if they were leaving. The director gave her a box of talcum powder (which is what she is seen holding in the film’s last scene) as a token of remembrance. “I told her how to use the powder and when I was taking the last sequence…I asked her to stand there [behind the pillar].” And this, which was not part of the original script, stayed in the film.

Powdered or not, reel or real, Mrinal Sen’s Akaler Sandhane is a quest embarked by every starving soul and hungry heart travelling on a road to empathy, compassion and redemption.

Ipshita Mitra is a Delhi based freelance writer.