My relationship with the cinema of Mrinal Sen is somewhat paradoxical. On the one hand, I have seen (and this I confess with the requisite amount of shame and self-reproach) very little of his cinema. On the other hand, one of my earliest memories of watching a Hindi film is of one of Mrinal Sen’s films: Mrigyaa, which I probably watched when I was about nine years old and, perhaps to my own surprise, understood at least more than I would have been expected to.
But, to come to the point. When I heard of the passing away of Mrinal Sen a few days ago, it seemed appropriate to finally watch and review one of his films. Trying to find a subtitled version of one of his earlier Bengali films might have been difficult at short notice, but Bhuvan Shome held out more promise. Not just in Hindi (it was Mrinal Sen’s first Hindi film), but also such a classic that it was fairly easy to track down.
The eponymous Bhuvan Shome (or Bhuvan Som, as his Hindi-speaking associates refer to him) is played by Utpal Dutt (like Mrinal Sen, in his first Hindi film). Mr Shome is an important official in the railways, and a strict, highly principled one. The sort of man who commands, to his face, a lot of respect from all his colleagues and his subordinates. But, as the commentator (Amitabh Bachchan, billed only as Amitabh) remarks: behind his back, they all refer to him as saala, a bastard.
Why this is so is revealed within the first few minutes of the story. At a small railway station, a hot and dusty and half-forgotten place somewhere in Gujarat, a few railway staffers are standing around, waiting for Som Sahib to arrive on the next train. One of these men, Jadhav Patel (Sadhu Meher) is worried as well as disgruntled. Patel has been taking money for ‘chai-paani’ (a euphemism for petty bribes), and has discovered that this has come to the notice of Shome.
Shome, with his scruples well-known to everyone, is certain to take serious disciplinary action. Patel could get suspended, dismissed, Shome only knows what. Patel has no idea how he’s going to manage, what with his gauna coming up (a gauna, for those not in the know, is the time when a child marriage is finally consummated—a child bride would live with her parents until puberty or later, and when old enough, would be taken to her husband for the gauna, after which she would start to live with him).
Shome arrives, is brusque and business-like, and before he goes on his way to wherever he’s headed, asks for Jadhav Patel. Little is said on either side, but the look Shome gives Patel says it all: nemesis awaits Patel.
As Bhuvan Shome goes further on his way, heading deeper into the countryside, we get—through a combination of commentary, animation, and voiceovers from Shome himself—an insight into this man and his life. A lonely man, widowed many years back and now even left alone by his son, who’s gone off to live elsewhere (another reason for Shome’s unpopularity is that he dismissed his own son from the job for some unmentioned misdemeanour: that is the level of this man’s adherence to his principles).
A want of anything to occupy himself with led to Shome finally taking an interest in—of all things—hunting. What does he hunt? Tigers, bears, other predators? No, birds. And his desire to hunt birds is what has brought Shome to this corner of rural Gujarat, where he’s hoping to find game.
What he finds, much to his surprise, is something quite different. Adventure, farce, a jaunt that mixes pathos with comedy.
Because, setting off in a jolting bullock cart at an unearthly hour of the morning, Shome soon begins chatting with the rather loony cart-driver. They’re going along at a merry pace when they run straight into a water buffalo. A menacing water buffalo, so dangerous that despite the cart-driver warning Shome, both men end up being chased by the animal through the scrub. It’s all quite terrifying for Shome.
… And mortifying, eventually, when a giggling girl named Gauri (Suhasini Mulay, in her very first role) collars the buffalo, which she calls Sheetal, and which she proceeds to mount and ride off on. It turns out Sheetal is her pet, so to say.
This is only the start of Shome’s acquaintance with Gauri. Because, while Shome and the cart-driver have been fleeing from the buffalo all across the wilderness, the bullocks have made their escape, cart and all. The cart-driver magnanimously suggests that Shome go and shoot his birds while he, the cart-driver, will go find the bullocks.
Wandering about, trying to make his way to a water body crowded with birds, Shome is found by Gauri, who comes to invite him home: her father saw him wandering about, and has offered help and hospitality. Surprised and initially reluctant, but gradually more and more beguiled by Gauri’s generosity and her cheerfulness, Shome finds his day taking turns he’d never have imagined.
I began watching Bhuvan Shome with very little idea of what it was about; all I knew was that it centred round a lonely widower who goes on a shooting trip. But this film is far more than just that. It is a quirky, amusing, often outright hilarious look at life—and yet, there is more to it. More depth, more insight.
What I liked about this film:
The stark simplicity of it. Not just in the storyline and the direction, but in the overall look and scope of it. All of Bhuvan Shome takes place over the course of a couple of days (and most of the real action is crowded into one day). There is very little by way of sets, very few characters, and an interesting reliance on devices like stills or animation to show, in a spare and swift way, details that might otherwise have required a larger cast, bigger sets, and more time. Bhuvan Shome, by the way, was made on a budget of just Rs 2,00,000.
Then, there are the motifs and the hidden meanings—or hidden in an obliquely obvious way—in dialogues and actions. For instance, there is the buffalo Sheetal, who may be ruthless when it comes to other people, chasing them and driving them into a panic, but completely docile when it comes to Gauri. Rather like Bhuvan Shome himself, who is so much of a disciplinarian with his staff, but turns to putty when it comes to this seemingly naïve, innocent village girl he happens to meet by chance. Gauri is able to control Bhuvan Shome just as she controls Sheetal. Both she charms into subservience.
Another example: the disguises. As Bhuvan Shome dons one disguise after another (all as a result of Gauri’s attempts to help him get close enough to the birds to shoot them), I could not help but think: he is in any case in disguise. Because there is a connection between Shome and Gauri which she doesn’t know of—a detail about his identity that makes a difference to him but which he keeps hidden from her. Throughout the story, Bhuvan Shome is in disguise, even if it’s not outlandish.
There is the humour of the film, sometimes whacky, sometimes subtly wry. There is the way in which an ageing, jaded, cynical city man falls head over heels for the simplicity of a village girl. Apparently, many Western reviewers saw Bhuvan Shome as a very erotic film; I didn’t, though I definitely saw the intense attraction Shome feels for Gauri, even if he keeps it disguised (that motif again!) as an avuncular affection. There is the acting, which is excellent. There is the stark beauty of the landscape, especially those sand dunes.
And there is the end, the very last sentence, spoken in Sadhu Meher’s voice. Brilliant. Such a telling reflection on human nature.
Was there anything I didn’t like about this film? No. Not one thing. It was delightful, and it made me see just why Mrinal Sen is regarded so highly.
RIP, Mr Sen. May your work live on.