Bhuvan Shome (1969)

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.

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23 thoughts on “Bhuvan Shome (1969)

  1. I do not know much about Mrinal Sen’s cinema, only heard of Bhuvan Shome as the debut of Suhasini Mulay.
    But I guess I should start now. Where can I watch it?

  2. Thanks for this post. Here some trivia for you.
    Mrinal Sen made a Bengali film in 1965 named “Akash kusum”( Up on the clouds)
    starring Soumitra Chatterjee. Later in 70’s Basu Chatterjee made a remake of it
    called “Manzil” starring Amitabh And Mousumi. Both are light entertaining film.

    The point is though Mrinal Sen was famous for so called art films, he tried his hands
    in “middle road cinema” also.

    • Thank you for that bit of trivia – I hadn’t known it, even though I have watched Manzil (and liked it). That’s a good point you make. In fact, I must admit that I began watching Bhuvan Shome with some reservations, since I thought, as an art film, it might turn out to be bleak… but while it was definitely not a mainstream film, I found it very entertaining and quirky.

  3. Hi all!

    This is from Praba Mahajan.

    At the outset, I must admit that I have a “vested interest” ( not quite the right turn of phrase, I guess…..) in knowing how most of Mrinal Sen’s films are viewed / reviewed….as my husband K K Mahajan was the cinematographer for 19 of the films directed by Mrinal Sen, over a period of three decades, beginning with “Bhuvan Shome” (1969).
    Reading Madhulika Liddle’s review of Mrinal Sen’s “Bhuvan Shome”, was such a delight! I did look out to see what she did not like about the film.

    And when I read:

    “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”..,

    you can well imagine what I feel about, her review, and the comments that have followed.
    There’s so much I could say about their relationship – both professional and personal…(not really relevant here!) . For now, the best I can do is to give the link to what Mrinal Sen himself had to say about “Bhuvan Shome”.

    Pl. do read it!

    https://scroll.in/reel/810879/mrinal-sen-on-bhuvan-shome-a-burlesque-and-inspired-nonsense
    More info on the website created for Mrinal Sen by Kunal Sen and Nisha Ruparel Sen:

    mrinalsen.org

    cheers!

    Praba Mahajan

    • Thank you for your comment – and I’m sorry this didn’t get published earlier. All comments by first-time commenters automatically come to me for moderation before they are published, and since I’ve been travelling for the past one week and didn’t access the Net, I didn’t know you were going on trying to publish a comment.

      What an amazing comment that is! It gave me gooseflesh to learn that your husband was the cinematographer for this film and so many others of Sen’s films. The cinematography here was truly wonderful; your husband was certainly an artist. Thank you so much for telling us about this.

      Thank you also for that link to the Scroll article. Very interesting!

  4. Like yourself I haven’t seen much of Mrinal Sen’s cinema. I do, however, remember watching “Khandar” as a teenager and being a little unnerved by Shabana Azmi’s performance. Her character’s loneliness stood out in the film like a gaping wound.

  5. Like you, Mrigaya was the first Mrinal Sen film I’d watched. And honestly, that had more to do with Mithun Chakraborty than Sen. I was fascinated by the fact that the actor I knew as ‘Disco Dancer’ was in a film like this. And I remember being blown away by his performance, as well as the film.

    Bhuvan Shome, similarly, I watched for Utpal Dutt. Much later, when I was in college. Obviously, I had no idea what the film was about, but our Film Society in college always came up with some really good films, so I went along. It was a very, very touching film.

    Thank you for reminding me of it.

    • Interestingly, even though the only other Mrinal Sen film I’d watched was Mrigyaa, I watched it because my parents (who used to take my sister and me along to watch just about every film) took us to watch it. Since we rarely watched films (the only Hindi films I’d watched before that – or that I remembered watching – were CID and Meena Kumari ki Amar Kahaani), Mrigyaa ended up being my first exposure to Mithun Chakraborty, whom I was – as you say too – blown away by. When I next watched a Mithun film (probably a couple of years later, when TV came into our lives), it came as a blow to discover that Mrigyaa was not the usual Mithun style.

  6. Madhu ji ,
    Nicely reviewed . It would tempt readers to watch it on YouTube , which otherwise would hav been surely ignored by many .

    I watched it a few months ago . I liked it very much . Nd I hav watched it in parts many a times after that .

    The photography , screenplay , acting nd the sand dunes , everything is praiseworthy nd equally praiseworthy is Ur review , Madhu ji , thnx for it .

  7. Saw part one and four minutes of part two, some one had to wake me up!! Train tracks, moving camera, horse tonga, moving camera, showing a dusty road and finally when the bullock cart started, zzzzzzzzzzzz, did you actually see the whole cinema?
    Will try to catch up with it but too much of camera movement, causes dizzyness!! I guess parallel cinema in the 70s was like that, will try to plough through the 8 parts!!

    • I watched all the parts, over time, improved exponentially, especially after he reached the house. The camera became a bit more steady, and the effervescent lady, Suhasini Mulay was more visible!! She did a brilliant job, being her first film. According to wikipedia, she appeared in a pears soap ad and that caught Mrinal Sens eye and he cast her in the role.

      • I’m so glad you persevered and that you eventually liked the film. I agree that I was a little disoriented in the beginning and was steeling myself for more of that same – but by the time the second part was over, I was totally hooked. Agree, too, about Suhasini Mulay. I didn’t know that bit about how Mrinal Sen discovered her – interesting!

  8. Dear Madhulika,

    Finally, but finally, saw my comment (the first one sent on Jan. 6) go up today…..on Jan.12). Very happy about it.

    (Incidentally, am not really a first-time commentor….I did send in a comment to a post on “Songs picturised in gardens” (if I got that right…) to which you had replied
    …though it was quite a while ago!).

    There have been so many tributes for Mrinal Sen, and they still keep coming in….

    Here is a very recent one, a well-researched one — and refers to why Mrinal Sen’s films still have appeal to a younger generation, several decades later….)

    It makes for a good read……not at all academic…..

    It is not specifically about “Bhuvan Shome”, so hope I’m forgiven for sending in the link.
    And of course, the vested interest continues..this Tribute features some very good “working stills” of the director and his cinematographer at work…..
    (All from the 1970s onward…)

    The LINK:

    “Mrinal Sen & his “Post-Mortem” of the Postcolonial Bengali Middle-Class”
    by writer and art critic Sarah Nafisa Ahmed in “The Daily Star”

    https://www.thedailystar.net/star-weekend/tribute/news/mrinal-sen-his-post-mortem-the-postcolonial-bengali-middle-class-1685677

    cheers

    Praba Mahajan

    • Thank you for the link to that article by Sarah Nafisa Ahmed – that was really interesting and thought-provoking (and that photo of your husband shooting the scene in such a precarious position while Sen dropped leaflets down on a crowd was hair-raising!)

      You may certainly have posted a comment before on my blog, but WordPress doesn’t remember names; it remembers mail addresses. So if you happened to use a different email address this time – not the same one you used last time – it regards you as a first-time commenter. :-) As I said before, I’m sorry you had to wait so long, but I deserve a break from cyberspace now and then too, I think.

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