Bhuvan Shome, which was released on 12 May half a century ago, was a path-breaking film in many ways for Indian cinema and for Mrinal Sen.
Bhuvan Shome: When Mrinal Sen broke into Hindi cinema with a simple tale and a medley of techniques
Kolkata - 13 May 2019 6:00 IST
Shoma A Chatterji
There is a beautiful anecdote Mrinal Sen loved to narrate. The incident happened after the release of his first full-length film in Hindi, Bhuvan Shome (1969). Sen told me the incident in one of the many interviews he readily gave me. Let me quote him: “Once, I was invited to Mumbai's Maratha Mandir for a film screening. The cabbie and I got talking as the drive from the hotel was quite long. He asked what I did for a living. I simply said I made films.
"By the time we were driving along Haji Ali, he asked what films I had made. I told him I made films in Bengali but had made one in Hindi named Bhuvan Shome.
"He was dumb-struck! He had watched the film and was truly pleased to be driving the director of one of his favourite films! This time, it was my turn to be dumb-struck because I had not the faintest clue that an ordinary, non-Bengali, Mumbai-based cabbie would even know my name.
"When we reached Maratha Mandir, he almost fell at my feet when I insisted on paying the fare. He just would not have it! Finally, I had to relent. We shook hands and went our ways.
"Looking back on that small incident, I can happily say I value this much more than many of the awards that I have won.”
Mrinal Sen roped in KK Mahajan, then fresh from the Film and Television Institute of India, Pune, as his director of cinematography while classical flautist Pandit Vijay Raghav Rao, who was famous for creating some of the most melodious music tracks for documentaries and short films of the Films Division, made his debut in feature films.
Sen chose a very young and bright Suhasini Mulay to essay the role of a young Gujarati bride who befriends the stern Bhuvan Shome, old enough to be her father. Mulay had never acted in her life even in school plays.
Utpal Dutt, one of the most outstanding figures in Bengali theatre and cinema and later in Hindi cinema as well, was picked to portray the title role in his Hindi debut. Placed even in 1969, the film was made on an incredible budget of Rs2 lakh!
Amitabh Bachchan, who lent his voice for the commentary, was very reluctant to accept the fee of Rs300, but Mrinal-da insisted and the young actor had to give in. There is a back story to Bachchan's inclusion in the film's crew.
“I was in KA Abbas’s house one day," Mrinal Sen recounted. "He was busy interviewing a bunch of young men for his Saat Hindustani (1969). Among them, I spotted a tall, lanky, very shy young man who had a wonderful voice. I strongly recommended to Abbas to rope him in. I, too, loved his distinct voice and chose him for the commentary on Bhuvan Shome. So, I can probably claim the credit for introducing Hindi cinema’s greatest superstar!”
When it was released on 12 May 1969, Bhuvan Shome was a commercial disaster. But as its fame spread through the media and people began talking about it, along with the three National awards it bagged for Best Actor, Best Film and Best Feature Film in Hindi, people began to sit up and take notice, and Mrinal Sen arrived on the landscape of national cinema.
The story in brief
Bhuvan Shome is a bureaucrat who holds a high position in the Indian railways. He is a disciplinarian and not very popular among subordinates for his insistence on honesty, integrity and industry, to sustain which he did not spare his own son. This basic honesty combined with a refusal to compromise alienates him from everyone, including colleagues. But that does not deter him from his ideology. He is a widower and his staff is very alert because news of his strict ways of handling corrupt people reaches them before he reaches his new office.
Shome has already sent a letter of suspension to Jadav Patel, a ticket collector, because tales of his corrupt practices have reached the officer. But the execution of the order is temporarily stalled because Shome suddenly decides to go on a duck-hunting expedition on the sand dunes of Saurashtra.
Shome is a fine blend of a caricaturish microcosm of the bureaucracy and the rigid practices of a disciplinarian. The director uses animation to poke fun at the bureaucracy through the swinging of the door to his chamber and the piling up of endless files on his table.
Shome in his private moments seems like a child indulging in callisthenics to kill time and his loneliness. He gears up for his hunting expedition by dressing up in hunting gear with a leather belt holding the ammunition and a sola hat which makes him look quite funny.
The terrible ride on a bullock cart filled with a friendly conversation with the cart driver who cannot converse in Hindi or English brings Shome down to the level of this man, further aggravated by the fear when a raging buffalo comes charging and drives Shome up a tree. This long scene, intercut with the sounds of a speeding train and shots of the train tracks, define the opening frames of the film.
Shome’s sudden acquaintance with Gauri opens up a new window in his otherwise boring world. She behaves as if she has known him for long, makes him wear the Saurashtra gear of a white turban, short, pleated kurti and dhoti, admonishing him for his hunting costume. “The ducks will be scared and fly away if they see you in this gear,” she says quite simply. She also sings a soft folk song in her natural voice minus any music and Shome is charmed with her naiveté and candid nature.
Bhuvan Shome and Gauri’s characters are sharply fleshed out as counterpoints in a pleasant way as we find this rooted innocence present as much in Shome as it is in Gauri. This atypical bonding between two diametrically opposite individuals takes the film to a new dimension.
By the time Shome returns to his dry and drab life of routine and discipline and honesty, he is no longer the man who went duck-hunting. The sharp edges of honesty he wore like a shield are softer now. He summons the corrupt ticket collector Jadav Patel into his chamber, gives him a tongue-lashing and tears up the note of suspension he had framed. As if this were not enough, he gifts him with a posting to a better station.
Shome has learnt that Jadav Patel is Gauri’s husband and Gauri is waiting to join him after her gauna, a custom when the child-bride journeys with grand ceremony to her husband’s home from her paternal home on reaching puberty. Gauri learns that the 'chai-paani' (petty bribes) that she used to take pride in is, in reality, a crime and vows to Shome that she will persuade her husband to stop the practice.
These two socio-moral messages are incidental to the story, which focuses on Bhuvan Shome whose life changes over his brief adventure into the sand dunes of Saurashtra. He manages to catch a duck which falls in fright when it hears the sound of the gun, but he gifts it away to Gauri, who is thrilled.
The camera uses the speeding railways tracks and the sound like a repeated metaphor signifying the mechanization of Shome through his routine-driven existence manipulated by his dedication to discipline and honesty. Nature also plays a role in the metamorphosis of Shome when the camera pans across the sky to show a huge group of birds in flight, or cranes/storks crowded on the shores of a beach, or Shome running scared through the dunes and trees to escape the wrath of the chasing buffalo, or Gauri narrating the story of a king and queen who lived in a place now reduced to ruins, and so on.
Vijay Raghav Rao’s beautiful music opens with a classical taan with the visuals focused on the speeding railway tracks as the credits come up. The orchestra comprises cymbals, jal tarang and an array of percussion instruments. Towards the end of the titles, the camera remains focused on the tracks but the music is silenced because the narrator will take over and introduce Shome.
The ambience of music remains the same throughout the film while the visuals shift alternately (i) between Bhuvan Shome and his interactions with the bullock cart driver (Sekhar Chatterjee) along the shaky roads of Saurashtra, (ii) between Bhuvan Shome and Gauri in her modest mud house and (iii) between Shome and Jadav Patel (Sadhu Meher), each exploring new spaces, new relationships with new negotiations in the life of Shome.
The voice-over defines the honesty that underlines the “true Bengali” character of Bhuvan Shome by showing us glimpses of the “Bengali identity” through fleeting clips of Swami Vivekananda, Pandit Ravi Shankar, Satyajit Ray and overhead shots of massive crowds and the unrest of processions that describe the Calcutta encapsulated in Bhuvan Shome. This intrusion is superfluous, however, and does not lend itself to the spirit of the film at all.
KK Mahajan’s camera makes optimum use of the sand dunes, where he captures Shome in different poses, and through the film, in different costumes. We first see him with salt-and-pepper wavy hair, suited and booted, wearing large sunglasses with a cheroot sticking out of his mouth. Then he pulls on his hunting uniform complete with sola hat. Then we see him in the typical costume of a Saurashtra villager. Each look unfolds layers of his character Shome might himself have been unaware of.
The camera also captures panoramic views of the wide sky with floating clouds, the sudden flight of seagulls on the horizon and then, an entire flock of white cranes framing the beach. The railway tracks keep intercutting the visual and the audio narrative with their speed and sound, as if reinforcing their presence in the story and in the life of Bhuvan Shome. And all this is achieved in black-and-white at a time when colour was beginning to make its presence felt in Indian cinema.
The editing is strictly okay. Almost the entire film was shot on location in pockets of Saurashtra, not very common in Indian cinema at that time, and this invested it with a wide, geographical canvas.
The performances of the main cast, Utpal Dutt, Suhasini Mulay, Sekhar Chatterjee and Sadhu Meher, are organic and spontaneous, as if they were not at all aware of a movie camera’s active presence on the scene. None of Dutt's theatrical background spills over into his screen acting at any point. The complete caricaturing of the protagonist was not liked by some critics, but looking back at the film as a whole, it did jell into the theme of honesty by investing it with a unique perspective blending comedy with satire. The tearing up of Patel’s dismissal order by Shome in front of Patel, however, appears melodramatic, given the mood of the film.
Bhuvan Shome was a path-breaking film in many ways, for Indian cinema in general and for Mrinal Sen as a filmmaker in particular. This was his ninth feature film but his first in Hindi. It was based on a novelette by Balai Chand Mukhopadhyay, better known as Banphool, a well-known medical practitioner who was also a prolific creative writer of fiction.
Many of Banphool's stories have been made into films, but Bhuvan Shome stands out. Why? Because it is a simple and straightforward story which Mrinal Sen narrates with interesting twists and turns using techniques such as animation, fast-forwards, close-ups, humour and satire, each telescoping brilliantly into the other without the audience becoming conscious of it.