Sen’s cinema lives on

One of the great masters of Indian cinema, Mrinal Sen, passed away at the age of 95; in a long and creatively successful career, he made mostly Bengali films, but also a very small number of Hindi films.

Bhuvan Shome would be a good one to remember him by—his first Hindi film made in almost 50 years ago and released in May 1969. It is remembered as one of the early projects funded by the Film Finance Corporation (FFC), that later became the National Film Development Corporation (NFDC), and it heralded what came to be the art or parallel cinema movement in Hindi cinema.

Written and directed by Sen, adapted from a story by Bengali writer Banaphool (the pen name or Balai Chanda Mukhopadhyay), Bhuvan Shome introduced the redoubtable Utpal Dutt to Hindi films, along with Suhasini Mulay and Sadhu Meher; it was also the first feature film of composer Vijay Raghava Rao and cinematographer KK Mahajan, who also shot Basu Chatterjee’s Sara Akash in the same year—the director acknowledged in the credits. Amitabh Bachchan, credited with only his first name, did a narration in a suitably wry tone—possibly his first movie assignment.

The film begins with a continuous shot of a railway track, carrying the “vichitra” (strange) Bengali Bhuvan Shome (Dutt) to his destination in Gujarat. He is a very strict railway official (his routine is in the form of animation by Ram Mohan, one of India’s first and best-known animators), who made the life of his late wife miserable and sacked his own son from his job. Now, the bribe-taking ticket checker, Jadhav Patel (Meher) is afraid his job is on the line, because a report against him has been generated

Shome, a cigar-chugging, joyless middle-aged man, who has been alone most of his life, suddenly decides to break routine and go bird hunting in the Saurashtra desert. Not at all trained in hunting—all he did is read a few books-- Shome carries a gun in his and a sola topi on his head,  but is otherwise clueless.

He is all but lost outside the familiar zone of his office, and were it not for the sprightly young village woman, Gauri (Mulay) coming to the rescue, his expedition would have been a disaster.  Gauri is as innocent and forthright as she is perceptive. She quickly takes Shome in hand, saves him from a marauding buffalo, takes him to her home, feeds him native food, looks after him, makes him change into village clothes, and helps him bring down a bird too.

Shome discovers, from a photo in the house, that Gauri is Jadhav’s wife, still living with her father because the “gauna” (a ritual to send a bride to her husband’s home) is still to be done. Without knowing who he is, Gauri complains about the horrible Shomesahib, who threatens her husband’s job.  She also explains to him that “ghoos”  (bribe) is not the same as “chai-paani” that passengers offer voluntarily for good service.

The crotchety Shome cannot but help be charmed by Gauri, who also inadvertently softens and transforms the older man, so that his stony face cracks into a smile. When he strides into his office after his encounter with her, he is not the old Bhuvan Shome.  First, he spares Jadhav—tearing up the report and telling him to burn it.  Once alone in his room, he throws of his tie, makes as if to jump out of the window, and then putting a stack of papers on his desk curls up on it like a child.

There is also a gentle dig at the Indian culture of corruption in the end, when Jadhav writes to Gauri that he has been transferred to a bigger junction, which means, he explains, more earnings.

The film went on to win National Awards for Best Film, Best Director and Best Actor. But along with that, it won the appreciation of a discerning audience that came to enjoy a slow-paced black-and-white film, without any of the Bollywood movie conventions of song, dance, romance or loud comedy. The FFC/NFDC’s support and a new breed of directors—many of them from the Film & Television Institute Of India (set up in Pune a few years earlier)—gave Hindi cinema a robust parallel cinema that may not have lasted very long, but its influence endures half a century later.