(In Search of Famine)
Director: Mrinal Sen
Production: D.K Films Enterprise; colour; running time: 131 minutes (also 124 minute and 115 minute version); language: Bengali. First public screening 12 February 1982. Filmed on location in Hatui and neighboring villages, Bengal.
Producer: Dhiresh Kumar Chakraborty; screenplay: Mrinal Sen, from a novel by Amalendu Chakraborty; photography: K.K. Mahajan; editor: Gangadhar Naskar; art direction: Suresh Chandra; music: Salil Chowdhury.
Cast: Dhritiman Chaterjee ( Director ); Smita Patil ( Actress ); Sreela Majumdar ( Woman ); Gita Sen ( Widow ); Dipankar Dey ( Star ).
Awards: Silver Bear, Berlin 1981.
Sen, Mrinal, In Search of Famine: a film by Mrinal Sen , script reconstructed and translated by Bandyopadhyay, Samik: Calcutta, 1983.
Bandyopadhyay, Samik, editor, In Search of Famine , Calcutta, 1983.
Cunha, Uma da, The New Generation: 1960–1980 , New Delhi, 1981.
Hood, John W., Chasing the Truth , Calcutta, 1993.
Mukhopadhyay, Deepankar, Maverick Maestro Mrinal Sen , Indus Publishing Company, 1995.
Guha, Jagannath, "Films and Famine: On Mrinal Sen's Search for Famine" in Maadhyam (New Delhi), March/April 1981.
Hoberman, Jim, "New Delhi's Film Bazaar" in American Film (New York), Vol. 6 no. 7, May 1981.
Chakravarty, Sumita S., "An Interview with Mrinal Sen" in Cine-Tracts (Quebec), Summer/Autumn 1981.
Malcolm, Derek, "Guerilla Fighter: Mrinal Sen" in Sight and Sound (London), Autumn 1981.
Ciment, Michel, "Entretien avec Mrinal Sen" in Positif (Paris), January 1982.
Sen, Mrinal, "Towards Another Moment of Truth" interview with Swapan Mullick in Cinema in India , Vol. 1 no. 4, October-December 1987.
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Mrinal Sen's self-critical film, and one of his best known 1980s productions, shows the experiences of a contemporary film unit going into a Bengali village to fictionally reconstruct the 1943 man-made Bengal famine. The director describes that tragedy: ". . . in our country, in Bengal, still undivided, not a shot was fired, not a bomb burst. And yet in a year five million people starved to death. They just starved and dropped dead."
The 1943 Bengal famine—one of pre-independent India's most horrifying human disasters—has been the subject of considerable literature and several plays and films. One of the reasons for so much literature is that, in a real sense, the event remains impossible to assimilate or even understand. An estimated five million people died through starvation (official figures in 1945 put the figure at 1.5 million). It was as a consequence of war profiteering, a complacent state administration that refused to acknowledge a crisis until the famine was a reality, and a quiescent peasantry that refused to rise up in revolt.
In 1943 the Indian Peoples' Theatre Association made its debut with the epochal production of Bijon Bhattacharya's Nabanna , addressing the famine. This play, staged by Sombhu Mitra, remains one of the landmarks for the modern Indian theatre. In 1960 Mrinal Sen himself made a film set in the famine, Baishey Shravana ( The Wedding Day ), and in 1973 Satyajit Ray adapted a Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay story to make Ashani Sanket ( Distant Thunder ). This was not the only famine to hit the region, as Akaler Sandhaney 's film unit shows when they play the game of guessing from photographs which year the corpses could have come from. But the extent of the literature, theatre and cinema that address the 1943 event is an important sub-text for the film, which critiques that body of work as much as it critiques itself and its maker.
There are three sets of histories that weave into the plot: the film unit arrives in Hatui on 7 September (presumably the day Sen's own unit began filming) and quickly has problems. The unit's own professional unconcern for the issues their production seeks to address culminate in the actress Devika plucking her eyebrows and cutting her hair short, and being summarily expelled from the cast. The second history features the village itself, invaded by mass culture including a Communist Jatra (Bengal has had a Communist government in power since 1967) which has taken to "Hitler, Lenin and Stalin" in the words of Haren, loudspeakers advertising The Guns of Navarone , and the film unit which promptly buys up all the food from the village and is accused of starting a new famine. Some villagers, led by Haren (played by noted filmmaker Rajen Tarafdar), try to cooperate with the crew, but divisions erupt when Haren tries to get Chatterjee's daughter to replace the expelled Devika as an actress (because the role is that of a woman reduced to prostitution during the famine). The schoolmaster has to remind Chatterjee, and other local notables, that they were themselves descendants of 1943 war profiteers. The third, and the most poignant, is that of the dying Zamindar and his wife, in whose abandoned mansion the crew lives: this story is juxtaposed with that of Durga, who forms the only living memory of the tragedy of 1943, and whose intimations of the future—the "flash-forward" death of her son—making up the end of the film (as the crew returns to Calcutta, their film unfinished).
Mrinal Sen is of course best known for his late 1960s and 1970s style, of a freewheeling, politically involved and didactic cinema using numerous alienation-effects that he once described as "playing around with tools as often as I could, as a child plays with building blocks. Partly out of sheer playfulness, partly out of necessity, also partly to shock a section of our audiences [to violate the] outrageously conformist . . . mainstream of our cinema." ("Towards Another Moment of Truth," 1987). The style changed dramatically with Ek Din Pratidin (1979), a relatively straightforward tale with a minimal plot—in which a middle-class woman "disappears" for a night—into a realist idiom usually set in Calcutta's middle-class, where a large number of characters would respond in various tell-tale ways to an event that disrupts their lives and values for the brief period ( Chaalchitra , 1981; Kharij , 1982) before normalcy returns.
Akaler Sandhaney is the most ambitious of this genre. The story here too is straightforward, but the numerous disruptions on the soundtrack, the playful effects of several Bengali and Hindi (Smita Patil) actors and Sen regulars playing themselves, and the freeze-frame ending on Durga, is more reminiscent of his late 1970s Calcutta trilogy, more inclined to break out of linear dramatic idioms.