Thursday, August 08, 2013

The bureaucrat in his jungle – on Mrinal Sen’s Bhuvan Shome

In this piece I wrote for The Big Indian Picture, I mentioned the importance of 1973 in Hindi cinema. Another key year for modern Indian film was 1969, sometimes regarded as the first drum-roll for the approaching New Wave: with the Film Finance Corporation encouraging fresh directions in moviemaking, the offbeat or relatively avant-garde films of that year included Mani Kaul’s Uski Roti, Basu Chatterjee’s Sara Akash and Mrinal Sen’s Bhuvan Shome.

I watched Bhuvan Shome recently. In terms of content it is a fairly simplistic allegory about a man who, late in life, steps out to see the world and discovers things about himself in the process. In the same year that Satyajit Ray was making Aranyer Din Ratri – about a group of city-dwellers traveling into the jungle – Sen’s film had Mr Shome (Utpal Dutt), a senior employee in the railways department, heading off on a hunting trip and undergoing a minor transformation after meeting a village girl. Shome has lived outside Bengal for years, a narrator’s voice tells us near the film's beginning, but his “Bangaali-pan” is intact. “Shonar Bangaal. Mahaan Bangaal. Vichitra Bangaal,” we hear, over images of Vivekananda, Tagore, Ray, Ravi Shankar, and student protests on the streets of Calcutta. One might add “Darpok
Bangaal” to this litany, for Mr Shome is a fearful man. When he decides to go hunting, we see a montage of images of once-fierce creatures now rendered harmless – a stuffed tiger, a buffalo’s head on a wall – but Shome opts for the pursuit of birds. His self-importance is punctured by the line “Phir ek din woh apni chidiya-maar abhiyan pe nikal pade” (“Then one day he set off on his bird-killing expedition”), with its cute juxtaposing of “chidiya” and the grand-sounding “abhiyan”.

Incidentally that sarcastic narration is by someone credited as “Amitabh” in the titles, a young actor who had, that same year, made his debut in front of the camera in KA Abbas’s Saat Hindustani. In these early, introductory scenes, the recitation alternates with Shome’s own voiceover, which gives us something of his inner life (accompanied by shots of his contemplative eyes framed in a smaller screen). For instance, the narrator mentions that Shome is such a martinet that he sacked his own son, and then we hear Shome asking “What else could I have done?” so that it becomes a sort of abstract conversation between two thought processes.

As you’d guess then, this is a formally intriguing film with a few nods to other filmic movements of the time, such as the Czech New Wave. Much of its interest value today lies in those stylistic qualities, beginning with the opening shots of railway tracks, taken from the front of the train in which Shome is travelling, and set to classical music. The images and the music herald the arrival of someone Very Important (and Shome’s subordinates at the railway station speak of him in hushed tones), but they are echoed a while later in shots taken from the perspective of the bullock-cart driver taking Shome through the forest; the driver is singing a song from the film Junglee, and by this point Shome looks much less imposing and out of his comfort zone.

Throughout the film, generous use is made of freeze frames, and there are other flourishes like the repetition of gestures (as in Shome’s double-takes in the scene where he first sees a group of village girls walk past). The many picturesque outdoor shots, including the ones in the desert, were taken almost entirely with natural light (the cinematographer, K K Mahajan, who also shot both Uski Roti and Sara Akash, discusses some of his work on these projects here) but there are also animation scenes of Bhuvan’s office life: a phone, the rumbling sounds of “Hello, Hello”, a dangling cigar, files stacking up first on one side of the desk and then the other as he signs each of them. Notably, the man himself is invisible in the cartoons, suggesting a mechanical existence that could easily be summed up by the pen, the files, the phone, the office door with “Bhuvan Shome” printed on it.

The Shome we see in the live-action scenes cuts a comic figure, a bit like a Punch caricature of pompous bureaucracy. He is characterised by the shots of him lolling on the cart smoking a cigar, panicking when the driver goes a little too fast for his liking, or aiming the wrong end of his gun at a belligerent buffalo named Sheetal (!). The contrast between this man and Suhasini Mulay’s village girl Gauri – knowing, quietly intelligent, with a disarming wide smile – couldn’t be more pronounced. And it is emphasized by a mildly detached, Brechtian quality to the acting where one sees the characters not so much as fully-fleshed-out people but as representatives of ideas. (Brecht was quite popular among many non-mainstream Indian filmmakers of the time, incidentally. See Basu Bhattacharya’s Anubhav and Shyam Benegal’s Charandas Chor for examples.)

But as the story progresses, Shome gradually changes from a buffoon to a more recognizably human presence. There is also an incremental physical transformation: he goes from wearing an office suit to a safari suit to village garb complete with turban (because otherwise the birds will distrust him, Gauri says). Eventually he even disguises himself as a tree – the ultimate sign of being absorbed into this natural landscape – though it doesn’t help him achieve what he came here for.

In this interview, Sen says those who thought Bhuvan Shome was about the humanising of a hard-hearted man were mistaken: “On the contrary, our intention was to ‘corrupt’ a bureaucrat suffering from Victorian morality.” But perhaps one can suggest that in this case, humanising is synonymous with “corrupting” in a desirable sense of the word – in the sense of becoming less rigid, accepting the importance of compromise. (Ten years before his role as Bhavani Shankar in Gol Maal, losing his stiff upper lip along with his moustache, here is Utpal Dutt playing another character who has to learn how to relax.) Not that Shome’s transformation makes the world, or his own life, any better: at the end, we see that his act of grace allows one of his bribe-taking subordinates a transfer to a setting that is even more conducive to unearned profit. It’s a bittersweet conclusion, and perhaps one that points the way to the more barbed, more overtly political films that Mrinal Sen made in the 1970s.

[Some photos of K K Mahajan working with Mrinal Sen in this post]


  1. I have seen 3 Mrinal Sen's films: Bhuvan Shome, Khandar and Ek Din Achanak. In the first two, the location seems to be the most important character. The desert and those ruins. It is beautifully filmed. But, I feel his these three films hardly had any script.

  2. Civil servant going to a small city seems to be a recurring motif in Bengali literature. Is it because many of the writers were civil servants themselves?

  3. I thought there was also a deeply cynical element to Bhuvan Shome, in that while the bureaucrat Shome is clearly much taken by the village girl played by Suhasini Mulay, the girl simply manipulates him with the sole objective of protecting her corrupt husband. She has not the slightest attraction or affection for him, but plays along for her own ends. And the fact she is portrayed as otherwise a 'simple, innocent, young village girl' makes it all the more shocking

  4. Pessimist Fool: Khandhar has been on my to-watch list for a while. There was a good print on YouTube last I checked, but I'm averse to seeing visually interesting films for the first time on a computer screen.

    Rahul: possibly. Though it would be interesting to compare the frequency of the theme in the other Indian literatures of a certain vintage.

  5. Anonymous: interestingly, I didn't really see the film much in terms of a possible romantic angle. Shome's feelings about Gauri seemed to entail quiet wonder rather than attraction. And even if one does look at it that way, I think Gauri's actions are open to interpretation.

  6. Haven't seen this. But the post reminded me of one of the greatest British films of all time - The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp

  7. @ Jai - Yeah, I watched Khandar on youtube. It's a decent print. But, you are right, it's not that kind of film that you can appreciate a lot of it on computer screen. All such directors used lighting, shadow nicely and if watched on a bad print, shadow is often just darkness and you are left wondering. But, do watch Khandar. I remember those ruins stand for turmoil in Shabana Azmi's life and it's almost someone has taken her heart out and put right there for us to watch. There are little or no dialogues. One often feels actors are not acting. But, I guess it requires a lot of talent to act like that.

  8. replying to Rahul's comment above: Anita Desai wrote a novella (can't remember the name) which had the same theme: a civil servant posted to a remote village. That novella was published in the 80s, and its protagonist was a Bengali.

  9. Anon: is that "The Museum of Final Journeys" you're talking about? It was included in this collection. But "civil servant posted to a village/small town" is a fairly broad subject and can accommodate many different plot types.