04/09/2016 10:52 AM IST | Updated 09/09/2016 8:40 AM IST

The Many Layers Of 'Bhuvan Shome': Revisiting A Mrinal Sen Classic

Filmmaker Mrinal Sen
Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images
Filmmaker Mrinal Sen

A classic Hindi film written and directed by Mrinal Sen, Bhuvan Shome (1969) stars the renowned Bengali actor Utpal Dutt and Marathi actress Suhasini Mulay (making her film debut) in the pivotal roles. Bhuvan Shome also marked the debut of Amitabh Bachchan, who narrates the film in a playfully sardonic voice. Sen's screenplay is based on a Bengali story by Banaphool aka Balai Chand Mukhopadhya. The recipient of three National Awards -- Best Feature Film, Best Director, Best Actor -- Bhuvan Shome not only ended Mrinal Sen's unsuccessful streak as a director but also played a pivotal role in establishing him as a filmmaker of international repute. One of the first few films to get funded by the National Film Development Corporation (NFDC), which was back then known as the Film Finance Corporation (FFC), Bhuvan Shome is also said to have pioneered the Indian New Wave.

Satyajit Ray censurably summed up 'Bhuvan Shome' as "Big Bad Bureaucrat Reformed By Rustic Belle"... but the film's influence on him is quite evident in 'Shatranj Ke Khiladi'.

The film revolves around Bhuvan Shome (Utpal Dutt), a ruthless Bengali bureaucrat working in the Indian Railways. Greatly feared by his subordinates, the middle-aged widower has spent his life trying to be righteous and has zero tolerance for the corrupt or the incompetent. As the narrator informs, he once even went to the extent of firing his own son. He is highly respected by everyone around him but being a martinet he is forced to live in abject solitude. One day, bored by his monotonous office routine, he decides to go on a bird hunting trip to Saurashtra, a region located on the Arabian Sea coast of Gujarat. Doomed to live in solitude, Bhuvan Shome, trapped in an alien land, quickly realizes that he has inadvertently pushed himself a bit too far out of his comfort zone. The rest of the movie takes us on unfolds as a journey of self-realization for Bhuvan Shome, who gradually learns to appreciate the importance of human company.

Perhaps, the most striking thing about Bhuvan Shome is that it is minimalistic without being devoid of style. The plot is bereft of any structure and Sen adopts a documentary style to devise the movie's narrative. For introducing the titular character of Bhuvan Shome, a Bengali who for the most of his life has lived outside of Bengal, Sen uses a montage -- including pictures of Vivekananda, Rabindranath Tagore, Satyajit Ray, Ravi Shankar and public agitations of the communists on the streets of Calcutta (now Kolkata) -- perhaps in a bid to accentuate the peculiarities of Bengal/Bengalis. Another unique aspect of Bhuvan Shome is Sen's use of animation at different points in the narrative. Apparently, it didn't go well with Sen's more accomplished fellow Bengali filmmaker Satyajit Ray who censurably summed up Bhuvan Shome as "big bad bureaucrat reformed by rustic belle." Although, Satyajit Ray may not have approved of Bhuvan Shome at the time, the film's influence on him is quite evident in Shatranj Ke Khiladi (1977), which not only uses animations but also employs Amitabh Bachchan's playfully sardonic voiceover narration.

Here is a piece of cinema that's free from the conventions of plot and structure. Unburdened by the onus to provide any definitive endings/solutions to problems...

There are several ways to approach Bhuvan Shome. At its most elementary level, it can be described as a film about a man's bird hunting adventure on the shores of Saurashtra. At another level, the film can be seen as a powerful character study of a strict bureaucrat who finds it difficult to survive the moment he steps outside the comforts of his cocooned existence. The film can also be looked upon as a treatise on human solitude and longing for companionship. Yet another way to approach the film is as a social commentary on the great rural-urban divide in India. While a powerful bureaucrat living in the city is cruel to everyone around him, the people in the village are friendly and helpful even to strangers. Bhuvan Shome is also a film about human camaraderie and trust. How a beautiful village girl named Gauri (Suhasini Mulay) leaves everything aside to help a total stranger whom she sees as her guest. How Bhuvan Shome blindly trusts the young girl during his bird hunting expedition. One is reminded of Akira Kurosawa's Oscar-winning masterpiece Dersu Uzala (1975). Some have even commented on the undercurrent of eroticism that runs through the movie. While it is quite obvious that Bhuvan Shome grows fond of the young village girl, there are a few scenes in the movie that obliquely suggest the possibility of sexual attraction.

Mrinal Sen's imaginative direction is brilliantly complemented by K. K. Mahajan's breathtaking black and white cinematography which gives the movie its soul. Mahajan brilliantly captures the vast expanses of Gujarat's desert land, even reminding one of the majestic scenes from David Lean's Lawrence of Arabia (1962). The extreme close-ups reveal a lot about the characters even before we get to hear them talk. The overhead shots of moving railway tracks, horse/bullock carts are used to accentuate the toil associated with travel. The editing techniques employed in the film are quite clever. In addition to a couple of impressive montage sequences, the movie uses a lot of jump cuts and freeze-frames. There is a beautiful sequence in Bhuvan Shome which deserves a special mention wherein Gauri pretends to be on a swing and the camera strategically zooms in and out on her, imitating the swing action. Vijay Raghav Rao's musical pieces immensely add to the experience.

A lesser actor would have made the character of Bhuvan Shome look cartoonish, but Utpal Dutt breathes life into it.

Overall, Bhuvan Shome is a groundbreaking work of cinema that set the ball rolling for the Indian New Wave. The film is a testament to Mrinal Sen's iconoclastic genius as filmmaker. Here is a piece of cinema that's free from the conventions of plot and structure. Unburdened by the onus to provide any definitive endings/solutions to problems, this brand of cinema endeavours to encourage the viewers to actively participate in finding the answers to the questions posed by the filmmaker. Another strong point of Bhuvan Shome is the acting performances of Utpal Dutt and Suhasini Mulay. Anyone who aspires to become an actor ought to study Dutt's performance in the movie very closely. A part as complex as Bhuvan Shome requires an actor to blend ruthlessness, vulnerability, and tenderness in equal parts, and, Dutt, of course, is up to the task. His eyes, facial expressions and gestures together communicate a lot more than his verbal delivery. A lesser actor would have made the character of Bhuvan Shome look cartoonish, but, Dutt, to his credit, breathes life into it. Suhasini Mulay essays the part of a rustic belle beautifully and her amiable character serves as the perfect foil for Dutt's mean bureaucrat. One can go on and on talking about the different aspects of Bhuvan Shome. It is a film that can be enjoyed at so many different levels. The movie's entertainment quotient is surprisingly quite high. If you love movies, Bhuvan Shome won't disappoint you and it is essential viewing for every student of cinema.

A version of this article was first published at A Potpourri of Vestiges.

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