Screenwriting

Mrinal Sen’s Aakaler Shandhane (In Search of Famine)

Film Analysis

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is drought-1745153_1920-1024x683.jpg
Famine.
Image by Carabo Spain from Pixabay

A voice narrates – “7th September 1980, a party from Calcutta, a film troupe is going to a village for shooting. The name of the village is Hatui. The name of the film is Aakaler Shandhane.”

The opening credits roll as we, along with the film troupe in cars, enter the village lane noticing the green fields, blue sky, rough road, dirt and poor villagers who are in full contrast to the vivacity of the song sung by the troupe. This is highlighted by the very first dialogue of the film by a character, a random villager standing on the roadside –

“The gentlemen are here for taking snaps of the famine… but the famine has enveloped us all.”

*

A story within a story, Aakaler Shandhane (1982), is a poignant portrayal of reality and our perception of it. The director (played by Dhritiman Chatterjee) knows and believes in his story, he is determined, his research is complete, he has photographs of the Bengal famine of 1943, of a mini famine in 1959, of 1971 – he says, “remember the Bangladesh war”; he thinks that is what one needs to make a film on Bengal famine.

But the director is absolutely ignorant about 1980, the present time, his time, and so when the Hatui village reveals the crippling similarities between the famine year and the present, the director feels at his wits’ end. He does then what is suggested to him – to leave and complete the film in a studio – for the ‘famine-stricken’ village could no longer entertain any of them.

*

A still from the film; Smita Patil as a village woman.
[Source – mrinalsen.org]

Smita Patil plays the role of a village woman, a wife married to a stubborn husband, who will die, but not bow down; this wife, for the sake of her little baby, accepts the famine, accepts exploitation, accepts filth and brings home a handful of rice and oil to prepare a meal in her dusty kitchen.

The husband goes mad with anger and picks up the little baby, ready to kill his own child for it unknowingly became the cause of bringing blasphemy to their household; Smita shouts and so does Durga. The director says “CUT”. Durga, a villager, standing in the crowd could not bear the pain, afraid for the child she shouted unaware of the camera and the art of acting. Every eye then stares at her, she hides her moist eyes and leaves.

*

Durga lives in the 80s, but finds a resemblance with Smita Patil’s character of the 40s – and why would not she, their lives resonate with gloom, caused by famine and its aftermath. Both are suffering, both have a child to feed, a husband to serve, a famine that torments and a society that reminds of it forever.

Quiet like a candle, Durga becomes a flambeau in the end; burning with rage she asks her incompetent husband what is wrong if the director offered her a role in the film, what is wrong if the role is of a prostitute. She tells him that when a lady, in those ugly famine days, can step out the confines of her house, why cannot she?

The old village schoolmaster asks the same question from all the respectable men of the village, reminding them about their ancestors who were as opportunistic as the film’s womanising contractor.

*

It becomes clear that the famine of 1943 was not just about starvation or five million deaths, it was also about what humans are and what humans can become in trying situations; and that hunger alone did not kill, corrupt minds and hollow traditions killed too… are still killing.

And the most affected were the poor, the weak… the females – they lost their children, their families, their lands and themselves. The director’s attempt to cast a villager for the role of a girl, who is forced to become a prostitute, creates chaos so profound that in no time the whole village starts detesting the entire troupe, no one comes to help, no fans, nothing. What else will a film dealing with the topic of famine bring, but cursed memories of the past? The villager who spoke the first dialogue of the film now comments –

“The gentlemen have created a famine after coming to make a film on famine.”

*

But what about the elite… they are now long extinct. The palace in which the film troupe settles is almost in ruins. There lives a couple – a lady and her bedridden husband – the relatives of the king. While the rest of the inhabitants have left the luxuries of this palace and shifted to the cities, the presence of this couple is also but a mere illusion of the past. When the bed-ridden husband dies, the lady aptly says that everything is over.

Twice there are talks about the photographs of the famine, on one occasion a game is played – one is to guess by looking at the pictures to which period it belongs. When Smita Patil shows a picture that is completely dark, a character says it is the photo of ‘load shedding… power crises’ and everyone laughs, then another gives it a poetic touch and calls it ‘darkness at noon’ and then finally Smita Patil gives it the title ‘past, present and future’; none of them thought that this darkness will eventually force them to abandon the film shoot and leave.

Into this darkness we see Durga fading away at the very end; the narrator tells us that her frail little child died after some time, her husband fled away and Durga was left all alone.   

*

The story structure, which is subtly linear, seamlessly integrates the characters with the plot highlighting the contrast between the film troupe’s “idea of famine” and the actual impact of the many famines still reverberating in the village.

The First Plot Point and the Second Plot Point appear visually the same i.e. both are the scenes where the photographs of the famine are shown and talked about; the former is where the director, confident about his research, is showing his actors the photographs of 1943 famine and telling how while the World War II struck the rest of the world, in their land “people just starved and dropped dead”, in the latter scene, they play a guessing game – “to which famine does the photograph belong”. In both the scenes, the horridness of the famine photographs is seen in stark contrast to the amusement of the film troupe.

The story takes a turn, naturally so, after both these plot points, taking the troupe and the audience closer to the seriousness that the reality of famine holds. In the climax we see that the entire village opposes and loathes the film troupe, the main characters find themselves completely defeated, and neither the modern nor the rural people are able to do anything about the famine that stared at them.

The original brochure of the film.
[Source – mrinalsen.org]

This masterpiece by Mirnal Sen won National Awards for Best Feature Film, Best Direction, Best Screenplay and Best Editing; it also won Silver Bear, Special Jury Award at 31st Berlin International Film Festival.   

Aakaler Shandhane (In Search of Famine), searched for an answer, an answer that is still due.


[Originally written for the Screenwriters Association (SWA), you can check the same here.]


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Mother India – Epic tale of an ordinary woman

Film Analysis

Nargis as Mother India. [Source – BollySpice]

Mother India (1957), a benchmark in Hindi film industry, glorifies our country, which had then seen just 10 years of independence; it celebrates the Indian women – a daughter, sister, lover, wife, mother, an individual and the goddess; and in the most dramatic, impactful manner it presents the magic of cinema.

This epic film is written by Wajahat Mirza (who also wrote the dialogues for Mughal-e-Azam), S. Ali Raza (who wrote films like Aan and Andaz) and Mehboob Khan (the director). It was a remake of Mehboob Khan’s film titled Aurat (1940), based on the story by Babubhai Mehta, to which he profusely added a strong sense of nationalism – like in the song ‘Dukh Bhare Din Beete Re’ we see an outline map of India literally drawn on the land using haystacks, with people inside, waving joyously and Radha, along with her two sons, standing at the centre on a pedestal, with sickles in hands.

Though 172 minutes long, with a total of 12 songs (by Naushad; lyrics by Shakeel Badayuni), Mother India has a very well written, crisp screenplay. It begins with the protagonist, Radha, an old lady, considered as the mother of the entire village, taking the audience into a flashback, as if saying, ‘come, listen to my story’.

We see now a younger, beautiful Radha who marries Shamu. At first, she comes across as a shy and subservient bride, her husband being her lord, but wait until Radha hears about the loan that Shamu’s mother took from the devious moneylender, Sukhi Lala, right then Radha confidently offers her jewellery, her gold bangles to pay off this debt.

The tussle between a family in debt and a corrupt loan shark, between Radha’s values and absolute degradation of every moral standard, only intensifies as the story moves ahead. Radha’s family grows, their needs increases, but so does Sukhi Lala’s interference and with Panchayat’s support he declares his right on Shamu’s farm and its produce.

Birju, Radha’s second son, is a rebel right from the beginning – he wants his farm and Radha’s gold bangles back at any cost. Foreshadowing this, Birju troubles Sukhi Lala as a kid, not ready to give him the harvest, calling him a thief and grows up to become Sukhi Lala’s doom.

The tight plot doesn’t give respite to the viewer for Radha has not one but many battles to win; Shamu’s arms are crushed in an accident, humiliated by Sukhi Lala for living on his wife’s mercy, he leaves Radha and their four kids forever; after passing away of her mother-in-law, Radha faces natural disasters – flood and storm hits her land and takes away her two youngest kids.

With only Ramu and Birju as her family now, defeated, she goes to Sukhi Lala and begs him for a morsel of bread. In this highly dramatic sequence, Radha, who had decided to compromise, eventually doesn’t allow Sukhi Lala to violate her; she has a dialogue with the goddess Laxmi –

“Devi, Radha k roop mein aate hue laaj na aayi… mere roop mein aayi ho to apni laaj lut-te hue bhi dekh lo… hanso nahi… hanso nahi… sansar ka bhaar utha logi Devi, mamta ka bojh na uthaya jayega… Maa bankar dekho, tumhare panv bhi dadmaga jayenge…”

(Translation – Goddess now that you have come in my avatar, witness how you are dishonoured. Don’t laugh! It is easy to nurture the whole world and truly difficult to be a mother, try being one, even you’ll falter.)

Radha looks weak at first – like the mother who is expected to sacrifice and is thusly, worshipped – but after talking to the goddess within her, she remembers her individual self; Radha stands up, crushes the evil and soars like a phoenix.

She raises her kids into fine young men; she gets Ramu, a man of principle, married, but worries for Birju, the stubborn son. Once again foreshadowing is used here – Radha warns Birju not to trouble any girl or else she won’t spare him, in fact, after the Holi sequence when Birju tries to get Radha’s bangles back from Rupa (Sukhi Lala’s only daughter) and the whole village beat up Birju for being so insolent, then Radha promises the entire village to punish Birju herself, kill him if need be.

Bloodthirsty, Birju joins some dacoits, kills Sukhi Lala and abducts Rupa. When Radha tries to stop him, with a rifle in her hands, Birju doesn’t listen, sure that his mother can’t harm him; Radha shoots him down – Birju dies in Radha’s arms after giving her the gold bangles.

Here the flashback ends; Radha opens the gate of the irrigation canal, allowing the muddy reddish water to flow in the fields, symbolizing bloodshed that she and the whole nation had witnessed for freedom.

Every scene, every dialogue, every song makes this film nothing less than an epic poem. The three love stories, in its limited space, bloom beautifully – Ramu and Champa represent ‘love’ that triumphs; Birju and Chandra, both opposite in nature, represent unfulfilled love; Radha and Shamu, unite to face separation forever, represent ‘love’ that sacrifices.

Throughout the film, the characters stick to their traits and yet, each character grows. Ramu fights Birju to protect Rupa in the end; Sukhi Lala begs Radha to save his daughter, but still doesn’t say a word about the debt; Birju leaves the village to become a dacoit, hitting his mother when she tries to stop him; and Radha, a mother becomes Radha, a woman and sacrifices her son for a girl’s honour. That is why these characters are still remembered, they repeat their traits, their flaws, just like we all do.

A 21st-century screenwriter could be reluctant to accept Mother India’s melodramatic approach, but what cannot be resisted is its great storyline, life-like characters and true representation of Hindi cinema.


  *[Originally written for the Screenwriters Association (SWA), you can check the same here.]


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