Akaler Sandhaney, is Mrinal Sen’s most celebrated film, one which firmly established his position as one of the leading lights of Indian cinema, especially of the movement that has been labelled as the Indian New Wave. The chief characteristic of these films was to explore new forms of cinematic compositions both in terms of content and also in terms of narrative structures. Sen, with his films made in the late 1960s and early 1970s – Bhuvan Shome (1969), Interview (1970), Calcutta '71 (1972) and Padatik (1973) – had established himself as one of the more politically and formally radical filmmakers of this movement. By the late 1970s, Sen abandoned his earlier ultra-radical filmmaking style and opted for more conformist narrative structures in order to reflect and examine the moral, ethical and political crisis affecting the Bengali middle-class after the period of extreme turbulence. Akaler Sandhaney is the stand-out film of this phase of his career which includes Ek Din Pratidin (1979), Chalchitra (1981), Kharij (1982) and Khandahar (1983).
Akaler Sandhaney employs the 'film within a film' structure (and the trials and tensions of the film crew) to explore Sen’s favourite themes - poverty, exploitation and the ensuing human misery. In the process of doing so the film also turns a critical gaze into the politics of artistic representation of such misery. The film is searing cross-examination of the ethics and morals of the petit-bourgeois filmmaker/s who, as one of the villagers comment at the very beginning of the film, “invade the village in search of famine”. Dhritiman Chatterjee, who plays the nameless film-director – a deliberate choice, as all other members of the film-crew ostensibly play ‘themselves’ being addressed by their actual names – assumes the persona of Mrinal Sen himself - the concerned and intellectual filmmaker attempting to make films that tackle the "real histories of India’s poverty."
The film begins with the crew arriving in the old mansion and through their activities the protagonists are identified. The exposition also defines the socio-economic conditions of the village through the dialogues of the super-efficient production manager (Jayanta Choudhury) who explains his problems in arranging the rooms and other amenities for the unit’s month-long stay in the village. The other protagonists – the last of the zamindars, who is paralyzed, and his wife (Gita Sen), Durga (Srila Majumdar), a poor village woman burdened with a young son and crippled husband who works as a servant and gets employment in a menial job with the unit, are also effectively introduced in the opening sequences. The most crucial encounter is with Haren (Rajen Tarafdar) - a weaver driven by artistic passion in his youth had acted in rural theatrical productions (jatras) based on lives of “Hitler, Lenin and Stalin” and whose ambitions of producing a jatra on the life of Karl Marx, with himself in the lead role is thwarted by as he puts it “lack of actors fully devoted to their craft”. Haren, in his subservience to the film-unit stands as a symbol of all villagers who typically curry favour of rich city-dwellers looking for social status and economic benefits but his inherent passion for the arts that makes him understand the difference between "the reality of cinema and the actuality of real life" makes him also the most striking character in the entire film.
The flashpoint in the film occurs when one of the actors (Debika Mukherjee), playing the role of a village woman who opts for selling her body in order to escape the grinding hunger of famine, throws tantrums and the director is forced to expel her. Following Haren’s advice, he tries to replace her with the daughter of Mr. Chatterjee, a village squire. This brings forth the latent resentment of the villagers already peeved at the unit for driving up the prices of commodities at the local bazaar. They rise-up against this so called dishonourable act committed by the unit in asking a decent village girl to play the role of a sex-worker. But Sen in his sharp critic of rural ignorance and hypocrisy exposes the deeper cause of the resentment – the headmaster of the village school (Radhamohan Bhattacharya), who is posited in the film as the archetypical repository of knowledge and wisdom, points out that the real reason for the anger of Mr. Chatterjee and is ilk is the fact the film being shot is brutally exposes the heinous role of their forefathers who made immense money exploiting the misery of the poor during the time of the Great Famine. This conflict also evokes one of the major concerns of the film – the overlapping of personal histories with the actual events of the past and how little incidents in the present can bring out memories best swept under the carpet.
The overlapping of the past and the present in Akaler Sandhaney is a well-thought out device to emphasise the pervasiveness of Famine in the history of Bengal. This is best brought out pictorial guessing game that the film crew engages in order to pass the time. Through randomly selected research photographs that the director has brought on location to study the 'face of famine' - a sketch depicting the second century Gandhara statue entitled The Starving Buddha, a 1959 mini famine that ravaged Bengal, a 1971 humanitarian crisis brought about by the Bangladesh War - Sen builds-up a chronology of perpetual suffering. The crew member’s callous attitude to these snapshots of malnutrition and misery succinctly captures the great chasm between the well-meaning middle-class and the actual sufferers of hunger. The last photograph of the game – a totally dark, blank frame - which the actor Smita Patil (Smita Patil) describes as a metaphor of “the past, the present and the future” is ominous and pessimistic but is also a terse summary of the mood of despondence latent in the entire film.
Akaler Sandhaney is also a trenchant examination of the inter-relationship between the reel and the real life and the constant overlapping of the two that creates inexplicable situations. A shot a villager on a cycle-rickshaw announcing the screening of The Guns of Navarone starring “Anthony Queen, the world’s greatest beauty!!”, is juxtaposed with the shot – the harsh sound of the crew’s generator masquerading as the drone of the bombers - of the actor Dipankar De rehearsing a scene where he is to announce the flight of Allied bombers over his village. The most poignant overlap between cinema and reality is depicted through Durga – the poor village girl whose story is similar to character portrayed by Smita Patil. The lines between fiction and reality get extremely blurred in the memorable scene when Durga screams out in agony unable to bear the impact of the assault on the Smita Patil screen persona by her husband when it is being canned by the film crew. Durga, the timeless symbol of poverty can easily identify her own predicament in the misery of the Smita Patil’s screen character but her innocence is responsible for her inability to distinguish between portrayal of famine in cinema and her own life of struggle against unsparing impoverishment. The film is also full of self-reflexive references to earlier attempts of portrayal of the Great Bengal Famine in Bengali arts and literature. The famous song – “Hein Shamalo Dhan Go/ Kaaste-te Dao Shaan Go” set to music by Salil Choudhury (who was also the music director of Akaler Sandhaney) from the iconic Indian Peoples’ Theatre Association (IPTA) production Nabanna is used over the beginning credits and also comes back just before the eruption of the crisis with the tantrums thrown by Debika. The elaborate ‘planned sequence’ capturing the villagers looking at the sky searching for Allied bombers and the discussion they have regarding the War and its consequent famine is a direct throwback to a similar sequence in Satyajit Ray’s film on the same subject Ashani Sanket (1973). Of course, Ray and Sen are entirely different in their approach and analysis of the Famine. While Ray’s is the more artistic approach infused with a touch of lyrical humanism, Sen with his more politically loaded approach tries to present a socio-economic analysis (within a broad Marxist canvas) of India’s history of scarcity and the attitudes of the artistic elite towards its depiction.
Another important aspect of the film which adds to its greatness is the wonderful performances by the ensemble cast who seem to merge into their screen personas. Smita Patil does a brilliant job in both playing herself and also the impoverished farmer’s wife who is forced to sell her body for the sake of her family’s survival. Smita’s scenes with the old lady (Gita Sen) trapped with her paralyzed husband especially the one in which she discovers the old woman sobbing inconsolably after her husband’s demise is an ample illustration of her immense histrionic talents. Gita Sen also gives an extremely sober and nuanced performance while Srila Majumdar is perfect as Durga, a poor farmer’s wife. The noted director Rajen Tarafdar however takes the cake as Haren – his strong screen presence effectively captures the contradictions and pathos of a man caught between servility and his faith in the director’s ability to capture the essence of the Great Famine. The rest of the cast led by the bearded and chain-smoking Dhritiman Chatterjee playing the alter-ego of Mrinal Sen also do commendable jobs and add to the overall quality of the film. KK Mahajan’s cinematography coupled with some intricate camera movements wonderfully captures the contrasts between the lush green paddy fields and the decaying palace. Salil Choudhury’s music is minimalist and is used more as a support to the harsh soundtrack that often hints to the tensions hidden beneath the apparent serenity of rural Bengal. The noise of the film unit’s generator is often used as a metaphor of their intrusion into and alienation from the actual lives of the villagers whose history they endeavour to capture in their film.
Akaler Sandhaney remains one of Mrinal Sen's most approachable and cinematically competent works. By turning his 'gaze inwards' and 'indulging in the ruthless business of introspection' it asks important questions regarding the causes and consequences of the Great Famine and also about the morals and ethics of portraying stories about human suffering through the medium of cinema.
Akaler Sandhaney won National Award for Best Feature Film in 1980 while Sen was bestowed with the National Awards for Best Direction and Screenplay. The film also won the prestigious Silver Bear at the Berlin Film Festival, 1981.