Mrinal Sen’s ninth film, his first Hindi film, Bhuvan Shome opens with shots of railway tracks speeding by, against the metallic sound of undulating locomotion in the background. Keeping pace with the engine’s rhythm is a glorious flurry of notes (taan) accompanied by percussion instruments and the seven notes sung at a slower pitch, yet maintaining the tempo of the moving train. This rhythm stirs up anticipation for what is to follow – the railway officer Utpal Dutt’s life-changing experience of duck shooting in a remote village in Gujarat. KK Mahajan shot the film in December 1968 as his first fiction film. It is low-budget and 96 minutes long, released in May 1969. When Bhuvan Shome, a film with no trappings of commercial cinema was released, manistream Hindi cinema was tackling a frenzy, with popular films like Do Raaste (Rajesh Khanna, Mumtaz), Ek Phool Do Mali (Sanjay Khan, Sadhana), Aya Sawan Jhoom Ke (Dharmendra, Asha Parekh) and Jeene Ki Rah (Jeetendra, Tanuja), to name a few. It was nearly impossible for a film with unknown actors, made by an unknown director and without any songs, dances and fights, to be noticed in the market dominated by star-led popular Hindi cinema. Somehow, however, amidst the glitz and glamour, Bhuvan Shome caught the eyes and ears of the masses.
A new phase in the cinematic journey of Indian filmmakers had begun.
Based on a short story by Banaphoul (Balai Chand Mukhopadhyay, writer of films like Agnishwar, Arjun Panditand Ekti Raat), Bhuvan Shome was the opening act of what we now call the parallel cinema movement, which would leave an indelible footprint on the landscape of Indian cinema, particularly Hindi cinema.
One of the earliest movies to be funded by the FFC (the predecessor of the NFDC), the movie, with its realism, lyrical and visual beauty and naturalism, was widely considered the pioneer of the new wave of Indian cinema. It also, strangely enough, launched the movie career of Bollywood icon Amitabh Bachchan, who provided the voiceover for the story. Bachchan lent his voice to the film’s introduction ‘Bengal, shonar Bengal, mahaan Bengal, vichitra Bengal, isi Bengal ke hai Bhuvan Shome Solah ane khare…’ It is said that he was most reluctant to accept payment, but was persuaded by Sen to accept Rs 300. The total cost of production for the movie was less than Rs 2 lakh. It was the sonorous voice of this big commercial star that announced the arrival of parallel cinema in India.
The film won two National Awards, for Best Director and Best Feature Film, in 1969. Decoding the character of Bhuvan Shome in Always Being Born, A Memoir, Sen explains, ‘The character of Bhuvan Shome was quite difficult to play, a duty-bound tough bureaucrat, lonely prisoner trapped within four walls of his office with heaps of files to come and go with the phone ringing unceasingly, a man with a touch of insanity who was finally allowed to temporarily escape into a kind of burlesque and “inspired nonsense”’. Utpal Dutt, in his first Hindi film, made the character of Bhuvan Shome unforgettable and, consequently, received the National Award for Best Actor.
Undoubtedly, the best part of the film is the unassuming and light-hearted comical performance of the legendary Utpal Dutt and the magically captivating smile of Suhasini Mulay, who played the role of a village belle with an endearing innocence. The scene in which Gauri helps Bhuvan Shome tie the turban and holds up a mirror for him to see his new face has become an iconic scene.
Mulay is the daughter of noted documentary filmmaker and film historian Vijaya Mulay (remembered for her animated film Ek Anek Aur Ekta). In 1965, Pears Soap chose Mulay to be its model, and this ad film caught Sen’s attention. He signed her for Bhuvan Shome, which was her debut film. The film was shot around the time of her high school final examination. Mulay also worked as an assistant to Satyajit Ray in the Bengali film Jana Arnya. She later joined Sen as an assistant in Mrigayaa. Since then, she has been actively producing documentaries, besides working as a film actor.
Apart from Dutt and Mulay, other first-timers on this film were Vijay Raghava Rao, who composed his first score for a feature film and KK Mahajan, who was in charge of the cinematography. Mahajan was the cinematographer for two films released in 1969, Sara Aakash and Bhuvan Shome. Sadhu Meher, another newcomer who began his career in Hindi cinema with Bhuvan Shome, played the role of a ticket collector.
Bhuvan Shome’s USP is that, despite the threadbare plot, it keeps the audience engaged for 96 minutes with its serene beauty, interesting narration and lyrical cinematography like smooth, undulating sand dunes.
In those days, all film stories were derived from literature and adapted to a screenplay; converting a short story with about 20 minutes of narration into a well-knit screenplay for an enjoyable film of 96 minutes was definitely a challenge. However, a genius like Mrinal Sen, working as an auteur, managed to create an enchanting story on celluloid using all the cinematic tools available to him, such as simple animation, freeze-shots, rapidly moving railway tracks, smooth and wide panning shots of the desert, soothing music and a baritone voiceover.
The film is about Shome Saheb, a lonely, upright, stickler for rules in his 50s, a Westernized widower who goes on an absurd bird-hunting trip to Saurashtra – an idea picked up from books during his hours of solitude and powered by his position as a high-ranking railway officer. On his way to the bird sanctuary, he meets a simple yet vivacious village girl, who goes out of her way to help him in his mission, without expecting anything in return. This encounter and his not-so-successful mission help him break out of his mental cocoon and develop a newfound empathy for his fellow beings, avian and human alike. The film is a commentary on the divide between the lifestyles of urban and rural India.
Suhasini Mulay 7 Utpal Dutt in Mrinal Sen's Bhuvan Shome (1969)
Bhuvan Shome was an unlikely success. It didn’t have a big budget, no big stars and it didn’t follow a structured three-act format. It simply captured a unique journey in an insightful way from a new perspective. During its runtime, there are lengthy shots where almost nothing happens on the screen – for instance, a bullock cart chugs on in an empty desert against Rao’s soothing background score – yet, the film is able to maintain its rhythm and tempo; it is storytelling in its purest form. The Indian audiences were not used to such storytelling at that time. However, Sen, who was greatly influenced by the French new wave of cinema and filmmakers like François Truffaut (The 400 Blows, The Last Metro, Jules and Jim), stuck to his guns and went on to create one of the pillars of parallel cinema.
O.P, Srivastav is a Mumbai based writer & filmmaker.