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In Search of Famine

Posted by martinteller on April 3, 2012

A film crew comes to a small village to make a drama about the 1943 famine.  The townspeople are at first delighted and amused by their presence, but are soon angered when the crew creates a mini-famine themselves, disrupt their lives, and try to recruit their women to play prostitutes.  One could read this as an indictment of films that could be perceived as exploiting the poor and downtrodden, like Pather Panchali (which is directly referenced in the dialogue) or even Sen’s own earlier works.  But I think that’s being too simplistic.  The crew is oblivious but not unsympathetic.  They’re trying to do their best to be sensitive, but are so unaware of their own impact that they can’t help stepping on some toes.  And the villagers are sometimes too stubborn or superstitious to comply with reasonable requests.  In the end, everyone is happy going their separate ways, but nothing is solved.  The suffering still suffer, the movie is compromised.  How does one from a position of privilege tell the stories of those who aren’t, without inherently exploiting them?  There could be a way, but Sen sees no easy answers.  He sees famine and poverty and class divisions as ongoing problems, not isolated historical incidents.

Leading the excellent cast is Dhritiman Chatterjee as the director.  Previously starring as the lead in Ray’s superb Pratidwandi (and with smaller roles in Aparna Sen’s overlooked 36 Chowringhee Lane among others), his expressions tell of his struggle to be diplomatic while still trying to get the job done.  Also notable are Smita Patil (playing herself) and especially Sreela Majumdar as Durga, the film’s quiet conscience, observing both the real life drama and the staged drama with equal emotional investment.

With subtlety lurking behind moments of bluntness, and rich veins of social commentary, human drama and even some light comedy, it’s an intriguing film that leaves me even more anxious to check out further works by Mrinal Sen.  Rating: Very Good


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