By Dipankar Sarkar. Posted on January 06, 2016
Baishey Shravana has a very specific importance amongst the Bengalis. It literally means the twenty-second day of the Bengali calendar month of Sravan, an ill-fated day on which the Bengali polymath Guru Rabindranath Tagore left for his heavenly adobe. But Mrinal Sen’s Baishey Shravana is distant from the poetic resonance or romantic ideology of Tagore.
The film is rather a dark portrayal of the degradation of human ethics under the dire circumstances of poverty famine and death. Thus, the title of the film had to face flak from the Censor Board as some people thought that it displayed brashness towards the sentiments of the Bengali psyche. But Sen was, however, firm in his decision to not alter the title of the film.
The original poster of the film
This is the third film to be directed by the maverick filmmaker, who later on went to be christened as one of the torchbearers of the "New Cinema" film movement in India with his internationally popular film Bhuvan Shome (Mr. Bhuvan Shome, 1969). However, Baishey Shravana was the first film in the directors’ oeuvre that was shown in various international film festivals like London, Venice etc.
The film touched upon the historical event of Bengal Famine of 1943, a subject that Sen would revisit after a span of two decades with the film Akaler Shandhaney (In Search of Famine, 1980). Even Satyajit Ray had made a film based on a novel by Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay, Ashani Sanket (Distant Thunder, 1973), which had also touched upon the historical disaster caused by one of the biggest man-made famines during the world war II.
The film Baishey Shravana narrates the tale of Priyanath (Jnanesh Mukherjee) who earns a livelihood by hawking motley wares in the local trains. He lives with his widowed mother in a village in rural Bengal and in order to please her, he gets married to a teenage girl, Malati (Madhabi Mukherjee). He starts enjoying the bliss of his marital life but for a very brief period of time.
‘Portrait of a contented life’
One uncertain event succeeds the other---the sudden accident of Priyanath due to which he looses his job, the intrusion of famine, the death, starvation and the subsequent suicide of his wife follow the death of his mother due to climatic disaster.
The inclusion of such doomed occurrences in the plot points makes the film a harrowing testimony of how poverty can rob an individual’s sanity and bring the monster out of him. However, Sen had always kept the famine as subtext in the narrative structure of the film and had never allowed it to be the mainstay of the films’ design. Here I would like to quote an excerpt from the book 'Always Being Born: Mrinal Sen, A Memoir’ (Stellar Publishers Pvt Ltd., 2004) in which Mrinal Sen had made the following remark regarding the treatment of the film-
"I made it a point that mine would never be a journalistic approach, that I would not count the number of people who starved and died, that I would not show vultures and jackals fighting over the carcasses, that I would not structure an emaciated baby fiercely sucking the breast of the mother who had just died...The 'Famine of 1943' came later in the film. Slowly but inexorably, it walked into the second part as it grew more ugly. Inside the house, all was quiet and oppressive. Till the end, it was the story of the two...".
‘The dearth of warmth and caring’
There are four scenes from the film, which I would like to highlight.
Firstly, after three days of starvation, one day, when Priyanath finally manages to get some rice he doesn't even bother about whether Malati gets her share or not. He gluttonously consumes the entire content.
The second scene when Malati regrets to her neighbor of getting married to Priyanath who is much older to her. Priyanath overhears the conversation and gets crestfallen.
Thirdly the moment when Priyanath breaks in front of the ruins of his mothers’ hut and utters ‘You escaped. You died and found freedom'.
Finally, the suicide scene of Malati, which is symbolized with the hook hanging from the ceiling on which the end credit of the film appears.
Though it may appear to be melodramatic but the emotional tonality imbued in the scenes gives it a certain quality of realism which was essential in crafting a story which spotlights the darker aspects of humanity when confronted with a catastrophe.
Throughout the film the use of bicycle has also been used poignantly and serves not only as a vehicle with which Priyanath travels but also as the medium of transition in the narrative structure.
At the beginning of the film, on his way back to his house it is raining torrentially. Priyanath takes shelter under a big tree and we can hear the music of Shehnai playing at a distant wedding. His expression implies that the need of getting married has dawned on his mind. His futile attempt to light the matchstick from a drenched matchbox for his bidi further accentuates that he should get rid of his inhibitions regarding marriage.
In the following scenes, he asks his mother to go to the matchmaker and get him a prospective bride. In the second instance, we observe a bicycle race taking placing between Priyanath and a young man in order prove his efficiency in contrast to the performance of a younger generation. He eventually looses the race and in a moment of desperation vents it out by dangerously moving from one compartment of the moving train to another. The repercussion of his act results in a fatal accident.
Prior to the accident, he not only finds himself jobless but also penniless soon enough. Thirdly the moment when Priyanath had to sell the bicycle because he is unable to use it. The sale heightens his moments of anxiety as he had previously shared a close association with the vehicle and symbolizes the misfortune that is to follow in the narrative pattern.
Baishey Shravana can be considered as an important film made during the early phase of the directors’ career and by far remains one of the darkest films in his filmography. The film as described by Mrinal Sen can be summed up with the following lines-
‘The man was no villain.
The woman was all grace.
It was a cruel time’.