Akaler Sandhane

Literally meaning ‘In search of a Famine’, Akaler Sandhane explores the hardships of Great Bengal Famine of 1943. Employing shades of Deja-vu like back- and-forth shooting sequences, it’s often referred to as a ‘film-within-a-film’, a metafilm.

The plot of the movie revolves around a crew and a director who, in the process of documenting the 1943 Famine, discover that it is still ever-present in the villages of Bengal hence, rendering their ‘search’ for it, futile. The movie tackles the issues of the exploitative nature of filmmaking on rural issues by urban artists, historical trauma and most importantly, the oppressive, stifling class structure literally taking lives.

The protagonist of their film is Sabitri, the wife of a destitute farmer forced to sleep with the contractor to feed her child. In one scene, her husband rages in impotent fury when he finds out and smashes the utensils filled with her hard-earned rice on ground but as soon as he reaches for their child, Sabitri lets out an unprecedented howl.

This howl distresses Durga, a villager, during its shooting. Durga’s story, though she lives four decades after the 1943 famine, is similar to Sabitri’s. Through her, live the last embers of memory of the 1943 famine. In the present, her memories connect her to the past and her terrifying visions to the future.

The crew itself gets accused of starting another famine after buying up all the food in the village.  After series of failed, scandalous attempts at finding a supporting actress, Durga gets persuaded to play the part of Malati in the film. Though initially extremely shy, Durga decides to take on the challenge of acting, and confronts her husband in a situation identical to that of Sabitri’s. But she ultimately doesn’t act, leaving the director in the lurch.

Sen’s film ends with a freeze-frame of Durga, rapidly receding in the background, with a voiceover ending her tale in three lines: “Durga is alone. Her infant died. Her husband cannot be found.”

Akaler Sandhane is an incredibly complex film that serves as a scathing reminder that as long as the class & caste systems function, the cycles of human suffering will never cease- mirroring each other repeatedly as shown on juxtaposing the scenes from 1943 and 1980. It is not just about the relation between the past and the present, but also about art and portrayal of reality in art and the limits of its representation.

The film dramatizes another great divide that exists between the village and the city. For in the film, this gulf between the crew and the villagers only widens after an initial curious encounter. Their alien and seemingly exploitative presence is, at first, tolerated and then increasingly resisted as an intrusion by the villagers. It is akin to admitting the failure of the filmmaker in capturing honestly the state of the Indian village, either romanticising them or shying from engaging the brutal truths that haunt them.

Consequently, the film unit has to pack up and leave for Calcutta, forced to shoot the rest of the film in the studio. What troubles the viewer, however, is not the fate of the conscientious director’s film, but the fate of Durga in the village, symbolising the countless poor left behind in the shackles of poverty, caste and patriarchy, unable to attain Moksh from their generational cycles of suffering.

  • VAISHALI JAIPAL, B.A. (H) Political Science 2nd year

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