By 1968, Mrinal Sen's career had hit a low point and he found it extremely difficult to find producers for his projects. Though he was a veteran of eight films and had become a well-known name, none of his last five films were memorable in terms of content, form or commercial success. In 1969, he applied for a loan from the newly formed Film Finance Corporation (FFC, the precursor of NFDC) and managed to get funds from them for his next film. The result was Bhuvan Shome, a radical departure from Sen's earlier films and the usual Indian cinema of the period. This film finally launched him as a major filmmaker, both nationally and internationally; it also initiated the 'New Cinema' or the 'Indian New Wave' film movement in India.
Simplistic to the point of being almost threadbare, the episodic narrative of the film is nevertheless peppered with visual effects and self conscious sound designing and intrusive music, which in retrospect look almost gimmicky. But at that time, with its liberal use of freeze frames, masking, quirky scene transitions, jump cuts, unexpected shot juxtapositions and rudimentary animation, it was quite a novelty and endeared itself to its viewers immediately. There are passages in the film that have an extemporaneous feel, and sometimes verges on the documentary mode, almost to the point of looking like a Films Division newsreel. Sen carried these cinematic effects to extreme lengths in his later films which were heavily influenced by radical European cinema of the period as exemplified by the likes of Jean Luc Godard and Marxist thoughts. But what sets this film apart from his immediate later films is his selection of a simple story, which was devoid of any didacticism that his later films came to be associated with. In its essence, the film is closer to the spirit of the Russian short stories by masters like Gogol and Chekov where nothing seemingly happened as far as outward plotting was concerned, but throbbed with monumental reverberations just below the surface.
The protagonist is introduced through a voice-over by Amitabh Bachchan who received a princely sum of Rs 300 for his contribution! Over the commentary, the director resorts to animation to pile up files on his desk to indicate his bureaucratic obsession and inserts images of Vivekananda, Ray, Tagore, Ravi Sankar and relevant footage of the ubiquitous political rallies of 1960s Calcutta along side freeze frames of Shome's close-ups to stress the quintessential nature of his Bengali roots, despite having lived all his life outside Bengal. The railway tracks shot head on from a fast moving train acts as a leitmotiv through out the film, accentuating his regimented personality that begins to wane as the film progresses.
The rocky journey on a bullock cart that carries Mr Shome to the hinterland at the beginning of the film looks as it has been milked beyond capacity to derive maximum humour at the expense of a city bureaucrat. The interaction between the urban passenger who feels distinctly uncomfortable and the rural driver (Sekhar Chaterjee) looks forced and protracted. The only saving grace is Utpal Dutt's acting, which despite being mannered adds to the charm of the personality and compensates for the non-natural tone of the segment. The same treatment is meted out in the next segment when their journey is suddenly arrested by a rude buffalo and a frightened Mr Shome is chased across the barren landscape by the animal, much to his horror. It fails to evoke any laughter and the uneven editing here does not help matters either. The futility of the segment reaches its climax when the protagonist is forced to climb up a tree to save himself from the marauding animal!
The Gauri-Shome track forms the major chunk of the film from this point. Thankfully the film too manages to attain a certain poise hereon as the pretty village girl takes over the reins, and teaches the rude bureaucrat the basics tenets of commonsense necessary for shooting ducks in this kind of a remote area. She turns out to be the fiance of Jadhav Patel, the ticket collector who he had booked for corruption. In Gauri, Mr Shome finds a fresh, throbbing pulse in a dying world. And suddenly everything lights up, perhaps heightening his sense of hitherto isolation, in his newfound joy. He realizes the futility of his arrogance and his bureaucratic puritanism. He understands the value of Nature and receives lessons in folklore in an abandoned haveli, which was supposedly a retreat of the king of the region at some far off time where he came to spend time with his queen.
There are some remarkable scenes between the two characters that add sparkle to the film. The scene where Gauri criticizes her fiance's boss without knowing that this stranger is the 'culprit' forms the central point in the film and acts as a turning point in the 'education' of the man. Mr Shome listens to her tirade against the bad boss with a long face; nobody has ever spoken to him like that and analyzed his character so ruthlessly and pointedly. It really is quite funny. The reference to the buffalo by the delectable heroine is a smart subtext: he is like the rude buffalo whom everybody is scared of, she declares; and just as the buffalo can be tamed only by Gauri, so is Mr Shome tamed by her eventually. The image of the girl literally riding on the buffalo, which is repeated at the end of the film when Mr. Shome has joined office, but a changed man now, drives home the point but with a force that looks too didactic though. But by that time we have had our fun at the man's expense. Another amusing scene is when she literally forces him to get into a the local dress and ties the long and ubiquitous pagri (turban) around his head so that the ducks don't get scared by his city uniform; the unfriendly and unpopular man had never looked so funny and helpless in his life; the pretty girl has him twirling around her little finger. The point when she places her hand softly on the shoulder of Mr. Shome just as he is about to shoot emphasizes her apprehension and suddenly underlines her character; it's a very tender moment and brilliant touch in the film. Despite all her practical inputs on trapping birds, M. Shome however, misses his target despite repeated attempts and is frustrated. The sound of the gun shocks a bird but does not kill him; Gauri retrieves the bird and gives it to Mr Shome. But when he has started his journey back to town, carrying the frightened duck in his arm, he realizes the futility of his hunting ambitions and turns back and returns to the girl's hut. The girl is surprised and excited to see him back. Mr Shome gifts the bird to her so that it can keep company to her pet bird, before going back once again. And so the taming of the rude bureaucrat completes a full circle.
As soon as he rejoins his office, he summons Jadhav Patel and tears down his dismissal orders and promotes him to a bigger junction, in fond remembrance of his times with Gauri and her imminent marriage to the man. This is a far cry from his declared motto on his arrival at beginning of the film: "Duty first, self last." But the ticket collector has the last laugh: he writes to Gauri that a bigger junction means bigger money. And we assume that the young couple has a hearty laugh at the expense of the metamorphosed bureaucrat without his ever realizing it.
Mrinal Sen had major problems with the audiences' interpretation of the film. Most viewers read it as a story of the process of humanization of a stuck up bureaucrat and sympathized with the protagonist. Satyajit Ray wonderfully summarized the film in seven words: "Big Bad Bureaucrat Reformed By Rustic Belle." But with his leftist political leanings, Sen time and again stressed that it was just the reverse: it is the story of how a stuck up bureaucrat is taken for a ride by simple village folks. He had major issues with Ray's interpretation and always made it a point to refer to him and differ with him in public forums.
Be as it may, the film remains a lighthearted attempt at comedy, which was not Sen's strongest point as a filmmaker, but it does manage to reach across and strike a chord in the hearts of its viewers over successive decades. It has a freewheeling style and all the indulgence of an adventurous director who was trying desperately to seek a form that would endear him to his audience without alienating them and bring his film to commercial success. In this he definitely succeeded, unlike in his later films where his style and treatment did tend to became too esoteric at times.
No discussion of the film would be complete without the mention of its debutant cinematographer KK Mahajan. A fresh graduate from the FTII (1966 Motion Picture Photography Batch), his brilliant camera work beautifully captures the landscape of the vast and barren Saurashtra in all its lustre and brings out the texture of the sand dunes vividly. Particularly memorable are the wide-angle shots of the heroine in ethnic sari with a huge rifle slung across her slender shoulder as she guides Bhuvan Shome dressed in a local outfit across the undulating sand dunes of Saurashtra. These images of Suhasini Mulay and Utpal Dutt trudging on the sandy barren landscape on their way to the hunt have become almost iconic. The breathtaking bevy of shots of cranes taking off from the riverbed and flying in the sky are other highlights of the startling cinematography.
Mrinal reminisces about KK.: "That was the beginning of a journey, a long one, which perhaps in just two cases, that too under unforeseen circumstances, never broke. KK. and I, worked together, starting from Bhuvan Shome and continued unabated, once a year, in various places, various languages, and interestingly, in diverse situations. In the process, I learnt a lot and so, I believe, did he and we have been growing together steadily, happily, clumsily. True, we had initial problems to understand each other but neither he nor I took unreasonable time to get to know ourselves and then coming out of one film and walking into another, year after year, we became, as was expected, almost one inseparable entity." (Courtesy: The Cinema Journal, 1991)
Mention must also be made of the 16 year old Suhasini Mulay who is spot on in the role of the sprightly, young Gauri. And of course Utpal Dutt, who carries the film on his shoulder. The stock expressions and the unique style of dialogue delivery that came to be associated with his performance only contributed to his popularity and never felt repetitive. He had a way of carrying those expressions and speaking lines with an elan in whatever role he did and we never tired of them. In this film, he makes full use of these devices and the audience lapped them up with relish, marking him out amongst the most memorable characters in the annals of Indian cinema - Bhuvan Shome.
Bhuvan Shome has been a long and memorable journey for all its participants and is still fondly remembered by cinephiles and film historians. It went on to win three National Awards: Best Film, Best Actor (Utpal Dutt) and Best Director for Mrinal Sen and was screened in the Directors' Fortnight section at the Cannes Film Festival in 1970.