It is clear to see Mrinal Sen’s 1983 film Khandhar is in fact an extension and a companion piece to his 1981 film Akaler Sandhane considered by many to be his masterpiece. Thematically both films use the figure of the artist – in this case a film maker to interrogate the conflict between the old and the new, tradition and modernity and the lower and privileged classes. The introspective film maker (Dhritiman Chatterjee) is perhaps the closest Sen came to representing his own anxieties about the film making process. Similarly like Khandhar the journey from the urban to the rural is a central motif as it permits Sen to question the legitimacy of the film crew in their exploitation of an impoverished Bengali village for suitable cinematic mise en scene. The narrative follows a film crew attempting gallantly but ultimately failing to make a film on the Bengal famine of 1943 (genocide perpetrated by the British empire and World War II) that resulted in the deaths of at least three million people. The crew arrive with noble intentions but their boisterous and pretentious manner as artists remains unchanged pointing to a cultural ignorance that goes somewhat unchecked. What becomes apparent as the crew begin filming the more difficult sequences is the gaping economic, social and cultural divide that exists between the privileged urbanites from Calcutta and the impoverished Bengali villagers. When one of the actors who has been cast to play the role of a prostitute absconds to Calcutta the film maker foresees the production stalling. Encouraged by Haren (Rajen Tarafder), a highly co-operative villager with acting aspirations of his own, he demands they find a suitable girl from the village. When the villagers finally discover that the role is that of a prostitute, local prejudices come to the fore and they feel their trust has been betrayed. They eventually refuse to co-operate with the rest of the filming and the crew is forced to close down production and finish the rest in a studio. The advice to leave the village comes from a respected benign school master who criticises the film crew for their inability to understand and accommodate for the poverty of those they are trying to represent in the film. It might be fine to make a film on poverty and attempt to educate other people about the famine of 1943 but what about the failure to address poverty in rural India – this is a statement put forward by the headmaster at the end and the degree of directorial self criticism in this equation suggests the crew use the gaze of the lens as a means of disguising their own shame and even guilt. Additionally, the sympathy demonstrated by the crew towards many of the villagers is momentary and full of pity as we know and they know that once filming is complete they can simply retreat from such impoverishment to the comforts of their privileged lifestyles.
The level of social criticism articulated by the head master is complicated further by the self reflexive nature of Sen’s approach who makes direct parallels drawn between the fictional dramatisation of the famine and the real desperation and servitude faced by the villagers. Smita Patil plays herself in the film whilst in the production she plays the role of an struggling mother. Sen uses her character to deconstruct the false nature of acting and the unreal processes actors go through before they can perform competently. Sen does this by having Smita Patil confront the actual truths behind her character in the shape of two dispossessed women in the village. Coming face to face with the loneliness of an old woman (Gita Sen) who spends her days tending to her incapacitated husband not only taps into a sense of imprisonment but it is a feeling rendered doubly visible in the exhausted figure of Durga (Sreela Majumdar). The impact the film production has upon the village is starkly realised in the metaphorical assertion that it is the urban educated elite who accelerate the poverty as the pressure on village resources leads to someone questioning if the film crew are in fact corrupting their identity, traditions and way of life. Akaler Sandhane is a multi layered ideological critique that manifests many of the familiar authorial tropes representative of Mrinal Sen. It is also one of the great statements on the film making process and deserves to stand alongside Kiarostami’s masterful Life, and Nothing More (1990), Wender’s The State of Things (1982), Godard’s Contempt (1963) and Truffaut’s Day For Night (1973).