In Search of Famine (1981)

Sen at his thought-provoking best, this highly-layered meta-filmic behind-the-scenes drama sees a film crew enter a poor village to make a movie about the 1943 Bengal famine, only to find it increasingly difficult to engage with the people, traditions, history and filmmaking itself.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Review #2,286

Dir. Mrinal Sen
1981 | India | Drama | 124 mins | 1.66:1 | Bengali
Not rated – likely to be PG13 for some mature themes

Cast: Dhritiman Chatterjee, Smita Patil, Gita Sen, Dipankar Dey, Sreela Majumdar
Plot: A film crew comes to a village to make a movie about a famine that killed five million people in 1943. Tensions arise on set, as the actors live a double life and the villages watch their work with wonder and amusement, but as the film progresses, the recreated past begins to confront the present.
Awards: Won Silver Bear – Special Jury Prize (Berlinale)
Source: D.K. Films

Accessibility Index
Subject Matter: Moderate – Filmmaking; History; Poverty; Role-playing
Narrative Style: Complex
Pace: Slightly Slow
Audience Type: Slightly Arthouse

Viewed: MUBI
Spoilers: No

Released in the same year as Mrinal Sen’s more modest but similarly powerful The Kaleidoscope (1981), In Search of Famine sees the Indian director at his thought-provoking best, this time ambitiously weaving a story with meta-filmic elements that operate at different levels. 

Envisioned as a behind-the-scenes drama, In Search of Famine sees a film crew enter a poor village to make the eponymously-titled movie about the devastating 1943 Bengal famine that killed millions of Bengalis. 

Dhritiman Chatterjee (from Sen’s earlier The Guerilla Fighter) plays the director who brings the cast (including the great Smita Patil who plays herself) and crew to the remote location as they prepare for a shoot they wouldn’t have imagined to be so difficult. 

While the narrative could easily have built upon the tension between class and social status i.e. the city folks who disrupt the traditional values and morals of the villagers in search of artistic purpose (albeit one lacking in natural compassion for the subject matter), Famine does so much more by deconstructing the ideas of performance and role-playing. 

“They’re filming a famine, but they are also creating one.”

At the same time, the creators and artists have to confront the harsh reality of abject poverty, and even hunger, amongst the locals, some of whom are used as extras. 

A subplot involving a poor woman who hopes to be cast as a prostitute (after a professional actress unceremoniously leaves the production midway) in order to put food on the table sees the question of ‘honour’ and ‘morality’ questioned by the patriarchy. 

Ultimately, Sen’s work, as it deals with history, sees the seepage of historical trauma into the psychological, personal and the present, an allegory of how as one group is in search of famine through narrativisation, the other is also in search of a grim persistence through their dogged beliefs.

Grade: A-

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