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Oka Oorie Katha: Mrinal Sen's 'Savage Prophets'

14 May, 2020 | Short Features by Shantanu Ray Chaudhuri
Oka Oorie Katha (1977). Image Courtesy: IMDB

Based on Premchand’s ‘Kafan’, Mrinal Sen’s Telugu film is as much an exposition of his unwillingness to settle for easy comfortable storytelling as it is an insight into his approach in adapting a literary work to screen, Shantanu Ray Chaudhuri writes…

‘In India where except in a few cases, film-makers have hardly looked beyond what their predecessors had achieved, we need … experiments to enlarge the area of operation, experiments to mark the advent of a new genre of cinema, experiments, above all, to sharpen the medium as an instrument of social change.’ – Mrinal Sen


The year was 1993 and Mrinal Sen’s Antareen had just been screened at the Calcutta International Film Festival. The film’s credit titles mentioned that the film originated ‘from an idea based on a story by Sadat Haasan Manto’. A journalist at a press conference asked Sen the title of the Manto story that had inspired the film. Instead of answering the journalist, Sen said, ‘Please go through the collected works of Manto and tell me the title of the story you think has served as the basis of my film.’ 

It was Sen’s way of communicating that the film was so different from the story that no one would be able to identify the source. That was an approach he consistently used in his adaptations from literary work.
It was Sen’s way of communicating that the film was so different from the story that no one would be able to identify the source. That was an approach he consistently used in his adaptations from literary work. The screenplay of Bhuvan Shome came from only the last section of Banaphool’s story. He would often pick up a few sentences or a paragraph from a story and expand on them to develop his script. His Telugu film Oka Oorie Katha, based on Premchand’s immortal story ‘Kafan’, was no exception. 

As everyone acquainted with Premchand’s story knows, it is set in a bitterly cold winter night in a village in Uttar Pradesh. A father-son pair sit outside their ramshackle hut roasting potatoes they have stolen from the zamindar’s fields, while inside the hut the son’s wife is going through the pangs of childbirth. It is the woman who has been their source of livelihood all this time, but the indolent men are too far gone to do anything to come to her help. They gorge on the potatoes, trying to hoodwink each other for the lion’s share, and fall asleep. By morning, the woman is dead. The father and son go out begging for money for the last rites but having collected the money they go to the local hooch shop, get drunk, all the time philosophizing about the vicissitudes of life while the woman’s corpse lies rotting. 
The change of language did create some issues as Sen had no knowledge of Telugu. More than one person worked on the Telugu version of the script under the supervision of a local social and political activist Krishnaswamy.
To begin with, Mrinal Sen shifted the location to Telangana. This was dictated by the film’s producer. The success of his previous film Mrigaya had got a hotelier from Madras, Parandhana Reddy, interested in producing his next. The only condition: the film had to be made in Telugu, the producer’s mother tongue. The change of language did create some issues as Sen had no knowledge of Telugu. More than one person worked on the Telugu version of the script under the supervision of a local social and political activist Krishnaswamy. As Sen says about this aspect of the change, ‘The descriptive passages in the story vividly recreate UP … the harsh winters of UP must have added to and enhanced the harshness of life. That cruel winter was an absent season in Telangana … Our logic, our understanding was: the despicability of poverty and the terror of exploitation are brutal realities, irrespective of seasonal changes. The relevance of “Kafan” is not dependent on any time of the year in particular.’
 
Mamata Shankar in Oka Oorie Katha. Image Courtesy: Mrinalsen.org
'Our logic, our understanding was: the despicability of poverty and the terror of exploitation are brutal realities, irrespective of seasonal changes. The relevance of “Kafan” is not dependent on any time of the year in particular.'
Among the other major changes Sen wrought in his screenplay – written with his regular collaborator Mohit Chattopadhyay – was beginning the film from much before the death of the woman (Budhiya in Premchand’s story, Nilamma in the film, played by Mamata Shankar). He also conjured a confrontation between Nilamma and Venkaiah (Ghisu in the story). Given the film’s location, Sen, who was aware of the centuries of oppression wrought by the Nizamshahi of the area, also made the landowner-landless relationship a pronounced aspect of the film. ‘We maintained our loyalty to three things in particular,’ said Sen. ‘First, to the original idea which the author wished to convey. Second, to the form of artistic expression known as cinema. Third, to the time of the present day and age. Keeping these in mind, we internalized the original story and began our screenplay from a much earlier point on the imaginary graph of the storyline … and somewhere in the middle of our screenplay we made the characters come into conflict with one another, especially the old man and his daughter-in-law … we even invented certain incidents of which there were not the slightest hints or indication in the original.’
However, the fundamental change lies in Sen’s approach to the character of Venkaiah and how that informs the film’s end, drastically different from the original.
However, the fundamental change lies in Sen’s approach to the character of Venkaiah and how that informs the film’s end, drastically different from the original. Ghisu, in ‘Kafan’, has been dehumanized beyond redemption. And in keeping with that, Venkaiah comments in response to Nilamma’s labour pains, recalling how he cremated nine of his children, ‘Home to burning ghat, burning ghat to home.’ However, in the vision of Sen, Venkaiah is not just a victim of poverty who has lost what makes a man humane. Venkaiah is an iconoclast, an outsider. The title Oka Oorie Katha translates to ‘The Story of a Village’, but as Mrinal Sen said in an interview, ‘We found a rather fitting subtitle in English … The Outsiders or The Marginal Ones.’ Sen’s Venkaiah has seen through the hollowness of social norms which he defies without compunction. As he reasons, ‘Why work when life is an unending cycle of exploitation?’ Work only perpetuates the cycle and if he does not work, nothing can corrupt him. Venkaiah’s refusal to indulge in any kind of labour transforms the indolence of Ghisu into a sort or rebellion against the system: ‘Idiots work! Every bastard who works is a fool.’ 
'Home to burning ghat, burning ghat to home.’ However, in the vision of Sen, Venkaiah is not just a victim of poverty who has lost what makes a man humane. Venkaiah is an iconoclast, an outsider.
In the words of Sen, ‘The aged father of “Kafan” is not a negative character at all. According to our reading of the story, he is an extraordinary iconoclast … He is acquainted only too well with those who wield power in society … the son has grown up as his devoted disciple. We regard them as restless rebels … skirting the edges of society, the old man stays on the fringes, and remains an outsider. That is where he prefers to be. He considers all social value systems defunct and unnecessary.’

Unlike Premchand’s story which ends with the father and son singing and dancing in the tavern, Sen creates a coda. Venkaiah stands under a tree, clutching the money in his hand, demanding food, clothes and a house again and again, ultimately screaming, ‘Bring her back.’ At this stage, Sen does the unthinkable – Nilamma’s face dissolves while flames envelop the screen – in a graphic exposition of Venkaiah’s pent-up and suppressed anger. In the words of Sen’s biographer Dipankar Mukhopadhyay, ‘Critics have commented upon a Brechtian dimension in his character. Sen calls him sort of a Monsieur Verdoux, an absurdist extension of a trade union leader … [full of] anger and sarcasm.’
In the words of Sen’s biographer Dipankar Mukhopadhyay, ‘Critics have commented upon a Brechtian dimension in his character. Sen calls him sort of a Monsieur Verdoux, an absurdist extension of a trade union leader … [full of] anger and sarcasm.’
What helped in the character assuming the dimensions he does is the memorable performance by the great Kannada actor Vasudeva Rao, whose portrayal has been likened to that of ‘a savage prophet on the prowl’. It is a performance of staggering intelligence and you can only watch with awe and be seduced by his philosophy that it is foolish to work because it only serves the interest of the person your work for. To see Vasudev Rao warn G.V. Narayana Rao (who plays his son Kistaiah, Madhav in ‘Kafan’), ‘The evil spirit of work will not let you free; if you fall into that trap, you are lost,’ is to be in the presence of one of the finest moments of Indian cinema. As an aside, Dipankar Mukhopadhyay recounts one of the lighter moments of the shoot. Vasudeva Rao was asked to yawn for a shot and he failed to do so in shot after shot. After about a score failed attempts, he gave up, saying, ‘I have always worked sir, I do not know how to yawn!’
 
M V Vasudeva Rao and G V Narayana Rao in Oka Oorie Katha. Image courtesy: Mrinalsen.org
 
What helped in the character assuming the dimensions he does is the memorable performance by the great Kannada actor Vasudeva Rao, whose portrayal has been likened to that of ‘a savage prophet on the prowl’.
The ending and Sen’s interpretation shocked even Amrit Rai, Premchand’s son and a scholar in his own right. As Sen observes in his essay, ‘Cinema and Literature’, emerging from the screening, Rai told him, ‘It is a shattering film and a shattering experience, although I do not agree with your interpretation at all.’ Sen responded, ‘I am sure if your father had been alive today, his reaction wouldn’t have any different.’ He then asked Rai with some trepidation, ‘Do you at this particular time regret allowing me to make a film based on the story?’ To which Rai, ever magnanimous, almost ‘shouted’, ‘Not at all. Why don’t you tell me when you will use another story for another film?’
The ending and Sen’s interpretation shocked even Amrit Rai, Premchand’s son and a scholar in his own right.
In the decade after Bhuvan Shome, this is considered by many to be Sen’s finest film, though given its relentless grim and bleak outlook, it got little public recognition. Foreign festivals like Cannes (it was an unqualified success in the Directors’ Section), Karlovy Vary, London and Carthage were a different matter altogether.

The film left me feeling angry and sad and, more important, helpless, which finally gave way to horrified awe at the director’s ability to craft a philosophy so insidious. Sen could be the cruellest of storytellers on-screen. Not for him innocent, safe storytelling. From Baishey Shravana to Calcutta 71 to Kharij he believed in confronting the viewer with their inherent hypocrisies. Oka Oorie Katha does that and there is no way you can emerge from it without being shaken, questioning your beliefs. Somehow, with the horror stories emerging from the woes of migrant workers all over India in the wake of the lockdown, the film is alive with a new resonance.

Postscript: The film was screened at the first-ever Indian Panorama in 1978 in Madras. Sen invited Satyajit Ray to the screening. However, Ray was reluctant to come as the film had not been subtitled (it became mandatory from the year after) and Ray was afraid that he would not understand a word. Sen managed to persuade Ray to sit in for a while. After the screening, Ray hailed him, shaking his hands, ‘Thank you for persuading me. I would have really missed something.’
 

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About the Author

Shantanu Ray Chaudhuri is either an 'accidental' editor who strayed into publishing from a career in finance and accounts or an 'accidental' finance person who found his calling in publishing. He studied commerce and after about a decade in finance and accounts, he left it for good. He did a course in film, television and journalism from the Xavier's Institute of Mass Communication, Mumbai, after which he launched a film magazine of his own called Lights Camera Action. As executive editor at HarperCollins Publishers India, he helped launch what came to be regarded as the go-to cinema, music and culture list in Indian publishing. Books commissioned and edited by him have won the National Award for Best Book on Cinema and the MAMI (Mumbai Academy of Moving Images) Award for Best Writing on Cinema. He also commissioned and edited some of India's leading authors like Gulzar, Manu Joseph, Kiran Nagarkar, Arun Shourie and worked out co-pub arrangements with the Society for the Preservation of Satyajit Ray Archives, apart from publishing a number of first-time authors in cinema whose books went on to become best-sellers. In 2017, he was named Editor of the Year by the apex publishing body, Publishing Next. He has been a regular contributor to Anupama Chopra's online magazine Film Companion. He is also a published author, with two books to his credit: Whims – A Book of Poems (published by Writers Workshop) and Icons from Bollywood (published by Penguin Books). He is at present, executive editor at Penguin Random House India. 

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