Starring Mithun Chakraborty, Mamata Shankar, Sadhu Meher

It is game hunting, the royal hunt; some hunt animals, some the more dangerous ones in human form. The beast in the jungle is replicated by the usurers and exploiters of simple folk, the tribals, who live life the natural way, unassuming, pure, honesty glowing on their face. Mrinal Sen uses the medium powerfully to drive home this point in a story woven against the background of the uprising against the British rule. What a simple cast he assembles, yet so compelling and so convincing in its performances, especially Mithun Chakraborty, in the role of a rebellious tribal, who must rise to defend his people and his lady love Dungri, so beautifully portrayed by the talented Mamata Shankar, both making striking debuts! This was meaningful cinema, no crass music, no frivolous dance and dialogues. It was cinema that came closest to reality the Mrinal Sen way.

The chirping of birds, the gentle sound of water flowing, bow and arrow… It is a different world, calm and serene; there are tribals fetching water, wood and food, there is ploughing and sowing, child on a charpoy, scenes and stories hardly seen in modern cinema. The peace and tranquillity of the small tribal village in central India is broken by a wild beast on the prowl, destroying crops or carrying a kid away.

Here, enters the human beast, the mean money merchant, eying the women folk, much to the anger of Ghinua Soren, the protagonist portrayed impeccably by Mithun. Hard to believe it was Mithun’s debut movie. He dominates the frame whenever he graces the screen, looking every bit the tribal with a good heart but possessing a fire within to protest and fight injustice. He is a hunter by nature, his big catches attracting big rewards from the British administrator, played by Robert Wright, who spent many years in good old Calcutta. The British administrator admires Ghinua as a splendid hunter. “A good man,” he informs the court towards the end of the movie. Of course, Ghinua is part of a world that believes in simple living, even if in perpetual debt. They fight the marauding beasts, man and animal, which destroy their crops, but nurture dreams of a wonderful future of joy and purpose.

Ghinua is the architect of this dream. He can distinguish between the “loving and caring” British national and the scheming Indian who kidnaps his wife, only to be slayed by Ghinua, who is promptly sent to the gallows. A disturbing end where Ghinua questions the methods of justice, death for killing a tyrant but not when one of his villagers shoots a rebel.

Mrinal Sen is a master of narration, so effectively reflected in the actual locales of a tribal village where he shoots the film. He chooses a subject close to his heart where little-known actors excel in living the roles on screen. Each individual, from Mithun to Mamata, from Sumit Bhanja (the rebel) to Sadhu Meher (a disgruntled tribal), comes off forceful, realistic. Meher is in top form, evoking appreciation for his performance of a negative tribal, harming his own people. Bhanja’s presence is negligible in relation to the story but not to be ignored.

The tribal villagers suffer in silence at most times but promptly unite to protect Bhanja from being taken away by the police. He represents the rebellion against the British, and the united backing from his village folks is a reflection of the changing times, the masses rising to free the country. The movie is Sen’s tribute to many such martyrs.

In Ghinua’s death, the village folk, led by Dungri, come to discover the way to fight, to be counted in their own simple manner. What strikes you most is Mithun as he carries the movie on his shoulders. His dialogues are loud when needed but he uses his expressions superbly to live the role. When dealing with the vicious zamindar, played brilliantly by Sajal Roychudhury, it is Mithun’s eyes, radiating his seething anger, about to explode, that steal the show.

Mithun won the richly deserved National Award for the best actor. It is hard to accept the same actor, exceptional to the core, drifted into a ‘Disco Dancer’ and subsequently ended up doing ‘B’ grade movies. Rural India is hardly visible in Indian cinema in these times but this was a story that remained true to its course. The natural settings, Sen’s powerful direction, and the support of a dedicated crew contributed to conjure this off-the-established-track offering, winner of the National Award for best film. You could expect only a Mrinal Sen to achieve it. A pity they don’t make movies like this anymore; it just won’t fit into the multiplex, popcorn-and-cold-drink culture.

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