“Bhuvan Shome” is amongst the earliest attempts at what came to be later known as ‘arthouse' or the ‘new cinema movement in India' in the late 1960s. It was also the film that brought the yet struggling director, Mrinal Sen, despite eight films (seven flops) in his native Bengali, including “Akash Kusum” (‘Up in the Clouds') and “Matira Manisha” (‘To Brothers') centre-stage, both at home and abroad. “Bhuvan Shome”, one of the earliest financed by the National Film Development Corporation, based on a Bengali story by Banaphool (a pseudonym for Balaichand Mukherjee), also brought him his first National Award as Best Director together with the film, and Best Actor for Utpal Dutt. A moderate success, it was panned mercilessly by his more illustrious contemporary, Satyajit Ray, to whom he always had to play second fiddle. The master summarised it “in seven words: Big Bad Bureaucrat Reformed by Rustic Belle,” once a Hollywood term for a good film story.
Apart from using the standard documentary format, the narrative opens with specially devised newsreel footage to establish not only the state but icons like Ravi Shankar, Satyajit Ray and others, characteristic protest demonstrations on the streets, and animation to establish the backdrop. The film had many firsts. Apart from being Sen's first directorial venture, it was also the beginning of Utpal Dutt's eventful foray in Bollywood. For the then uninitiated Suhasini Mulay, it was a first experience in front of the camera. Similarly for cinematographer K.K. Mahajan. Even the music director Vijay Raghav Rao was new to the media. Another first was, to quote the eminent filmmaker, “Amitabh Bachchan (selected from a group of hopeful aspirants in writer-film maker K.A. Abbas's office) made his first earning in cinema by lending his voice for the voiceover in bits, for just a minute and a half, or probably two minutes.” And for this he was paid the princely sum of Rs.300.
In many ways a satirical narrative set in the late '40s that begins with unwinding the dull, mundane, disenchanted life of an educated westernised yet lonely middle-aged widower Bhuvan Shome (Utpal Dutt), working in a senior capacity for Indian Railways, rigid to the point of unhesitatingly sacking not only a corrupt junior, Jadhav Patel (Sadhu Meher) but even his own son for a petty office. Tired of his almost regimented life, he decides to go duck hunting, an expedition that takes him into picturesque Gujarat locations and brings the pleasant realisation that there is life beyond the mundane, another world, the unpolluted countryside with bovines and bullock-carts, peopled by simple village folk , besides “a sweet and mysterious encounter with a village girl”, Gauri (Suhasini Mulay), who he learns in course of his stay is the wife of Jadhav Patel.
A transformed Shome returns to duty a changed, reformed man, and one of his first acts is not to press for Patel's dismissal. He gets him transferred to a station close to his village, throws away western attire and embraces kurta-dhoti, though temporarily, complete with comic interludes — the intermittent use of which is amongst the high points of the narrative. But Bhuvan Shome is a condemned man destined to return to the constraints of a bureaucrat's existence.
The film also traverses the concrete spaces of Calcutta to the eye-pleasing Saurashtrian landscape. Outstanding cinematography was the redeeming factor in a somewhat fragmented narrative, amply supported by compelling music by Vijay Raghav Rao, though the same cannot be said about the joint efforts of Gangadhar Naskar, Raju Naik and Dinkar Shetye's editing. Made under the banner of Mrinal Sen Productions, it was also scripted by the director himself, with dialogue by Badrinath and Satyendra Sharma, and commentary by Yagya Sharma. The other surprising packet was a convincing performance by Suhasini Mulay displaying innocent charm.
After watching the film, the original writer, Banaphool commented with a smirk: “Well, this is Mrinal Sen's Bhuvan Shome, only partially mine.”