Sunday, April 29, 2012

Oka Oori Katha (The Marginal Ones) (Mrinal Sen, 1977)

Loosely based on Indian writer Premchandra's "Kafan", eminent Indian filmmaker Mrinal Sen presents Oka Oori Katha. The story opens in a small village in Andhra Pradesh, a state of India. The story initially revolves around two male characters, a father (Venkayya) and a son (Kista), who are landless and vagrants.Venkayya has a strange philosophy about life: not to indulge in any type of work. He and his forefathers are being subjected to much exploitation by the landlord-class, which has forced him to conclude that life is an unending cycle of exploitation and he will be better off by not working anymore for anybody and that way he will not contribute further to the prosperity of the landlord-class. Kista indisputably adopts his father's principle and pursues vagrancy. For survival they steal and occasionally participate in manually demanding part-time labor the earnings from which are usually spent by the duo over binge drinking. Sen constructs the character of Venkayya to make him look like an iconoclast who defies all social norms, although, Venkayya is not a rebel in the traditional sense. He snivels before the landlord for a free meal and makes caustic comments about the landlord only when he is drunk. In essence, Venkayya's anger manifests in a total rejection of the system and has reduced him to a beast. However, his idea of self-respect seems to be at odds with his moral preferences. Midway in the film and Kista decides to marry Nilamma, a local girl, against his father's repeted warnings. Venkayya advises that marriage would require Kista to work, which would in turn undermine the long-standing principle of Venkayya. Nilamma is soon impregnated by Kista, and despite the demands of the situation, the duo does nothing but lives off the woman. Hard labor, deprivation, and lack of nutrition finally bring Nilamma down, and with no treatment around, she inches her way to death. Despite Nilamma's indescribable sufferings throughout the night, the duo is unmoved and sleeps in the courtyard, and doesn't bother about the occasional screams of the woman. The next morning, they find her dead. Although they have spent nothing on her during her lifetime, they decide to offer her a fitting funeral for which they set out to beg and the upper-class people contribute. Sen brings Venkayya under a tree in the final scene, who clutches the money in his hands and goes on demanding food, clothes, house, and finally Nilamma's life. The camera in the final shot zooms in on Nilamma's face that bursts into flames - a representation of Venkayya's anger. The anger of the oppressed directed towards the oppressors. Aficionados of Sen's films will be least surprised by the subject matter of Oka Oori Katha. Lending cinematic voices to the oppressed is one of the prime features of many of Sen's films. The first forty minutes of the film is a hard slog though as Sen's attempts to establish the two central male characters and their surroundings seem unfocused at times, which could have been handled with strict editing. However, after the introduction of Nilamma, the film gained required momentum in the department of drama and conflicts among the characters became acute. The film analyzes nature of the relationship between the oppressors and the oppressed from two standpoints: the landowner and the landless, and man and woman. Landowners perpetually turn their backs to marginal farmers/laborers, deprive them of their just and fair shares, and eventually push them towards starvation and death. However, they are atypically generous and dutiful to the people from the same class when it comes to donating money for the last religious rites. Similar relationship-parallels hold between Venkayya and Nilamma. Nilamma, when alive, was ignored and taken advantage of, was denied her rights in the household, and ultimately was pushed to death by Venkayya. Is this because she was a woman or does this outcome obtain due to Venkayya's firm belief in his philosophy about the duty of the working class in an atmosphere replete with inequality and deprivation? Can strange principles of Venkayya be so strong so as to overcome his compassion for family members? If so, then doesn't he indirectly lose to the landlord-class by sacrificing a human life?  The film doesn't attempt to disentangle these aspects, which is rather unfortunate. Despite these shortcoming, Oka Oori Katha is one of Sen's acclaimed works that deserves multiple viewings.

The film won a Special Prize of the Jury at Karlovy Vary International Film Festival in 1977.

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