Genesis, 1986

Genesis prefaces to a strange and anachronistic fable of creation, as the narrator recounts a catastrophic drought that ravaged an unnamed civilization, leading to widespread disease and famine. The god dispatches an emissary with distinctively shiny shoes to take thumbprints of the inhabitants within a predefined geographic area that bounds the realm of his divine grace. The people relinquish their worldly possessions, and in exchange for their allegiance, the god provides for all their needs. In accepting the god’s care and protection, the people become eternally enslaved to him. Two adventurous friends, a farmer (Naseeruddin Shah) and a weaver (Om Puri), defy the god’s census and head out into the deserted landscape of no man’s land in order to carve out their own destinies in freedom and autonomy. But the desolate frontier proves to be far from paradise, as the farmer ineffectively tills the rocky and arid land, ironically uprooting skeletons instead of vegetation. In order to obtain basic necessities, the weaver has entered into a reluctant bartering agreement with an opportunistic trader (M.K. Raina) of dubious character to sell his textiles at a bazaar in exchange for food and supplies. It is a mutually beneficial arrangement that allows the two idealists to retain their sense of independence, away from the intervention of the god and encroachment of civilization, until one day when a lone, enigmatic young woman (Shabana Azmi) seeks refuge among the ruins. Her quiet vulnerability and unassuming sensuality captivate the two men who decide to welcome her into their isolated community, despite the trader’s cautious observation that her presence will ultimately lead to division and strife. The remark proves to be a portentous warning, as the woman becomes a source of friction for the two friends as they alternately vie for her attention, friendship, and affection.

Mrinal Sen creates a visually sublime, incisive, and provocative examination of civilization, interdependence, and human desire in Genesis. Through recurrent imagery and repeated patterns of behavior, Sen illustrates the pervasive malady of servitude, the irreconcilable dilemma between societal altruism and individual attraction, and the innate darkness of the human soul: the assumption of the role of master (the omniscient god, omnipresent trader, and competing suitors); the consuming possessiveness, territoriality, and jealousy among the characters; the transience of corporeal existence and personal sanctuary. By distilling the narrative, cast of characters, and mise-en-scene into a microcosmic exploration on human nature, Sen presents a spare, indelibly haunting, and poignantly tragic tale of paradise found …and lost.

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