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Mandabi: No money, no order

An elusive money order is at the heart of Ousmane Sembène’s Mandabi, a caustically funny classic of Senegalese cinema

A still from ‘Mandabi’
A still from ‘Mandabi’

There’s an excerpt from a documentary called Caméra D’Afrique featuring Ousmane Sembène that periodically does the rounds on Film Twitter. Responding to a question about whether Europe watches his films, the Senegalese director says: “Europe is not my centre. Europe is on the outskirts. After 100 years here, did they speak my language? I speak theirs. My future does not depend on Europe…. Why be a sunflower and turn towards the sun? I myself am the sun.”

Sembène was well-placed to make this claim. Born in the Casamance region of Senegal, he moved to France after his war service. He began his artistic career as a poet and novelist, writing in French. Though he could probably have continued working in Europe, Sembène returned to Senegal once it regained its freedom, in 1960. He decided to become a film-maker, learning the craft in Moscow. His short film Borom Sarret (1963) is considered the first made in Africa by a black African director. He made another short (Niaye, 1964) before breaking through with his first feature, Black Girl. This 1966 film won the Prix John Vigo (an annual prize usually given to a young director in France) and put Africa on the world cinema map for the first time.

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Though epochal, Black Girl was in French, and unfolds mostly in France. Sembène now set his sights on making a film in his native Wolof. He adapted his own novel, Le Mandat, as Mandabi (1968): the first feature by an African director in an African language. The film, available in a fetching restoration on MUBI, casts a wry eye on a newly free Senegal, its citizens still in the process of shedding colonial baggage. “Mandabi” means “money order” in Wolof, and the film tracks the fate of one such order that arrives at the home of Dieng, sent by his nephew in Paris. Word spreads so quickly that people are already asking him for loans when he is on the way to the bank.

Any Indian viewer should realise, much before the hapless Dieng, that this will be a titanic struggle with bureaucracy (India, after all, also inherited from its colonial oppressors, and perpetuated, a formidable system of red tape). At the bank, Dieng is asked to produce a photo ID. When he cannot, they send him to the police station to get a birth certificate. From there he’s sent to the post office, and on and on. He pawns jewellery, borrows money, tries to bribe officials, but every action just seems to land him in a fresh predicament.

The first scene sets the tone for the film. As lively, intricate kora music plays, we see Dieng getting a roadside shave, a barber, dressed in eye-catching blue cleaning out his nose. This focus on bodily comedy continues, with Dieng belching, groaning, blinking wildly, tongue protruding, getting his feet massaged by his two wives. He’s a bit of a tyrant at home, but also a buffoon—the sort of blowhard audiences everywhere are familiar with.

Sembène also casts a sly look at the religiosity of Senegalese society—there’s an almost competitive invoking of god by Dieng and the neighbours. Yet the same people are out to take whatever they can, and it’s Dieng’s more practical wives who ultimately decide that they need to be more materialistic. As one puts it: “A lie that unites is better than a truth that divides.”

Mandabi takes what it needs from the cinema of the West, yet it feels like a product of an entirely different film culture (in a way that Black Girl, with its cool black and white photography and French dialogue, didn’t). The voice-over of Dieng’s nephew, overlaid with a few brief scenes of his life in Paris, could be from a European New Wave film. And perhaps Sembène had also seen the Eastern European satires of that era, especially Miloš Forman’s The Firemen’s Ball (1967). But the mix of music, bright colour, broad comedy and satire is unlike anything a Western director would attempt. One can easily imagine this as an Indian film though—like Bhuvan Shome, Mrinal Sen’s influential comedy about a civil servant with a colonial hangover, made a year after Mandabi.

Sembène uses humour as a bandage. The Dakar of the film is not prospering. Beggars on the street appear in different guises, angling for an extra handout. Even property owners like Dieng have to scrounge for food. His nephew is in Paris because there were no jobs back home. You can sense the tough times even in the music. There’s a recurring song about “mandabi”—when one of the wives sings it, the translation is: “This money order will make everything all right.” But the desperation with which it’s sung makes it sound like a blues holler, and suggests that this optimism is false.

‘Mandabi’ is streaming on MUBI.

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