Saturday, February 20, 2010

97. Indian maestro Mrinal Sen’s “Khandhar" or "Khandahar” (The Ruins) (1984): Touching sensibilities, tugging at our conscience

My friends are amazed that I should rate a Mrinal Sen film among the very best in world cinema. In fact, there are two films of Mrinal-da that I rate very high—Oka oorie katha (a film in Telugu language based on the Munshi Premchand tale Kafan) made in 1977 and Khandhar (made in Hindi language). These are two films, for me, which raise the bar of quality of Indian cinema, decades after they were made.

Mrinal Sen is an acknowledged Leftist. Yet a viewer of Khandhar will not come across Communist propaganda or even a red flag. There are no political speeches. The Mrinal-da of the overtly political Chorus-that won awards at Moscow and Berlin festivals apart from top Indian national honors--and Calcutta ’71 cannot be recognized as such in Khandhar.

Why then do I rate Khandhar so high? Is it because it won the Golden Hugo at Chicago or the Special Jury Prize at Montreal film festivals? Is it because it won the Golden Lotus the highest national award in India and the best actress award that year? Is it because it had a talented ensemble cast of Naseeruddin Shah, Shabana Azmi, Annu Kapoor, Pankaj Kapur and Mrinal Sen’s wife Gita Sen? For me, Khandhar was fascinating because it was a point of departure for Sen the director of Chorus, who had matured as a filmmaker and had come to accept that true greatness lay within the ambits of understatements rather than overt statements, political, psychological or social.

The opening credits of the film roll as a smalltime still photographer develops his prints in his developing room in Calcutta. The last picture he develops is of the well-balanced image of a Bengali lass among the ruins of an old mansion, with moss and weeds threatening to overshadow brick and mortar. But you soon realize the tale relating to that photograph (captured on still and moving film by the late cinematographer K. K. Mahajan) is yet to follow. The photographer is a middle-class young bachelor. Adorning his studio wall is the awesome still photograph of thespian Vasudeva Rao in Mrinal Sen’s earlier film Oka Oorie Katha (the other favorite of mine from the Sen-Mahajan combine!).

The tale is simple. Three young men, including the photographer Subhash, decide to go to a distant village for a short vacation. One of the young men has an ancestral house tucked away in the interiors of West Bengal. Evidently the house once provided shelter to a rather rich owner. The former symbol of pelf and power has fallen to crass neglect by its few inhabitants to the extent that neither public transport nor electricity is within easy reach. Only god seems to be in touch—as there is a temple and a priest in the environs.

The denizens of the ruins include a caretaker and his visiting daughter (Sreela Majumdar), a bedridden blind widow (Gita Sen) and her quietly demure and faithful daughter (Shabana Azmi) who has been betrothed to a young man who has never returned to claim her for a wife for several years. And there is a white goat that this darling daughter tends, not unlike actress Irene Papas' character in Michael Caccoyannis’ (Mihalis Kakogiannis’) 1956 film Zorba the Greek.

The film could easily be viewed as an unrequited love story between an urban photographer and an intelligent beautiful village woman caught in a time warp. The interaction is brief between Subhash and Jamini but indelible not unlike Alexis and the Greek village girl with a goat in Caccoyannis’ cinematic gem. The words spoken are few between the two protagonists in Sen’s film but the emotions captured are endless. Even the ruins seem to speak..

But the questions the viewers would ask are many. Will the lovers meet again and marry? Probably, not. Is that what the film is all about? The film asks the viewer several questions indirectly. How many of us act according to the dictates of our conscience and our hearts? Most of us prefer not to act, not to rock the boat, not to swim against the current. And there are the hundreds of Jaminis, less beautiful and less intelligent, caught within the chains of honor, family ties, religion, birth, and financial constraints, who cannot truly bloom and show their true capacities and capabilities to the world. One can mistake them as shadows unless they are captured on film as Subhash/Mahajan/Sen did.

The true power of the film lies in its understatements. The chemistry between the two strangers comes alive when a well meaning Subhash tries to cheer a blind widow by pretending to be her future son-in-law. It’s a white lie. When a white lie is spoken, many characters in the film indicate their discomfort, yet no one acts. This is a situation that one encounters so often in life. We tend to question the liar, as in the film, but do not act ourselves.The film is a tale of meaning well but never actually getting down to changing the social, psychological and political status quo. It is somewhat like the clever editing in the film of a man tottering off a steep staircase, which Sen crisply follows up with another scene recording the sound of a bucket falling into a well to withdraw water. No one has fallen--we, the viewers, assumed it. That’s cinema that suggests more than the reality. Khandhar is a subtle film that packs a tough punch. Many might forget to note that this is arguably and deceptively the strongest political film that Sen ever made. The open ending actually helps the film further. A viewer might be forced to accept the ligitamacy of the main protagonist uttering a white lie to comfort an old blind woman. But how many will travel the whole nine yards to rescue the Jaminis of this world?

That Ms. Azmi won a national award for this role would not surprise anyone. But then a perceptive viewer will note that most of the actors in this film were trained in acting schools and could etch out their roles with a depth rarely associated with Indian cinema. The performers were not providing eye candy for the viewers or mere theatrics. Here was an example of restrained, yet detailed evocation of inner turmoil. (The only sore thumb was when Sen used the celebrated actor Om Puri's voice for a minor character in the film.) Both Sen and Azmi were at their finest fettle in this film. It is a story co-written by Premendra Mitra whose story Kapurush was used by another giant of Indian cinema Satyajit Ray. It is important for cineastes to note that Mrinal Sen is one the only Indian filmmaker to win awards at almost all the major festivals of the world--Berlin, Cannes, Moscow, Karlovy Vary, Chicago and Montreal--and an honorable mention at Venice.


Just Another Film Buff said...

Another film I've been wanting to see. Top stuff, Jugu. Thanks for this.

Anirban said...

This is an amazing movie based on an equally amazing short story written by my favorite Bengali writer Premendra Mitra. One of these days I'm going to go ahead and translate the story. Great pick!