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.

Monday, February 08, 2010

96. Japanese maestro Mikio Naruse’s "Yama na Oto" (Sound of the Mountain/The Echo) (1954): Underlining profound Asian sensibilities

Mikio Naruse’s cinema will appeal to many as it hits sensitive spots in the hearts and the minds of the viewer without resorting to the impressive tools of modern cinema, specifically special effects, stylized camerawork and use of sound and music, which contemporary film directors fall back on to mesmerize audiences. Naruse’s cinema is unpretentious, recalling the works of Satyajit Ray. Most cinema lovers forget the trio of Japanese masters who contributed a great deal to world cinema--Kurosawa, Ozu and Naruse. Unfortunately, Naruse was the least exposed of the trio to Indian and western audiences but he enjoyed domestic recognition. Decades later, critics are rediscovering Naruse.

The story line of Yama na Oto might not make audiences of the Western world sit up. That is because the concept of strong women characters holding families together is never a selling theme in the Americas and Europe.

This Naruse film is all about family values. The male head of the father is concerned about his son who is leading a wayward life after marriage. He is equally concerned about his daughter with two children of her own who is struggling to keep her marriage from falling apart. While most western audiences and audiences in Westernized Japan might accept this changing male attitude, tradition and values are important for the old man and a considerable cross section of Japanese society even today. The relationship of a woman towards her parents-in-law is another aspect etched out with care in this film. Here, the daughter-in-law is devoted to her parents to a fault and the parents-in-law reciprocate that by showering love and respect for her. However, the underlying tension that Naruse builds up is between a wayward husband and a dutiful, smiling wife, efficient and gracious to all who encounter her.

This Naruse film is also paean to the virtues of being an intelligent woman, sensitive to all family members who depend on her. At the same time, this is not a doll toiling away in the kitchen but a person who can take incredible mature decisions by herself without consulting others of whether she should procreate within a bad marriage or continue to hold the marriage and defy the wishes of her doting parents-in-law.

For cineastes who loved Kurosawa’s Ikuru, the final shot of Naruse’s Yama na Oto would strike a chord as father and daughter-in-law walk away, almost hand in hand from the camera. The camera makes you realize ironically that they are two remrakable individuals who in another life would have made a great couple, if they were not separated by age. (In Ikuru, it was the tragedy of a single, lonely individual captured in a bleak winter. Both images invite comparison and contrast.) Human relationships can be truly wonderful when one gets to appreciate the moral strengths of individuals that often lie hidden as though their real faces were behind a Noh (Japanese theater form) mask. This, incidentally, is a subject of conversation in the film Yama na Oto. A mature worldly face can change into an angelic childish face with the aid of a mask. Somehow the final shot of Yama na Oto made me recall the the end of the somewhat contemporary 1997 French film Nettoyage à sec (Dry cleaning) where the relationship of a married couple is examined through a cathartic finale, using Occidental values of cinema. Even Lars von Trier's The Anti-Christ does the same. But these examples of Occidental cinema rely on sex and violence to communicate with the viewer--a necessity which Naruse consciously rejects.

It is this aspect that the erudite American film critic Susan Sontag found most interesting in this film. Not the Noh mask but the performance of the lead actress is what she found amazing. Sontag found the performance of the Setsuko Hara in this film one of the finest performances ever on screen. If you see this film, you will concur with Sontag, as the lady is able to transform from a childlike angelic personality into a strong-willed modern woman. She not only surprises her on-screen father-in-law but the audience who never expect the events that follow. Naruse and Hara are truly amazing as they weave magic.

Naguse’s peer Akira Kurosawa once stated “(In the films of Naruse,) a flow of shots that looks calm and ordinary at first glance reveals itself to be like a deep river with a quiet surface disguising a fast-raging current.” To some the film might remain as a great adaptation of a popular Nobel Prize winning Yasunari Kawabata's novel, which I have not read. But to others like me it is true cinema, the images, the acting and direction, which in combination makes the film a treat to watch.

I do wish that TV channels and DVD stores make films of Naruse, Ozu, Mizoguchi, and Kurosawa more accessible to viewers worldwide. Here’s a film on sex and marriage without any sex on screen. Here’s a film on character and morals. Here’s a film on true heroism—the story of an ordinary housewife, not a swashbuckling hero on horseback! Even in black and white, this 1954 film for me will remain a major work of cinema.