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Mrinal Sen's Khandhar and the ruins of human lives and relationships

Through Khandhar, which completed 35 years earlier this month (on 8 June), Mrinal Sen offered an insight into the fluctuating values of citybred folk against the constant values of small-town and village people.

Shoma A Chatterji

Mrinal Sen’s Khandhar (1984) was screened in the Classics section at the Cannes film festival in 2010. Cannes Classics, created in 2004, accompanies contemporary films from the Official Selection with a programme of restored films and lost films that have been rediscovered, as part of their re-release in cinemas or on DVD.

Khandhar was restored by Reliance MediaWorks with the support of the National Film Archive of India. Mrinal Sen himself attended the screening at Cannes.

Khandhar, or The Ruins, is a Hindi film directed by Sen in 1984 with Shabana Azmi, Naseeruddin Shah and Pankaj Kapur in the lead. It was screened in the Un Certain Regard section at Cannes 1984 and Azmi won the National award for Best Actress while Sen won the Best Director award and Mrinmoy Chakraborty bagged the Best Editor award. The Filmfare award for Best Screenplay went to Mrinal Sen while Khandhar also walked away with the Grand Prize for Best Film at the Chicago International Film Festival in 1985.

Many of Mrinal Sen’s films, like Punashcha (1961, Bengali), Abasheshe (1962, Bengali), Mrigaya (1976, Hindi) and Chaalchitra (1981, Bengali), and Tapan Sinha’s Ankush (1954) are among those that have been damaged. A decade ago, filmmaker Martin Scorsese gave up making films to devote himself to the restoration of such gems.

Mrinal Sen

Before flying to Cannes for the screening of the restored Khandhar, Sen said, "Martin Scorsese stopped making films altogether to concentrate on the restoration of old, damaged and lost film prints. He set up the World Cinema Foundation and different organizations across the world are contributing to this. He expressed a wish to restore my films. But this is just the beginning.”

At Cannes 2009, Scorsese had announced that the World Cinema Foundation, devoted to restoring endangered cinematic works, had partnered with B-Side Entertainment, the Criterion Collection and The Auteurs to distribute restored titles online.

"My film Ek Din Pratidin (1979) and Ritwik Ghatak’s Ajantrik (1958) are among the films that have been damaged because of poor preservation. In 2009, I had to decline an offer from the Cannes festival to hold a mini-retrospective of my films mainly because I had no good quality prints of films like Bhuvan Shome (1969) and Khandhar. So, I have every reason to be happy,” Sen said that day, smiling like a child.

Khandhar review: Mrinal Sen carves a masterpiece from the ‘ruins’

Like Sen himself, his films have journeyed thematically from contemporary social and political crises to an examination of the inner journeys of individuals. Moving from formal dramaturgy to non-narrative searing statements to some searching self-analysis, the filmmaker tried to sustain a balance among his commitment to (a) the story placed in a particular time setting, (b) his medium, cinema, to which he owes his ideological obligations and (c) his time, which “sits on my neck”. These were, in his words, the ‘three mistresses’ he had been serving. “I am like a woman of 25 who remains 25 forever and cannot count her years. I simply don't count the number of films I have made,” he once said in an interview, laughing.

Khandhar was adapted from a Bengali short story Telenapota Abishkar, by the well-known author Premendra Mitra. The form and content of the novel was not cinema-friendly, and yet Khandhar stands out as one of Mrinal-da's outstanding works.

Sen stuck to the original so far as the mother-daughter story went but wrote his own closure by changing the character and content of one of the three friends. “I was fascinated by the dilapidated mansion with the plaster, whatever remained of it, peeling away, trees and plants growing out of the brickwork, and some parts of the antique house threatening to fall off," he said. "I was scouting for the right house to shoot my film in. It seemed that the dilapidated mansion stood there waiting for my film to be shot. Or, maybe, it was the other way round. I found the house and then decided to make this film,” he said. Either his memory was playing tricks on him, or, as was his wont, he was playing tricks on me.

As a short fiction writer, Premendra Mitra turned literary styles on their heads in stories like Telenapota Abishkar (The Discovery of Telenapota) and produced dozens of dazzling little diamonds of social and psychological analysis like Sansar Simantey (On the Border of Life) and Ekti Kapurusher Kahini (A Coward's Tale), filmed as Kapurush (1965) by Satyajit Ray (Outlook magazine, 19 August 2002).

In Khandhar, three citybred friends take a couple of days off and run away from the mad rush of city life to enjoy themselves in the silence of the ruins at a place called Telenapota, around 30 miles from Calcutta, where the elements of modernity, such as electricity, have not yet arrived. There is an old mansion in ruins standing at one end of the village, a place that appears deserted.

One of the friends, Subhash (Naseeruddin Shah), is a professional photographer interested in ruins. In one section of the dilapidated mansion, which appears bereft of humanity, live an old woman (Geeta Sen) and her young daughter Jamini (Azmi), pushed to the edges of poverty.

The mother is sick, paralysed and blind, surviving on the hope that a distant nephew will come one day and, as promised, marry her daughter. The old lady’s life hangs by this slender thread of hope that her daughter will finally find her own home.

Shabana Azmi as Jamini

Jamini knows this man she was once betrothed to will never come. He is already married and lives in the city with his family. But she lives with this secret because she knows the truth will kill her mother.

She persuades Subhash, whom she has been acquainted with slightly within their brief stay, to pretend to be her missing fiancé to appease her mother. He is hesitant, but agrees. The blind old lady is happy.

Before the three friends go back to the city, Jamini and Subhash meet, raising silent, unspoken feelings that, perhaps, fill Jamini with a faint ray of hope. Back in the city, the photographer goes back to his work. The walls of his studio now sport mind-blowing photographs of Jamini shot against the ‘picturesque’ backdrop of the ruins alongside images of sophisticated, street-smart, fashionably costumed city models.

The khandhar, the mansion in ruins the film is named after, is a major character. It is both a reality and a metaphor for the situation that exists, the situation that evolves with the entry of the three men with their light-hearted, almost frothy approach to life, and the situation they leave behind when they go away.

The mansion exists in the dilapidated state KK Mahajan captured it in, the plaster on its walls peeling to reveal cracked bricks, weeds growing all around and from within them, the arched entries to wide corridors and passageways dwarfing the few individuals who live in it.

The caretaker is also like a relic with the lines on his rough face and its hopeless expression telling their own story. It also represents the decadence of the family that owned it, now reduced to the blind and invalid old mother and her sad, lonely daughter imprisoned in a life bound by love and duty.

At the same time, the ruins of the mansion symbolize a world of humane values, in ruins but alive, because, like electricity and means of transport, the changing values of a materialistic city have not crossed its walls – yet.

Shabana Azmi gave one of her best performances as Jamini. Her sole point of relief in a life of isolation and loneliness is in the little white goat she picks up and caresses from time to time. When the three young men step into her domain, she peeps from behind the walls because she is not familiar with human contact beyond her small world. She slowly opens up when she finds hope in creating a lie with Subhash's help to make her mother happy.

Naseeruddin Shah, Pankaj Kapur and Annu Kapoor as the three young men from the city complement her and contradict her effortlessly with their camaraderie and their discomfort. Rajen Tarafdar is very good too. Geeta Sen is supine all the time but emotes in her paralytic blind state extremely well. Mrinal-da made the film in Hindi probably because he wanted it to have an all-India audience.

Click here to watch Khandhar (1984) online

From one point of view, the film offers a reading by showing the voyeuristic eye of the still camera that Subhash handles and uses. Sen uses the camera’s gaze twice over, once through the cinematic lens of the movie camera and then again through the lens of Subhash's still camera.

KK Mahajan’s camera approaches Jamini as the subject of the cinematographic space. Subhash’s camera treats her as the object of his visual gaze. Subhash does not feel he is exploiting the young woman's vulnerability. He photographs her less because she is who she is and more because of where she is and in what state. Jamini means nothing to him without the ruins in the backdrop and the sad expression in her eyes.

Subhash’s still camera represents the capitalist’s greed for fame, glory and material gain, untainted by sensual motives. But this does not undercut his exploitative and voyeuristic intentions. The film opens and closes within the suffocating confines of his dark room and small studio. It is his flashback and his story, not Jamini’s.

Thus, the point of view is also his. His studio, used like a framing device, posits a completely different question about the film: was the story of Jamini and her mother a figment of Subhash’s photographic imagination he created to justify his new ‘model’?

“The original story was published in 1946 and I was making the film in 1984," Mrinal-da said. "So I had to place it comparatively in the present to make it both topical and relevant. So, the character of the author in the story [who is also the narrator] becomes a fashion photographer forever scouting for the right subject. The original is humane and beautiful, but my film’s ending I leave my audience to draw its own conclusions from.”

Jamini’s mother’s blind state has metaphorical suggestions too. She is physically blind because she cannot see. She is metaphorically blind because she refuses to see — that the young man who had promised to marry her daughter will never come back.

The film offers an insight into the fluctuating values of citybred folk against the constant values of small-town and village people. Sen’s treatment of Khandhar is gentle, soft, subtle and low-key. But the messages he leaves us to read into are powerful, teetering between the polarities of hope and hopelessness, between lies and half-truths, between ambition and emotion. That is what makes the film so eloquent, timeless and universal.