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

Release Date: 08 Jun 1984 / Rated: A / 01hr 46min

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Mayur Lookhar

A gripping story, taut screenplay and virtuoso performance by Shabana Azmi will make you visit this Khandhar time and again.

As someone who grew up in the 1980s and 1990s with hardly any exposure to cinema, save for the odd masala entertainer on national broadcaster Doordarshan and, later, cable television, I remained oblivious of the world of parallel cinema. Except for hearing that Mrinal Sen is an 'iconic' filmmaker, I must confess I had not watched a single film of his until I had the privilege of catching Khandhar (1984), which was screened as a restored classic at the 48th International Film Festival of India (IFFI) in Goa.

The film earned Sen the National award for Best Direction and the Filmfare award for Best Screenplay. Shabana Azmi picked up the National award for Best Actress and Mrinmoy Chakraborty bagged the National award for Best Editing. The film was also screened in the Un Certain Regard section at Cannes in 1984.

Khandhar was critically acclaimed worldwide. Thirty-three years later, I stepped into Sen’s Khandhar (The Ruins) and was blown away by its beauty. The film is based on a Bengali short story, Telenapota Abishkar (Discovering Telenapota) by Premendra Mitra.

The film begins with still photographer Subhash (Naseeruddin Shah) developing a breathtaking picture of a rural woman gazing from an open corner of a dilapidated structure. The story then moves back in time to the moment when Dipu (Pankaj Kapur) convinces Subhash to take a short vacation at his ancestral property in a remote village. Reluctantly, Subhash gives in. They are accompanied by Anil (Annu Kapoor).

A few yards away from Dipu’s ancestral home is the khandhar, or ruin, of a residence of his cousin Jamini (Azmi) who stays with her old, bedridden mother (Mrinal Sen’s wife Geeta). Years ago, the mother had agreed, in principle, to get Jamini married to one Niranjan. We never see Niranjan, who lies about going abroad and marries another. Jamini’s mother, however, lives in the hope that Niranjan will come back and fulfil his promise.

Dipu takes Subhash along to meet his aunt and Jamini. The nearly blind old woman mistakes Subhash for Niranjan. Out of pity Subhash does not reveal his identity and merely says ‘yes’ to her wish that he fulfil his promise. Dipu and Jamini fear that telling the ailing woman the truth could be fatal for her.

On the face of it, this comes across as a heartrending tale. Khandhar, however, is anything but an emotional drama. I have not read Mitra’s short story, but Sen has carved an arthouse masterpiece with the gripping story, taut screenplay and superlative performances by the cast.

Jamini leads a difficult life, but she is not complaining. As a viewer, you are empathetic towards her plight, but Jamini does not seek your empathy. She is an intelligent woman who has no qualms giving up her dream to look after her ailing mother.

Azmi revels in the apathy of Jamini, chipping in with a virtuoso performance. Though practical, Jamini has frail hopes that perhaps Subhash might help the family. She never conveys that hope in words. It’s her eyes that speak a thousand tales. Jamini is a model of beauty, elegance and pride. Azmi does not play Jamini. She becomes her. She is so good that she dwarfs her co-stars, great artistes themselves.

Not for a moment are we suggesting that Shah, Kapur or Kapoor lack intensity, but the magnitude of Azmi’s performance simply outweighs the fine efforts of the rest. Her sweet-n-sour conversations with her mother leave you with a heavy heart. You almost wish you could pierce into the screen and be a saviour for mother and daughter.

Jamini has little conversation with Subhash. The uneasiness is reflective of two young hearts struggling to converse with each other. Perhaps the urban-rural class divide is also making it difficult for them to converse.

Subhash is soft-spoken, but he unflinchingly captures the beauty of Jamini and the ruins to a nicety. Kapoor provides for the humour quotient, and you can’t help but praise and shed a tear for Geeta Sen’s performance as the bedridden mother. Sadly, we don’t get to see the Geeta Sens and Nirupa Roys much today. Also praiseworthy is the performance of Rajen Tarafder with, perhaps, Om Puri providing the voiceover for his character Harihar, caretaker of Dipu’s ancestral home. The film’s opening credits acknowledge Puri's contribution.

Great performances apart, you have to marvel at the spirit of the actors for shooting in a dirty, mossy, dark, ruined home. Sen pushed his film's cast to the hilt, and they overcame the physical challenges. It is difficult to recall another film in which top-flight artistes like Pankaj Kapur and Annu Kapoor chop vegetables and cull chicken. How many mainstream actors in the 1980s would have done that? That also breaks the stereotype that cooking is only for women.

Mrinmoy Chakraborty’s crisp editing underlines why he bagged the National award. There are some scenes, especially the few conversations between Jamini and Subhash, that make you believe there is unfinished dialogue, that something more could follow, but it never does. Similarly, Jamini’s mother goes motionless after hearing ‘yes’ from Subhash. You think she is dead, only to be proved wrong in the next scene. Not one scene feels stretched or unwanted. Also the film uses a minimal background score, relying more on sounds from nature.

Finally, one must doff one's hat to cinematographer Subhash Nandy, who served as a still photographer. It is Nandy who captures the breathtaking pictures that come from Shah's character's camera.

Khandhar begins with a glimpse of Jamini’s radiant picture. The final developed photograph turns out to be a masterpiece, just like Mrinal Sen’s Khandhar.


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