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Of ghosts and ruins

Khandar: Critique of society not seen in today's films

“I’m going to stop talking now,” said Mrinal Sen as he got up to introduce his film Khandar (1983) at the 10th Osian’s Cinefan Festival, where he is this year’s Lifetime Achievement Award winner. “Because if I don’t, I will contradict myself.” It is hard to believe this of a man who has been known for keeping steady on the path of radical political cinema. He created the Indian New Wave, and he still rules the roost there. No one before or after has had the courage to be the man, so many of whose films were, as he says himself, “popular failures at the box office.”

It seems that Mrinal Sen cannot possibly be content with simplistic emotions. Joy and tears are not nuanced enough to portray reality. Take Khandar for instance, there is a story, and it has five important characters. The story doesn’t take a back-seat but it lets its characters grow. It is perhaps this aspect of it that made Sen grab it. What is evident is that he directed the actors in such a way that every emotion, every glance, and gesture is loaded. Those who speak the least communicate the most. Sadness doesn’t explain what Jamini (Shabana Azmi) feels when Subhash (Naseeruddin Shah) suddenly agrees to marry her, or when he finally leaves. There is instead a build up of desire, one that engulfs the happy and the sad, hope and curiosity etc etc. And it is the contradiction between an emotion this fluid and the attempt to freeze it that is at the core of this film. Yes, Khandar is very much about ‘the ravages of time’, the ruins it leaves behind. But it is also about the attempt to preserve what is left.

Photography is therefore key to the film. It opens with freeze frames of photos, Jamini’s photos. The pictures have a story behind them but at that point we don’t know that story. The events as they unfold give more meaning to the photo, and in the end when we see him develop it, it is almost as if it is a different picture. Because this time, we know the emotions it captured and in spite of being a photo, it tells the story of the whole film—maybe not the plot, but the crux of its emotions.

This restlessness has a link with the way in which the idea of the film came about. Sen narrates the anecdote, “Every time I completed a film, I passed through a crisis about what my next subject would be. Once, I woke up in the middle of the might and for obvious reasons could not sleep. I left my bed, walked around, ideas popping into my head…I went to my study, stood before a bookshelf and just pulled out a book of short stories by Premendra Mitra. I had read the story so many times, but that fateful night, I read it again and without my knowing how and why, suddenly I could read cinema in the lines, in every line, also between the lines.”

Khandar has the dream-cast of almost any director, and they work wonderfully as an ensemble. The three stooges from The National School of Drama (Naseeruddin Shah, Pankaj Kapur and Annu Kapur) follow each other well and Shabana Azmi is like we’ve never seen her before, strong yet demure, exhausted and desirable, hopeful and yet without hope…this one can be called her best.

Though it can’t be called Sen’s best…that place was occupied soon after his film career took off, and therefore, way before Khandar came about. It is still the scathing critique of society, of bureaucracy and the state that is classic Mrinal Sen. Satire, is a lost art today in Indian cinema, especially one that is political in nature. Stark realism gets ovations wherever it goes, but today it seems, no one has the wit and understanding to create a workable satire. Sen however, remains a staunch supporter of the genre, and takes on the task of defending it, “Not many, but happily quite a few of my films have satirical kicks, because it is a tremendous force…not just in literature and drama, but indeed in cinema as well. Think of Chaplin, he’s a master.”

And he hasn’t lost the will to fight for this ‘other’ in Indian cinema. “Social agendas and aesthetics go hand in hand, gracefully and powerfully,” he insists, brushing away all attempts to gather a preference for one or the other.

And who will follow his footsteps? He is philosophical, “Did I have footsteps at all?” he asks, then answers it himself, “ghosts don’t have footsteps.”


1 Kunal Sen { 08.10.08 at 2:38 pm }

Kuhu, that’s a wonderful essay on a film that I have always loved. I also passed it on to my father, Mrinal Sen, as I’m sure he’d love to read it too. He is normally a bit dispassionate about films he made in the past, but he has a soft corner for this film.

His films never had a large audience, and now that group is shrinking further. So, it feels very good to see that this film could still provoke such emotions. It also gives us more incentive to try to save his films from physical damage. Many of his older films are lost for ever, and more recent films like Khandahar are badly damaged, and will be unrecoverable in a few years if we can’t get them digitally restored.


= Kunal

2 Kuhu Tanvir { 08.11.08 at 7:27 am }

Dear Mr. Sen, it is so nice to hear from you, and not just because this piece reached you, but also because I’ve read some of your father’s anecdotes and you’ve been mentioned in so many. Especially the one he wrote for The Little Magazine some time back.
I had the great fortune of meeting your father in Delhi. He was extremely kind and answered my questions, some that appear in this article as quotes. Thank you so much for passing it on to him, and if there is anyway you can let me know what he thought, it’ll be feedback I’ll value.

3 Kishore Budha { 08.11.08 at 10:55 pm }

Kunal’s lament throws light on a wider tendency. For example, Ritwik Ghatak’s films too suffer fate similar to that of Mrinal Sen’s! Besides Ray very few filmmakers prints are being preserved. Even Ray’s work was preserved largely due to the efforts of people outside India who managed to raise funding for its preservation. In this respect, there is the added neglect caused by lack of any interest in films that are critical of society. This is also reflected in the range of uncritical films within the ambit of the “alternative”, “offbeat”, “multiplex” films.

Kunal: Wide Screen would be glad to help in any way to preserve his films.

4 vijay padalkar { 11.05.08 at 4:55 pm }

A very beautiful essay.I am a film critic who writes in Marathi. I have written a book on Apu Trilogy,and another on Rashomon,both in Marathi.
I am planning to write a book on Bhuwan Shome,and I am collecting material on MrinalDa.I found this essay very wonderful.Sending u my comments on Bhuwan Shome…..
Author: vvpadalkar from India

Bhuvan Shome is one of the most beautiful films I have ever seen. Mrinal Sen,director of the film once said “BHUVAN sHOME IS THE STORY OF TRAGIC REALISATION’ However I do not agree with it.In my opinion:

This film is about the most beautiful experiences of man.First of all he is touched by the beauty of NATURE.The open land and wind and.sky and birds,…An altogether different life from his PRISON. Nature sooths his hard rigid persona.

Secondly it is the realization that there is a vast unknown world beyond our own.Bhuwan shome did not know the names of many birds,trees,people.He experiences the joy of knowing his own limitations.

THIRDLY he experiences the touch of “unselfish love”.The simple village girl takes pains to do many things for him.She does it because it is her nature.She did not expect anything in return.

Now there is the last touch: The touch of pity and sympathy.Bhuvan is moved because of the captivity of the bird and its desperate efforts for escape…..It is very rare for a person to experience so many touches in one day.Naturally they make deep impression on his soul.He will always remember this day,will always thank the wonderful girl for the gift she has given to him.

Hence the realization of Shome is not a tragic one.On the contrary it is a sublime realization that he can throw his burdens ,though even for one day.So he does a thing which he has not done in his life.He pardons a criminal.He discovers that feeling which a man experiences when he does something for others,unselfishly.He feels relieved.

And the viewer also finds the relief :”When the film discovers something fine ,something good something wonderful about the human animal

5 Kuhu Tanvir { 11.10.08 at 8:01 am }

Dear Mr. Padalkar

Thank you for your comment. Khandar is indeed a special film. Unfortunately, I haven’t watched Bhwan Shome, and that is mainly because in Delhi at least Mrinal Sen’s films are hard to come by. Hopefully I’ll have better luck in Kolkata.

6 Mrinal Sen’s Khandar at Cannes 2010 | Edit Room { 05.03.10 at 3:50 pm }

[…] Khandar was made in 1983 and starred Shabana Azmi, Naseeruddin Shah, Pankaj Kapur and Annu Kapur. I had written a retrospective piece on the film on the occasion of Mrinal Sen getting the Lifetime Achievement Award at the Osian’s Cinefan Film Festival in 2008 in New Delhi. Click here to access it. […]

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