Of ghosts and ruins
“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.”