KHANDHAR (1984) Bengali Movie Review-Mrinal Sen Classic

Khandhar is a 1984 Bengali Movie directed by Mrinal Sen starring Shabana Azmi, Naseeruddin Shah, Pankaj Kapoor, Annu Kapoor, Gita Sen, Rajen Tarafdar, Sreela Majumdar and others. Read the Classic Bengali Film review at Calcutta Tube.

Classic Review: KHANDHAR – THE RUINS

  • Director: Mrinal Sen
  • Story: Premendra Mitra and Mrinal Sen
  • Screenplay: Mrinal Sen
  • Cinematography: K.K. Mahajan
  • Music: Bhaskar Chandavarkar
  • Cast: Shabana Azmi, Naseeruddin Shah, Pankaj Kapoor, Annu Kapoor, Gita Sen, Rajen Tarafdar, Sreela Majumdar
  • Release date: June 8, 1984


Mrinal Sen-Bengali Filmmaker

Three city-bred 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 in a place called Telenapota, which once was a huge mansion of a feudal estate. One of them, Subhash (Naseeruddin Shah) is a professional photographer interested in ruins. In one section of the dilapidated mansion, that appears to be bereft of humanity, live an old woman (Geeta Sen) with her young daughter, Jamini (Shabana Azmi), heirs to the estate in decay and pushed to the edges of poverty. The mother is sick, paralysed, and blind, surviving on the hope that a distant nephew of hers 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. Jamini knows that 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 that the truth will surely kill her mother. She persuades Subhash, 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 mother is happy.

Before the three friends go back, Jamini and Subhash meet, raising silent, unspoken feelings that perhaps fill Jamini with a faint ray of hope. Back in the city, the professional 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 city models.


Khandhar (The Ruins) is one of the most poignant films directed by Mrinal Sen. Despite its limited time-setting condensed within two-and-a-half days, it moves at  an unhurried pace that unfolds, layer by slow and detailed layer, the position of women in Indian society in general and of a near-destitute, poor and marginalised women in particular.. The entire unfolding of the story takes place in Telenapota within the dilapidated mansion where Jamini lives with her invalid mother, occupying central space in the narrative and the frame.  The events begin and end within the span of two-and-a-half days. It follows a flashback structure, opening in Subhash’s dark room as he is developing prints of photographs he has taken. The credits begin to roll against this backdrop. The last print shows the visual of a young woman shot against the backdrop of the ruins of an old mansion, moss and weeds growing out of its cracked walls. Among the photographs adorning the walls of his small studio is one striking still from Mrinal Sen’s Oka Oorie Katha.

The camera shifts to a night scene in Telenapota where the old caretaker pushes his bullock cart, to zero in on the lantern under the cart shaking this way and that, the rhythmic sound of cowbells puncturing the silence of the night. The mansion does not have electricity and is not accessible by means of public transport. A temple and its priest however, are within reach. Sen places his characters within a definite architectural and situational setting that establishes their socio-economic status. Subhash and his two friends are taken by surprise when they meet Jamini, a beautiful young woman. Her entire focus is concentrated on taking care of her mother. She talks little leaving her large, sad eyes to say it all.

She knows that her mother’s sole source of hope is being lived out in a lie. Does she feel guilty about hiding this reality from her dying mother? Does her guilt double when to hide this lie she takes recourse to one more lie? Not really. Because her sole aim is to keep her mother happy in her dying days. Does the guilt of tricking her mother, who, now blind, will not be able to detect the impersonation, overshadow her loyalty?  Jamini is trapped between her loyalty to a dying mother and the guilt of having to lie to her again and again. But for her, there is no escape. When she meets Subhash before he leaves for the city, the brief rendezvous raises hopes of some kind of relationship that might evolve in the future. But Subhash goes back to his city-bred materialistic values and ambition. He bears no guilt for pretending to be someone else to a dying woman. He thinks he is sympathetic to the young girl. When he goes back, the only resonances of his brief friendship with Jamini are in the portraits he has clicked of her, reducing her to one more model in his large repertoire. She is summarily reduced to an ‘object’ of his camera’s gaze, stripping her of her subjective identity as a fellow human being, much less as a woman.

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 of decay K.K.Mahajan captures it in, the plaster on its walls peeling off to reveal the cracked bricks, the weeds growing around and from within them, the arched entries to wide corridors and passageways, dwarfing the few individuals who live in it. The caretaker is like an old relic, the lines on his rough face, 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 symbolise 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 gives one of her most outstanding 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 interaction beyond her small world. She slowly opens out when she finds hope in creating a lie with the help of Subhash to make her mother happy. Naseeruddin Shah, Pankaj Kapoor and Annu Kapoor as the three young men from the city compliment her and contradict her effortlessly with their camaraderie and their discomfort. Rajen Tarafdar is very good too. Gita Sen is supine all the time but she emotes in her paralytic blind state extremely well.

Khandhar offers several readings of the film text. One throws up the possibility of a patriarchal reading where marriage is the only point of exit for a young woman like Jamini who, given her situation, is doomed to a life of singular celibacy. Another reading shows the voyeuristic eye of the still camera within the film’s moving camera. Mrinal 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.  K.K. Mahajan’s camera approaches Jamini as the subject of the cinematographic space. Subhash’s camera treats Jamini as the object of his visual gaze.  Subhash does not feel that he is exploiting the girl’s vulnerability. He photographs her less because she is who she is, and more because where she is and in what state she is. Jamini means nothing to him without the ruins in the backdrop and sans 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 Subhash’s 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’?

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 promised to marry her daughter will never come back. The third offers an insight into the fluctuating values of city bred men against the constant values of small town and village people. Sen’s treatment of Khandhar is gentle, soft, subtle and low-key. The messages that he leaves us to read into are powerful and strong, 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.

by Shoma A. Chatterji

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