[Movie Review] Mrinal Sen's Khandhar (1984)


A still from Khandahar


Khandhar (The Ruins) narrates the story of an incident that many may encounter; one which triggers a flurry of thoughts for a short span of time, and is then forgotten promptly. Khandhar, on the one hand, depicts a struggle with the Self and, on the other, the intricacies of human nature. It comments on the tendency of individuals to show empathy and also their objectifying the pain that they empathise with, to showcase it through works of art.


Written by Premendra Mitra, Khandhar successfully traces the skirmish of emotions within the human mind when it is faced with a choice between the revolutionary and difficult, and the ordinary but comfortable. On-screen, we see this in the emotional turmoil in the mind of Subash (Naseeruddin Shah), an eager but not-so-well established photographer who visits a cast-off village which is in ruins along with his two friends. On the first night of his sojourn, while playing the game of 'gleam and gloom', he notices a girl. The following day, he gets to know that the girl, Jamini (Shabana Azmi), continued to live in the ruins with her dying mother after the village was abandoned by the Zamindars due to a malaria epidemic many decades ago.


Jamini fits in the frame of a conventional Indian maiden on the surface, yet wishes for her circumstances to change. She is an insecure, dutiful daughter who sometimes spits her frustration of being alone and betrayed on her mother but recognizes her ‘fault’ the very next moment and swiftly returns to the role of a caring but mournful daughter. Subash gets attracted to this sensitive and civilized girl, and the story progresses. One craves to know if history will repeat itself for Subash and Jamini: an answer that we discover only with Subash's penultimate click.


The story is presented in such a beautiful way that it would not be an understatement to say that you will feel one with every character in the film. As I watched Khandhar with all its seamlessly smooth transitions, I slipped in and out of each character's shoes. Every character in the film is cardinal to its integrity; an internal force binds each character to the want of savouring an inaccessible ecstasy for each's heart is pained. This notion helps the audience decode a disturbing fear that seeps out from the screen and into our lives: we want our circumstances to change but are scared of ourselves being the force that inhibits this process of change. That's why the sorrowful self-restraint gave me a reason to see Jamini as someone whom I pity. The 'shamshan champa' (a fragrant flower in a burial ground), as stated by Dipu, one of Subash's friends, is an open book full of mysteries that can be read by everyone but understood by none. Unmistakably, this facet of Jamini's character attracted Subash but the prodding force remains unidentified: to love her or merely capture the mysteries in her eyes for an exhibition.


Throughout the story, every time Jamini comes on the screen, the audience ardently hopes for eventualities that solve her entanglement and bring a ray of light in Jamini's dismal life. This binding force becomes stronger when her dying mother pleads to Lord Shiva, Niranjan. This one scene leaves an indelible mark on the viewers' minds as they feel unable to help the helpless Jamini. With every second, the movie instilled in me the idea that time isn't always flowing, it is awfully still sometimes. This stillness is the scariest face of Time, which possesses the cruelty to cripple a human. Yes, to me, the story very brutally demonstrated the idea that ruins can be a ‘photographer’s paradise' while being the very location that fills a person with dread.


The fabulous screenplay, embellished with the performance of a seasoned cast is complemented with excellent cinematography, that displayed the story of ruins very exceptionally and succeeded in shifting the image of time from being a healer to a destroyer. With a mere 7 characters, the story reaches a bold end while making striking comments on the city-village divide, casteism, gender inequality, and exposing the fissures in our institutions with the use of dialectical metaphors like torch & lantern, “peetal ke bartan”, “Kutumba ka ahamkara”, “lathi aur banduk” respectively.


Khandhar is a timeless piece, one among the very few movies which tell the story of transient human emotions. Even after claiming several awards, this movie remains despaired among the unknown.


This piece has been authored by Aditi Singh. She is a cinephile interested in decoding the mysteries behind the screen and investigating the hidden meanings of stories. She hunts for satire and enjoys observing theatrical and cinematic nuances. A mature commentator and an amateur critic, she loves discussions, especially those where diverse thought processes converge.

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