Of Ruins and Riches

Premendra Mitra was an incisive poet and fiction writer with a phenomenal range of subjects and spheres that he traversed in rebellious fashion, often challenging conventional beliefs with his grass root realism. No wonder, the likes of Satyajit Ray and Mrinal Sen found his stories potent with filmic possibilities. Sudhir Raikar recalls Mrinal Sen's outstanding Hindi feature Khandahar (The Ruins) inspired by Mitra's vignette Telenapota Abishkar (Discovering Telenapota).

July 25, 2013 12:46 IST | Sudhir Raikar
It's interesting how Sen was drawn to the story in one faltering-turned-decisive moment of a sleepless night. Post Kharij, the beautiful film on the impotent sense of guilt typical of the civilised world, Sen was on the lookout for the next theme. His producer was as keen on the next venture and ready with money too, a rather comfortable situation for an offbeat filmmaker but this motivation didn't make the search any easier.

Mrinal Sen is among the very few filmmakers who care to share their innermost feelings concerning their film making. For me to come up with an appropriate subject at the appropriate time had always been a nerve-wracking exercise he says without reserve in his aptly-titled memoir Always being born. Coming back to his given search, he woke up with a start in the middle of one pensive night and walked towards a large wooden cabinet packed with books. As he was eyeing the treasures inside, one book seemed to be staring at him more than the others, an anthology of Premendra Mitra stories. In one particular story that he had read countless times before, he suddenly found cinema hidden in and between the lines. This story was Telenapota Abishkar

The fascinating discovery made way for a peerless screen adaptation hats off to Sen for the way in which he transformed the fantasy of the original story to conceive a modern-day tale of fascinating intrigue and poignant resignation. Accordingly, the angler in Mitra's tale of a fictional place called Telenapota became a professional photographer Subhash in Sen's film who, at the behest of his friend Deepu, sets off to the ruins, taking a chance break off the rig ours of city life.

Once a sprawling mansion of Deepu's ancestors, the royal estate is now a decrepit structure of peeling crust and crumbling walls, nevertheless home to an intriguing mother-daughter duo. The bed-ridden mother is blind and paralysed but not yet bereft of hope, that a distant nephew will come to fetch the daughter to honour a yesteryear pledge.  The daughter Jamini knows the truth that Niranjan, the man in question, has consciously reached the point of no return he's long married and settled elsewhere.

The city visitors inadvertently add depth and dialogue to the drama when the mother mistakes the photographer Subhash for Niranjan and instinctively weaves a relieving tale of fruition in her mind. Subhash wont dare to correct the old lady's illusion, trapped that he is in a delicate moment of reckoning. The abrupt chaos makes way for heated debate among the three friends on their supposedly moral and practical positions in the matter. It's only the final, fleeting encounter that subtly highlights Jamini's towering maturity, a poignant contrast to the run down environs. Even before Subhash can explain his plight in as many words, she's quick to relieve him of his awkwardness while locking horns with the reality of her life with grace and dignity. Subhash gets back to work and a photograph of Jamini, clicked against the backdrop of the ruins, consequently becomes his prized studio possession.

Shabana Azmi who played Jamini won the National Award for her portrayal. She was wonderful as ever but needlessly underlined her act in umpteen scenes like the one in which she says in her typical now muttering, now stuttering fashion "photo to li hi nahi abhi tak maa ki"(you haven't clicked my mother's snap as yet?) unlike the brilliant scene in which she shouts back at her mother "Halla gulla karke khana bana rahe hai, banane do na ma" (They are relishing their cooking extravaganza, do let them please) Ever since Satyajit Ray appreciated her superlative act in Benegal's Nishant, Azmi has consistently escaped a scrupulous critique in most of her subsequent offbeat films.

The support cast of Khandahar deserves special mention. Gita Sen was simply outstanding as the ailing mother, her heavy accent and laboured gestures beautifully conveying the psyche of the forlorn mother: anxious for her daughter's wellbeing and unknowingly a nuisance herself. Naseer was inimitably terrific as the photographer Subhash. Can we ever forget his introductory monologue right after the photographic paper reveals a young woman amidst the ruins whom we later come to know as Jamini? His baritone does full justice to Sen's astute direction and Bhaskar Chandavarkar's lingering background score. Pankaj Kapoor stood out as Deepu, despite the fact that there was little opportunity for him to demonstrate his prowess. Annu Kapoor was impressive as the third friend (zillion times preferable to the Antakshiri-inflicted caricature of current times) but lent a certain negative shade to his nonchalance which his character could have done away with. In contrast, Rajen Tarafdar was absolutely brilliant as the forsaken man Friday, his resigned mannerism perfectly rhyming with the desolate surroundings. 

We just thought the scene of Subhash mistaken for Niranjan appears a tad theatrical if not unconvincing; what with the mother repeatedly interrupting Dipu and Jamini the moment they try to unveil the truth. One also fails to understand why should the well-meaning Dipu blame Subhash for the goof up in hindsight, one that he and Jamini triggered in unison appears somewhat forced in the otherwise awesome narrative.

Almost every scene comes alive on screen most realistically a team effort under Sen's able stewardship and screenplay including K. K. Mahajan's cinematography, Nitish Roy's art direction and Bhaskar Chandavarkar's music. We moralize among ruins, said Benjamin Disraeli but Mrinal Sen's Khandahar tells us more: that we often moralize among ruins to no avail.

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