Mrinal Sen weaves rich allegory in a simple tale about three friends heading out to a countryside ruin to escape the grind of the big citySet in the ruins of an erstwhile feudal estate, Khandhar (Ruins) is the account three friends who take a Christmas weekend off to escape from the frenzy of urban life to savour the silence of pastoral ruins. In the hands of Mrinal Sen, this simple premise is woven into a commentary about relationships broken much like the ruins they are set around.
Subhash (Naseeruddin Shah) and Anil (Annu Kapoor) join Dipu (Pankaj Kapur) on a trip to Dipu's family estate - in what is a crumbling citadel of a bygone aristocracy. Subhash, a photographer by trade, is piqued at the compositional possibilities of the location and Anil, as if often the case in a three man band just wants to party. The trio gets to the location well after sundown and are welcomed by the caretaker of the property (who is rather evidently dubbed over by the late Om Puri). On his first night at the property, Subhash encounters a seemingly lonely young woman, Jamini (Shabana Azmi), who lives alongside her paralysed, blind mother (Gita Sen). Jamini is Dipu's cousin and for her the arrival of the visitors revives bitter memories of being forgotten by her lover Niranjan, a friend of Dipu's who promised to wed his cousin. Jamini's mother still hangs on to the hope that Niranjan will return and marry her daughter. Jamini knows the truth of these pipedreams but keeps it to herself to spare her mother the hurt. Listening to the commotion caused by the three men, the blind mother, abed a large fourposter, assumes that Niranjan has returned with Dipu to uphold his promise of marrying Jamini. She mistakenly assumes that Subhash is Niranjan and implores him to take Jamini away. This forms the basis of the films emotional conflict. Subhash takes pity on the family and pretends to be the awaited suitor. As the charade trods on, Subhash quietly becomes attracted to the sensitive Jamini even as he understands the fate awaiting her. Hemingway once wrote that 'The dignity of movement of an ice-berg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water.' Khandhar echoes the sentiment as Mrinal Sen often leaves bits unspoken and ends sentences in cinematic ellipses. The viewer only sees these characters for two-and-a-half days but Sen's deft hands get the most from the least. By pruning language and avoid wasted emotional beats, Sen brings the audience closer to these characters in a short time much as he brings the characters nearer to each other. Time seems to have turned placid at the site. For while the story is set in the span of a couple of days it feels like weeks have passed by the end. Naseeruddin Shah says much with his eyes. His portrayal of a urbane man unsure of his role in this charade is balanced by his passion. Pankaj Kapur's performance is quite confident; someone who doesn't keep in touch with his sister but is not entirely without heart. Annu Kapoor gets the short end of the stick as the whimsical friend for whom this visit continues to remain a mere outing. Shabana Azmi is the finest here, almost becoming one with the locales. Azmi turns out one of her career best performances in the many emotional scenes she is handling with her mother (Gita Sen). Mrinal Sen allows the actors breathing room to perform and also dictates the films unhurried pace. Sen, who passed away this year, visualises the ruins slowly, at first depicted in the darkness of night and then reveals its aspects in morn's light. Khandhar is almost apolitical, a rarity in Mrinal Sen's opus. However, its symbolism runs deep. For instance, Jamini's mother is without sight. This is literal in her physical disability but is also a metaphor for her refusal to see that the world has moved on. Her refusal to see that her daughter's fiancé has abandoned her is symbolic of her sightlessness. Dipu at one point says that she still thinks the aristocratic times have not passed on; her lamentations about the same later in the film confirm this attitude. Khandhar cages the viewer much like Jamini's entrapment in the ruined mansion. In Sen's Khandhar there is no escape, not from desensitisation of a derelict urban life and not from the waiting of rustic ruins. But the messages Sen embeds in the film make it far more eloquent than words would dare. This review is part of a series titled 'Cinematheque' centered around canvassing lesser-known films. Also read: Waking Life: A review Also read: The Sacrifice review: A cinematic offering Also read: The Passion of Joan of Arc review: An impassioned film Also read: Agantuk: Strange notions! Also read: Maborosi: A cinematic phantom Also read: High Noon: Lonely are the brave Also read: Party: The discrete charm of the literati