Never a “narrativewalla” or “entertainer” , film director Mrinal Sen has spent more than 60 years on the road less travelled. A courageous nonconformist, his films have steadily whittled away at the bulwark of political conceits and social pretensions, debunking all camouflage. There are no clear beginnings or endings in Sen’s films – no lessons to be learned, just lives to be lived.

The opening shots of the 1979 National Film Award winning Bengali film Ek Din Pratidin (One Day, Everyday) trap us in a narrow alley. Soon enough, we cross the threshold of a narrow doorway to be subsumed in the narrow lives of middle class families who have fallen on hard times and cannot afford privacy of either home or person.

Based on a story by Amalendu Chakravarty titled Abirata Chenamukh, the harrowing honesty of Ek Din Pratidin pulls no punches about the double standards, patriarchy and hypocrisy that a middle class working woman has to straddle. What is astonishing is that director allows the film to remain completely non-judgemental even as these truths are depicted.

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‘Ek Din Pratidin’.

The sole wage earner of a seven member family is a young woman, Chinmayi (Mamata Shankar), who does not return home one night. Her family, tenants like several other families in a decaying mansion, suffer grinding hours of anxiety which spirals into recriminations and guilt.

The obnoxious landlord who considers himself a “bhadralok” (gentleman) adds his own unhelpful brand of toxin to the tension as residents conjecture the fate of the absent Chinmayi. A clock runs slow and the night crawls on. Chinese whispers hiss through the ramshackle rooms. Has she been in an accident, has she eloped, or…?

Sen keeps the suspense mounting. Telephone calls are not answered, policemen come to make inquiries and inferences and the neighbour who helps only when appealed to accompanies Chinmayi’s father to the morgue. This is one of the most distressing and yet insightful moments in the film. We suddenly feel the pulse of others whose young womenfolk, for reasons unexplained, have not returned that night. Back home, watchful exhaustion gives way to distinct inertia in Chinmayi’s father (Satya Banerji) and an edgy Bergmanesque face off between Chinmayi’s mother and sister (Gita Sen and Sreela Majumdar)).

We never learn where Chimayi was that night, but she returns home in the early hours of the morning, not much worse for wear.

As Shoma A Chatterjee sums it up, no one asks questions “because (a) they were relieved that she had finally come home; (b) they did not have the guts to antagonise the main bread earner of the family; (c) they were afraid to hear what she might have had to say and did not wish to hear it; (d) they did not wish to embarrass themselves in the presence of the neighbours not knowing what explanation she would give; and (e) they were trying to escape the reality of the situation by pretending that nothing was wrong and things were as ‘normal’ as “a day like any other” which is the right translation of the film’s title.”

The last scene of the film shows the swirling fumes of a charcoal fire and the bars of a kitchen window. Traps are systemic.

Shabana Azmi in ‘Khandhar’.
Shabana Azmi in ‘Khandhar’.

Three years after Ek Din Pratidin, and with three-path breaking films in between (Aakaler Sandhaney, Chaalchitra and Kharij), Mrinal Sen filmed Premendra Mitra’s story of Telenepota Abishkar, which metamorphosed through light (Tapas Sen) camera (KK Mahajan) and music (Bhasker Chandavarkar) into the almost ethereal Hindi film, Khandhar (The Ruins).

Festooned in India with National Awards for acting (Shabana Azmi) editing (Mrinmoy Chakraborty) and direction, as well as the Filmfare Award for Best Screenplay (Mrinal Sen) Khandhar was also awarded in the Chicago and Montreal Film Festivals and received a standing ovation at Cannes.

Subhash (Naseeruddin Shah), Anil (Annu Kapoor) and Dipu (Pankaj Kapur) decide on a trip out of the noisy city to Dipu’s family estate – an old bastion of aristocracy now crumbling, but still a photographer’s paradise. Time stands still here – a calendar shows only numbers, no days, months or years. Subhash and his friends, spend only two and a half days in the lantern lit, mosquito ridden shell of grandeur.

But somewhere in the sprawling ruins, time trundles on for Dipu’s cousin, the lonely young Jamini (Shabana Azmi) and her paralysed, blind mother (Gita Sen). For them, the arrival of the metropolitan visitors is an angst-ridden déjà vu. Jamini has silently resigned herself to the bitter truth of being forgotten by a certain Niranjan, a friend of Dipu’s who had come here and promised to take her hand some years ago. Jamini’s mother clings to the hope that Niranjan will return, marry Jamini and liberate them from their festering isolation.

Sen’s camera gives his talented actors scope to excel. The music is unforgettable, but there are also exquisitely nuanced moments between Jamini and Subhash where no sound or dialogue intrudes. Perhaps Jamini finds hope in Subhash. Perhaps not, or perhaps not entirely. But after Subhash is inadvertently drawn into a charade, playing Niranjan for the blind old woman, Jamini’s life is blighted for a second time.

“Why the fuss?” says Anil, off-handedly as the friends prepare to return home. “What has happened has happened…four years hence, there will be some other Niranjan.”

But surely, guilt gnaws at Subhash as he develops the picture of Jamini in his water tray.

Khandhar traps us in ruined places, ruined hopes and ruined lives. It is a superb film, possibly Sen’s visual masterpiece, and Shabana Azmi’s stricken face before the final fade-out is testament to one of the paramount performances in Indian cinema.

Mrinal Sen. Courtesy Kunal Sen.
Mrinal Sen. Courtesy Kunal Sen.