May 16, 2010

Mrinal Sen's Khandahar rises from the ruins at Cannes

Mrinal Sen’s Khandahar, screened last night as part of Cannes Classics in the ongoing Film Festival, appeared as fresh from the laboratory as it must have been in 1984. That was the year it was made and shown in this Festival, then as part of A Certain Regard.

Khandahar, much like its name, was in ruins, as hundreds of other Indian movies are, shockingly many of them in the National Film Archive of India at Pune. I have seen them myself there rotting away with little care or concern when I used to visit the Archive for my research into a biography of Adoor Gopalakrishnan, to be published in July by Penguin.

So, it came as a surprise to me that the Archive, meant to preserve and protect the nation’s glorious cinema heritage, was now into a programme of restoring old and priceless movies. Khandahar, is one that has risen like the Phoenix – not from the ashes, but from the ruins. It has been remastered by Reliance MediaWorks, which operates one of the world’s largest restoration facilities.

For all those film buffs and fans of Sen who had assembled at the theatre last night, Khandahar, could not have come as a better classic. When Sen himself, all of 87 years, walked somewhat unsteadily into the auditorium, a hush fell.

Yet, a strong sense of excitement was palpable even in Thierry Fremaux, the Festival’s key man, who introduced Sen to the audience. The master himself was overwhelmed by a nearly packed auditorium that gave him a long standing ovation both at the start and the end of the event, and he said he was happy there was such a large following for Indian cinema. “I had forgotten all about Khandahar till this evening”, he averred.

Khandahar is pure auteur fare that narrates the story of a city photographer (played rivetingly by Naseeruddin Shah), who goes along with two of his friends to a village in ruins. There he meets a blind, dying woman and her lovely young daughter (Shabana Azmi). The mother is waiting for a man who had promised to marry her daughter, but the younger woman, the photographer and his friends all know that it will not happen. For, the man had broken his promise and married someone else. Shah’s Subash impersonates the man, and peace descends on the mother. But playing this little game, though reluctantly, the photographer falls in love with the young girl, his camera lens playing cupid for them.

The original print of Khandahar had scratches, dirt and image warps. The audio was impaired with various anomalies following years of deterioration. The Reliance team repaired it to make it unbelievable new. The visuals are now sharper and consistent, and the audio is clear. The movie seemed perfect in every sense, except for Gita Sen’s (Mrinal’s wife, who essays the mother) awful Hindi diction. Which stands out like a sore thumb especially with an array of such brilliant performers like Shah, Azmi and Pankaj Kapur.