NO ONE KILLED PALANby Shantanu Ray Chaudhuri May 14 2022, 12:00 am Estimated Reading Time: 10 mins, 48 secs
On the birth anniversary of legendary director Mrinal Sen, Shantanu Ray Chaudhuri looks at his masterpiece Kharij and Mrinal Sen’s Unflinching Exposé of Middle-Class Hypocrisy.
The ‘accused’ approach a legal luminary for a way out of the potentially explosive situation they find themselves in. However, the ‘case’ is not so much about legal issues as it is about moral culpability, as the counsel says. In a monologue that provides a succinct summary of the film’s message, the celebrated lawyer ends by saying, ‘The legal lie must prevail over the moral truth.’
In a film that is unrelenting in its critique of middle-class morality, this is probably ‘the most unkindest cut of all’. What makes it that much more potent is that it offers the accused a pyrrhic deliverance while passing the unpalatable verdict on their guilt. It’s also worth a thought that the lawyer is probably the only character in the narrative that can lay claim to being conscientious. Or can he? - The director’s takedown of Bengali petit bourgeoisie, with its hypocrisies and convenient rationalizations when morally culpable, is so inexorable that he does not spare even himself: the surname of the accused is ‘Sen’, a masterstroke through which the director makes himself a part of the society he takes apart in the film.
Between the years 1979 and 1983, Mrinal Sen made four films, Ek Din Pratidin (1979), Akaler Sandhane (1980), Kharij (1982) and Khandhar (1983), which marked a paradigm shift in his approach to filmmaking. Gone is the flashy technique of freezes and sharp cuts that informed his ‘political’ cinema of the late 1960s and early ’70s with their montages of graffiti heralding the ‘revolution’. In contrast these films are more introspective, intimate, with the filmmaker turning the gaze inwards, evaluating and commenting, not with the exuberance of his agitprop ventures but with equally telling restraint that singes you, on the pretenses around him and the role and responsibility of a filmmaker (he set Akaler Sandhane in the backdrop of a film unit). Of these, Kharij, based on a novel by Ramapada Choudhury, is probably the most unsparing critique of the middle class.
Kharij plays out almost like a mystery, in fact, it has been described as a classic locked-room mystery. There’s a dead body, Palan, a minor servant boy, in a kitchen, which is shut from the inside. How did the boy die? And more importantly why did the boy die? There are the suspects. His employers, Anjan and Mamata Sen - played by Anjan Dutt and Mamata Shankar - who are at the very least guilty of apathy and negligence. There’s the landlord who has not sought it fit to have a ventilator in the kitchen. And since it is Mrinal Sen investigating the mystery, the whole neighborhood, and by implication the entire Bengali middle-class society, is under a cloud. Each suspect protests his/her innocence; each one has a version of ‘I am not responsible’. And since Mrinal Sen is the director, there are no easy answers, no facile salvation for those involved. No one killed Palan, it seems. Yet, everyone is culpable. So, everyone is free to absolve themselves of their responsibility.
The film is a master class in economy, a narrative skinned to its barebones that reels you in and never lets go. It begins with a young couple, we don’t see their faces yet, engaged in the kind of romantic banter young couples engage in before marriage. ‘Would you like a fridge, a car, a flat, a radio’, he asks. No, she insists, she wants only him. Cut to a few years later. They now have a young son. He again asks the same question. Her response this time is more pragmatic: she wants a ‘boy’ (in Bengali, chhele in the context is a euphemism for a servant) to take care of the daily chores, she says, listing the same: the cooking, cleaning, fetching ration, escorting their son to school and back, etc. etc. They want a boy not more than twelve or thirteen because, for Anjan reasons, one, that way they can get him cheap (unlike for a full-bodied adult) and, two, a boy that age will not ask for too much to eat.
The boy arrives – his father, Haran, has heard from a neighborhood dogsbody that the Sens need a servant boy. The rates are negotiated. Mamata adds that there will of course be a set of new clothes during the pujas. There is nothing out of the ordinary about the exchange. It is a way of life for both the classes - the father and the potential employers. It’s almost like a customer haggling for a gadget. Palan is silent all through. In fact, Palan does not speak in the entire movie.
Then comes the fatal day. The papers are calling it the coldest day in Kolkata in recent memory. Sometime during the night, Palan must have found the little space under the staircase where he sleeps, without a mattress or a blanket, too cold, made his way to the kitchen and bolted it from inside. In the morning, the Sens, cosseted under layers of quilts, wake up and call out to Palan to get the day’s chores going. There is no response.
When Palan does not respond after repeated calls, the Sens force open the kitchen door with the help of the landlord’s son to find Palan’s body. The doctor is called, the police arrive in due course, the neighbors begin to congregate and speculate in hushed whispers. This first quarter of an hour literally has you holding your breath. K.K. Mahajan’s camera sets the spaces, B.V. Karanth’s ominous music, the tone, and Sen’s narrative the dramatic impact of something gone horribly wrong.
Once the body is discovered begins the post-mortem – not only the police of the dead body, which reveals death due to carbon monoxide poisoning, but also of the callous system that facilitated this. In contrast to the first fifteen minutes, the rest of the film plays out leisurely as Sen sets about turning his gaze at all those he deems to be to blame. Of course, Mamata and Anjan are decent folks. They never mistreated their servants. All the neighborhood houses have employed a minor like Palan and none of them can be held guilty of beating up or ill-treating their servants. Why, the landlord’s minor servant boy hovers around the frame all through the narrative, silently going about the day’s tasks. It’s another matter that in his silent gaze there is a world of recrimination.
The Sens insist that Palan was one ‘like’ family. But as they bicker in the aftermath of the death, it transpires that they did not even know the name of the village Palan hailed from or for that matter his full name. When the father arrives to collect the month’s wages and learns of Palan’s death, the couple go into overdrive to prepare a bed for him in the living room, complete with a mattress and a quilt, leading to a remarkable sequence when Mamata breaks down trying to extract a mattress from their own bed. But the gesture is as hollow as it was negligent of them to not provide these amenities to the boy in the first place.
Their apathy comes across in several offhand instances. Mamata, it appears, is more concerned about how she can face Palan’s father and break the news to him, than about the fact that a boy has died. They are more worried about how the neighbors will react, the possible judicial implications, the reactions from Palan’s family. When Anjan is asked if the boy had ever been ill, which could provide them with some excuse for the mysterious death, he responds, ‘Ek baar khoob bhugiyechhilo’ (He made us suffer a lot once). Before correcting immediately, ‘Bhugechhilo’ (He suffered). It’s just the kind of thoughtless statement we make when we are not really sympathetic to someone’s cause.
In an endeavor to forestall any legal complications, Anjan is taken to a celebrated lawyer (played by Charuprakash Ghosh, the actor we recognize in three Satyajit Ray films, as the landlord in Aparajito, the seth in Abhijan and the charlatan in Mahapurush. It is here that the film’s message comes through in what the lawyer tells them: no, Palan was not part of the family. It is simply not possible. Did he have any of the facilities their son, Pupai, enjoys? Did he have a proper place to sleep? They did not even think of providing him with a blanket. So, it is hollow to say that Palan was ‘part of the family’. It’s only an after-the-fact balm for the conscience. ‘We cannot and do not give them their legal rights and moral claims.’
The breathless tension of the opening sequences come back to haunt us as the film climaxes with Palan’s funeral. Gathered around the fire are Haran, Ganesh (once employed like Palan, he has moved up in life and is now a peon in an office), and other servant boys from Palan’s village and the neighborhood. At a safe distance stand Samir, the landlord’s son, Anjan and the patriarchal neighbor (Bimal Chakraborty), their primary concern being the mourning group’s potential for trouble (Jhamela thamela hoini toh, Samir asks). As the flames flare, Haran says that Palan will never feel cold again and we see a montage of walls with graffiti from the Naxal era: Badla nebo. Tor hatyar badal nebo (We will take revenge. We will avenge your murder).
One is primed for the trademark Mrinal Sen bludgeoning of our apathy. The suspense reaches fever pitch as Haran, Ganesh and the other mourners arrive at the couple’s house after the cremation. In a masterly silent sequence spanning twelve shots, Sen creates almost unbearable tension as Haran walks up the stairs to where Anjan is standing - Samir looks up, Ganesh looks at Haran and moves forward, Mamata’s close-up, Haran seen from Anjan’s POV, Pupai moving to the door of the house holding the curtains, the landlord walking down the stairs, the faces of the band of mourners – you can cut the tension with a knife, waiting for it to explode. Will the middle-class have its comeuppance? Will Haran demand justice? Will the mourners, standing in for the proletariat, go up in revolt?
But Sen is too adroit a filmmaker to let you off the hook and go home with your conscience satiated. Haran simply addresses Anjan, ‘Babu’, bows his head, then looks at Mamata and says, ‘Maa’, then at Pupai, ‘Khoka babu’, which is when the silence breaks with Karanth’s discordant background score jolting you. It is anticlimactic but this silent departure and the lack of protest is also the most eloquent denouncement of the middle class. Sen is loath to allow the viewer the pleasure of ‘enjoying a revolution vicariously’. One of the director’s radical friends asked him why Haran does not slap Anjan in the climactic sequence. Sen’s reply: ‘Well, he has slapped you, me and everyone, didn’t you feel it?’
This is not a film on child labor. It is instead a takedown of the appalling and callous indifference we are capable of. Samik Bandopadhyay has observed, ‘Once the Palans become part of the household, they do not require to be observed; they become invisible. Only through some major act of disobedience, theft or death, can they draw the attention of their masters. Only then we realize how insignificant they are to their masters.’ That is the essence of the film - as I mentioned earlier, we seldom see Palan in the film. The boy is not germane to what the director has to say. He is the tool that the filmmaker uses to hold up a mirror to us.
It is testimony to the film’s greatness that forty years after it was made, Kaushik Ganguly, one of the finest contemporary directors in Bengal, has announced a film called Palan as a tribute to the film and its maker. The Palans of the world are still around us and like the middle class in Kharij we continue to be guilty as charged by Mrinal Sen.