25 August 2011

KHARIJ / THE CASE IS CLOSED (Dir. Mrinal Sen, 1982, India)

A cold front has swept across the city of Calcutta, bringing it to a near stand still. But it's not just the weather too blame for the prejudices harboured by a middle class family residing in Calcutta. One day an impoverished father, Hari (Dehapratim Das Gupta), comes to their home with a proposition; will the family take on his young son Pupai (Indranil Moitra) as a child servant? At first, the family are reluctant. They criticise the last child servant who only remained with them for a few months before absconding. Eventually they agree and Hari tells them he will return at the end of each month to collect the wages for his son. As the cold snap continues, one morning Pupai is found dead on the kitchen floor. The death comes as a shock to the family. A police investigation is opened into the death of the boy and the family are scrutinised for failing to properly care for the child servant. As the investigation progresses it becomes evident Pupai died from carbon monoxide poisoning and slept in the kitchen because he was cold. Mrinal Sen uses the death of the child servant as a searing political symbol, examining the politics of class and the wider monstrous void that exists between the lower and middle classes of Calcutta. In one particular revealing exchange, the father Anjan (Anjan Dutt) goes with his friend to seek legal advice if the case was taken to court. When Anjan exclaims that Pupai was a member of the family and treated the same, his disingenuous words are rebutted by the lawyer. The lawyer states quite bluntly that Pupai was not treated the same as he was made to sleep under the stairs, given little money, and ultimately regarded as inferior; any positive interaction was minimal from the family and so they had a role to play in his death.

It’s very tricky to deal with class and particularly the exploitation of servants without descending into either ideological rhetoric or wild sentiments but by keeping the narrative within the context of the melodramatic form Sen fixes his gaze within the moral sanctity of the Bengali family. Whilst Anjan begins the process of coming to terms with his class prejudices, his wife Mamata (Mamata Shankar) is clearly ridden with guilt but is unable to even acknowledge her seemingly unnerving lack of empathy for both Pupai and Hari. Whilst the impact of Pupai’s death should have affected Mamata to recognise the entrenchment of her class prejudices, she actually views the death as a familial disgrace. In many ways, Mamata’s ignorance is contrasted with the emotional outpouring of Hari who at the end transforms his anger into a dignified closure. Hari’s actions might be dignified but there is a moment that Sen conjures up at the end, pointing to a potentially incendiary conflict that might come about one day if such destructive prejudices were challenged head on. Ideologically, the relative invisibility of Pupai as a symbol of the lower class is contrasted sharply with the privileged and protected son of Anjan and Mamata. When Hari comes to claim the body of his dead son and considering he is grieving, Anjan and Mamata feel obligated to let him stay. However, their middle class guilt is horrifyingly manifested when they hastily attempt to compensate their negligence by offering Hari the living room as a place to sleep. Hari rejects their conciliatory and premature offering, choosing instead to settle for the kitchen in which his son died and elucidating the falseness of Anjan and Mamata’s reactionary gesture. Kharij is one of Mrinal Sen’s most accessible works and like many of the films he directed in the 1980s it was the family that became a key political thematic. Kharij was awarded the grand jury prize at the Cannes film festival in 1983 and nominated for the Palme d’Or.

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