February 3, 2008
Kharij (The Case Is Closed), 1982
The second film in Mrinal Sen's thematically connected "absence trilogy" (along with Ek Din Pratidin and Ek Din Achanak) that examine the implications of a person's unexpected disappearance from a middle-class household on the family's moral consciousness, Kharij expounds on the trilogy's clinical and uncompromising social critique of entrenched, dysfunctional bourgeois values and materialistic privilege that have led to indifference, discrimination, insularity, and exploitation. This prevailing attitude of entitlement and commodification is foretold in the film's opening sequence: a conversation between an unseen couple from the back of a taxicab as the man offers to buy anything the woman desires after their marriage - a new apartment, car, wardrobe, or television set - only to be coddled with a declaration that all she needs in life to be happy is to be with him. The scene then cuts to the insightful image of the same man, Anjan (Anjan Dutt) a few years later, shaving in front of a mirror as he poses a nearly identical question to his wife, Mamata (Mamata Shankar) with the idea of using some of their disposable income from their successful careers to make their domestic lives easier. On a whim, Mamata proposes that they take in a houseboy who can help break coals for the stove, run errands, and be an attendant and playmate to their young son Pupai (Indranil Moitra) - a pragmatic request that, as Anjan subsequently rationalizes, would not only cost them little in terms of wages, but also in expenses, since he will invariably eat less than an adult house servant. Enlisting the aid of a neighbor's servant, Ganesh, the couple visits the home of a widowed father named Haran, who because of recent famine in their rural village, is forced to send his son Palan away to work in order to provide income for the family and ensure that he will, at least, have enough to eat. However, when Palan succumbs to carbon monoxide poisoning one December morning after having sought refuge from the cold weather in the relative warmth of an unventilated kitchen, and the police are called into the apartment building in order to investigate the circumstances surrounding the boy's death from apparently unnatural causes, Anjan and Mamata are forced to confront their own culpability in the senseless tragedy, even as they attempt to preserve their dignity, bristle at the inconvenience that Palan's death has caused them, and attempt to defuse a potential scandal in the face of prying eyes and opportunists in the neighborhood.
As in Ek Din Pratidin, the atmosphere of tension and menace in Kharij serves as a framework for subverted expectation. Structurally, Sen establishes this pervasive sense of uncertainty from the beginning of the film, in the unseen lovers' conversation that plays out against the image of the back of the taxi driver's head - a prefiguring metaphor for what would prove to be an exposition into the couple's subconscious that is also suggested in the image of Anjan in the mirror (in essence, his self-reflection), and is reinforced in the couple's repeated, amplified calls to wake Palan and subsequently, in the neighbors' attempt to break through the kitchen door when the boy fails to respond. Similarly, the protracted police inquest also reflects this anxiety by raising the specter of possible charges being brought as a result of the couple's negligence (and which, in turn, Anjan is quick to divert the blame on his landlord by seizing on a police officer's observation that a ventilator had not been installed in the kitchen), as well as the insinuation by a group of bystanders into the couple's home after surrounding Anjan on the street under the ruse of asking what happened. But beyond facile illustrations of deflected responsibility among inconsiderate employers and frugal landlords, Sen also exposes an endemic culture of collective accountability, where exploitation of the poor and the weak are rationalized not only by economic necessity, but also socially enabled by an impotent intellectualism that reinforces the status quo - an implied complicity that is articulated in a passing conversation between two university educated men who see the tragedy as a moral imperative and propose conducting a seminar on the subject of child labor as a means of taking up the cause. Moreover, by chronicling Anjan's desperate attempts to save face with the help of his influential neighbor (Bimal Chakraborty) by making accommodations for Palan's father to stay for the night (a courtesy that the couple never extended to his son, who slept behind the open stairwell, along with the landlords' houseboy, Hari (Dehapratim Das Gupta)), commenting to his consulting lawyer (Charuprakash Ghosh) that Palan was treated like a member of the family (a claim that the lawyer immediately refutes by citing his deplorable sleeping conditions, and Anjan's accusatory posture in his reference to Palan's earlier bout of illness as the boy having previously caused "trouble"), and attending Palan's funeral rites (albeit to verify that the mourners do not publicly denounce him in his absence), Sen illustrates a pattern of self-interest and denial that intrinsically reveals Anjan's struggle to confront his own guilt - an internal conflict that manifests itself in irrational fears that never materialize. It is the persistence of inerasable guilt that is evoked in the jarring soundtrack that accompanies Anjan's final encounter with Palan's father on the staircase leading to their apartment after performing their purification ritual, an invocation of unreconciled ghosts that reside, not in the realm between life and death, but in the recesses of a haunted conscience.