Mrinal Sen was a master at creating middle-class misc-en-scene in his films. His filmography was a reflection of his profound empathy for the masses, the working class and the human force who form the backbone and foundation of our society but their stories are often unseen and marginalised.
His 1982 film Kharij is one such evocative story of a well-meaning middle-class nuclear family, who adopts a teenage boy Palan as their house help and their little son Pupai’s caretaker, but while under their care, Palan tragically dies in an accident while sleeping in the kitchen. The couple had no fault as such. But they were, negligent of the boy’s safety. So in many ways, irrespective of how educated and politically aware we are, we often find ourselves guilty of a deep-seated classism where the lives of the poor are less valuable than those of the haves. A line from Kharij that stuck with me is: ‘The legal lie must prevail over the moral truth.’ Such is the make of our society where the value of life is determined by one’s economic status.
Now what happens to you if you know in some ways you were responsible (even if indirectly) for someone’s death? Living with the knowledge that a life could have been saved if you were perhaps slightly more thoughtful, a tad bit more vigilant. What does it do to you in the long run? Does it shift something in you permanently?
To know that, we come into Kaushik Ganguly’s take on this family after 41 years, through his current film Palan. We see the couple Anjan and Mamata, now old and frail, Anjan struggling to walk even with a walker and somehow almost as helpless as you had seen Palan’s father at the end of Kharij. The tables have turned. Well, it always does... doesn’t it? And age/time is the biggest leveller.
Their son Pupai is now grown, married (to Paoli) and with a daughter himself.
But Palan’s protagonist is their house. The same place the family has been living in for over 41 years. It is now, a dilapidated 100-year-old residence that is barely managing to stay up, stand erect... very much like the couple themselves. They mirror a fully lived life and signs of ageing while still trying to hold on to some reminiscence of their youth but more importantly the dignity of their existence.
Palan essentially is a film about dignity, foundation and strength of character... literally and metaphorically.
Through the initial sequences of slow tracks introducing the different spaces of the house... the old gates, balconies, a chair that probably has been sitting at the same spot for decades, things that haven’t moved in a long long time, collapsable gates with locks that haven’t been opened in years; one is able to see glimpses of this beauty that once was... still holding onto her grandeur and charm... still silently boastful of her flourish. The cracked walls and mouldy surfaces with quick-fix coats of cement almost representing the lines and wrinkles on her face... discolouration of her skin.
12/1C Beltala Road was probably crumbling and breathing her last but just wanted to be left alone in peace and dignity.
Kaushik Ganguly’s filmography boasts of well-crafted human dramas layered with intricate emotions and innate humour, in ways only he can. His deep perception of human relationships and their dynamics with well-etched-out characters marinated together and slowly cooked in simmering dramas peppered with humour is deeply delicious to watch as an audience. In Palan too while he writes and stages scenes that are riveting, palpable, and thought-provoking; he suddenly punctuates them with funny situational moments that not only elevate the dimensions of the scenes but also make them so acutely humane.
One such scene is when Anjan, alone in his room is trying to reach his phone that’s constantly ringing. Him getting up from the bed (also a character), slipping into his old slippers but barely managing to, standing up and struggling to reach the other end of the room with his walker only to see the call ring out... and this process repeating itself twice over until he collapses on a chair, giving up. The audience along with him, feels a momentary relief... a precious few seconds... until the phone starts ringing again. But this time, another phone and on the other end of the room. He gets up... and continues on the same journey of frustration and helplessness to reach that phone once again. Almost symbolic of the middle-class existence of constant toil with momentary relief from the mad rat race on repeat.
The call was from his son Pupai worried sick about his parents’ safety after receiving the news of someone’s accidental death in the same house. The juxtaposition of Pupai’s growing frustration unable to reach his parents on call, his imagination running wild with the worst possibilities and the old man’s frustration at his inability to move quickly to pick up the phone is heartbreaking and hilarious at the same time. Something only a filmmaker with a deep sense of empathy and humour can balance. This has to be one of the best dramatic sequences I’ve seen in a film in a long time.
Later, when Pupai asks his father why he wasn’t picking up the phone, Anjan replies: “Baandor naach korchhilam (was doing the monkey dance).” A poignant statement by the filmmaker right at the beginning of the film that after all, we are all engaged in some sort of a monkey dance, to the best of our ability, in order to survive.
Palan has a slew of long dynamic fabulously written and performed scenes that keep you oscillating between a somber smile and moist eyes... with some unexpected chuckles. One such scene is where a heated discussion is underway between Anjan and the builder/family friend Samir, responsible for their house and relocation, in the presence of all the other characters, set in the living/bedroom. While it is a serious discourse and people are coming in and out of the scene, warm kochuri and jilipi that have freshly come in, are being served in plates to everyone.
This setting with a complex inter-personal dynamics between the characters, mixed with food as they coax each other to eat, while some rude words are being uttered and characters being chided.. is a stroke of genius. This scene truly celebrates the argumentative Bengali who would always be the most loyal to food.
A more subdued yet piercing moment is when Anjan gets Pupai to take out an old newspaper from the bookshelf... that gently protects the sketch he had made of his beloved wife Mawmo when they were young. At this particular juncture of distress and dissolution, they reconnect with their wordless love and companionship that they’ve honed for over four decades.
The one look that Anjan gives Mawmo brimming with a plethora of emotions is probably more powerful than a 100 Gibran poems. This lyrical moment with a timely BGM of Amaro parano jaha chaye, celebrates their love that was nestled within these walls... the home they built together with innumerable memories. But were now on the precipice of being uprooted and thrown into an unsure undecided unfamiliar abyss.
Throughout the film, we see various juxtapositions between the old and the new. Beautiful old houses with character vs modern concrete buildings with no character; stairwells vs lifts; houses with big rooms, tall ceilings and bigger hearts with enough space for everybody vs houses designed with room for everyone but old parents; a middle class that valued their self esteem, relationships and morality the most vs a middle class that value self gain, business and money the most; old love that has enough of banter left even after 40 years, where intimacy is in one look and a gentle touch of the hand vs new love that have run out of conversations in just a few years. Palan manages to raise some pertinent questions holding up the mirror ever so subtly without ever becoming preachy or cacophonic.
Personally, I find stories of displacement deeply moving. The fact that one cannot go back to his/her roots... a place they consider home... is gut-wrenching. While old houses often have trees growing out of their walls and ceilings, humans too grow invisible roots into the pillars and foundation of the homes they live in. And memories pose as the catalytic glue of the attachment.
One thing that stands out in both Mrinal Sen and Kaushik Ganguly’s work for me is their women. They are able to see women for who they actually are... without making them either unrealistic angels or conniving vamps. Their women are layered, deep and authentic with an acute sense of self-respect, intelligence and gumption. In Palan too, the women Mamata, Paoli and Srila are deeply empathetic and multi-dimensional. One of my favourite dynamics is between the mother-in-law (Mamata) and daughter-in-law (Paoli) and the friendship they have cultivated over the years. These women always have each other’s backs, prop each other up, feed each other with love (the kitchen scene when Paoli feeds Mamata is one such gem), wish the best for one another and always preempt each other’s needs. Something that our screens and films are starved of... a happy healthy mother/daughter-in-law equation.
In spite of being aware that her nuclear family will have to adjust considerably if the old couple moves in with them, it is actually Paoli who suggests taking in her parents-in-law in the first place and is constantly coming up with a more effective plan to make their lives easier. There’s a particular line she says on the last night with her husband Pupai in their bedroom while discussing the next time they are likely to be back in their own bedroom. “Orai ki korbe bolo? Orao ashohaye!” One of the best lines in the film. It not only makes you feel for the helplessness of old couples being uprooted from their homes and shoved into tiny apartments... expecting them to ‘adjust’ at that age..... but also the apathy of the middle class or working class who actually are powerless and have to make do with whatever is handed out to them. This emotion is underlined by the maker with a cutaway of a rickshaw-puller hand pulling his empty rickshaw perhaps returning home at night.
Towards the end of Palan, Samir, the builder comes into an old house being demolished and finds an old Ajanta clock still hanging on a wall. He cleans the clock, readjusts the batteries and hangs it back up... smiling at the clock which has come back alive again... resonating a line that Anjan emphatically says in the film about repair and restoration instead of dismantling and discarding. Samir with the clock also made me laugh as I was reminded of an old Hindi proverb. “Time time ki baat hai pyaare, main ragdu ya tu ragde!”
Tagore wrote in many of his songs about the constant oscillation between good and bad times, its inevitable inconstancy and the delectable play between life and death. KG masterfully uses a part of Mamo chitte in Palan that resonates as the greater philosophy of the film.
‘Haashi kanna Heera panna dole bhale/ Kaanpe chhande bhalo mondo taale taale/ Naache jamno naache mrityu paache paache...’
Palan for me is a fitting tribute to Mrinal Sen and what he represented through his films. The values he stood for, the philosophy he constantly upheld through his masterfully crafted socio-political narratives are evocatively and effusively celebrated by KG. The film is deeply personal and leaves you with a reminder that irrespective of circumstances... the one thing that will never fail the middle class is the spine... underlined by Anjan’s sarcastic scoff at Srila when he says... “Komor tao bhange ni aar merodando tao thik achhe!” This comes as a timely reminder to all of us that in today’s world, when morality is often sidelined by opportunism, the foundation of our value system and the strength of our spine is what ultimately makes us the humans we choose to become.