Guilty or Not Guilty: On Mrinal Sen’s ‘Kharij’

As one of the key figures of the Indian New Wave movement, Mrinal Sen set himself apart from commercial filmmakers with his cinematic language. The serious-minded narrative form of his films infiltrated the political consciousness of common citizens by depicting conflicting societal attitudes. However, in the 1982 film Kharij (The Case Is Closed), Sen is more interested in exploring the notion of equality between different classes of modern Indian society. The film presents a realistic portrayal of a quintessential Bengali middle class family for whom the security and comforts of their lives are of prime concern. In Kharij, Sen delineates the way in which upper class people influence, exploit and manipulate the lives of lower class individuals.

Adapted from a novel by Ramapada Chowdhury, Kharij tells the story of Anjan Sen (Anjan Dutt) and Mamata Sen (Mamata Shankar), a Calcutta couple who lives with their son, Pupai (Indranil Moitra). They hire a servant, Palan, who accidentally dies of carbon monoxide poisoning while sleeping in a windowless kitchen on an extremely cold night. The moral values of the couple and their neighbors are unveiled gradually as they worry about guilt, a police investigation and a public scandal.

Kharij Movie Essay - 1982 Mrinal Sen Film (The Case Is Closed)

Sen begins Kharij with an off-screen cab conversation, with Anjan suggesting that the purchase of a new apartment, car, wardrobe or television set would make his partner happy. But Mamata, under the spell of romanticism, replies that she only desires her husband’s companionship. Later, after the couple marries, Mamata has a more realistic outlook and asks for a young servant to look after the household chores. Here, the decision of the couple to appoint a young servant can be equated with the materialistic objects that Anjan wants to purchase for Mamata at the beginning of Kharij. So, from the start, Sen informs viewers that the protagonists are typical city dwellers who derive both status and satisfaction from possessions. The interiors and exterior locations symbolically express the moral quandary of Anjan and lay bare all of his insecurities. Whenever Anjan is present within the protected confinement of his house, Sen provides insight into the character’s flawed perceptions and mental weakness. Anjan’s refusal to acknowledge his vulnerability makes his approval of reality even more difficult to accept. At the same time, when he steps out of his house, there is a sense of discomfort and anxiety. For instance, there is a scene in Kharij where a group of young and unemployed boys ask Anjan about the accidental demise of the young servant. As the conversation continues, there is a palpable overtone of tension as Anjan invites the boys inside his house for a cup of tea. Here, the presence of individuals outside Anjan’s inner circle represent the fear of being intimately observed by people whose intentions are beyond his comprehension. Through such microscopic observations, Sen explores the darkness that envelops Anjan by focusing on character development rather than introducing one dramatic event after another.

Thematically, the surge of accusations pricks at the consciousness of various characters. Passing the ball of guilt to someone else’s court and remaining alertly suspicious of each other can only provide them with some temporary relief. The denial to accept guilt on a personal level equates with the collective guilt of society, and serves as a searing critique of the Indian middle class, as it exposes an endemic culture of hypocrisy.

Sen and his maverick cinematographer K.K. Mahajan use the camera as an observer in Kharij by trailing characters as they pace from room to room. Since most of the events largely take place inside an apartment, the observational feel of the camera, without depending much on stylistic angles, is omnipresent in establishing the tone. In addition, the staging informs audiences about the characters’ stress and helplessness. When Haran and Palan first meet Mamta, the vertical compositions convey the class divides. Hunched on the floor, Haran is framed at a high angle, whereas Mamata’s positioning reflects her superior position. Even during the climax, Sen doesn’t allow Haran to rise above Anjan. 

Kharij Movie Essay - 1982 Mrinal Sen Film (The Case Is Closed)

Kharij’s pacing underscores the emotional chaos with depth, grace and resonance. Gangadhar Naskar, the editor, creates a subtle tone by assembling shots in a simple manner. Whenever there is a serious conversation between the principal characters, Naskar uses close-ups shots to linger on the expression of the actors with perfect timing and rhythm. This allows the drama to flow seamlessly in an unhurried manner without resorting to fast-cut techniques and while utilizing the protracted moments of silence. In the climax, Haran — after performing the cremation of his son — visits Anjan for the last time. The astute selection of various shots aids in building tension and brings out the characters’ natural and truthful reactions.

Sound editor Jyoti Chatterjee skillfully picks up the delicate nuances of indoor and outdoor locations. When Anjan and his neighbors bang on a kitchen door, the noise increases to a rattle. Each of the blows delivered on the wooden surface of the door create a deafening sound. But when the door opens and reveals the lifeless body of Palan, there is a piercing silence in the soundtrack. This transition from loudness to quietness creates a sensorial ambience, where one can empathize with the trials of various characters. The background score by B.V. Karanth also highlights the poignancy of the tragedy and reinforces the melancholic tone of the film.

Kharij poses innumerable questions to the audience. Who can be held responsible for Palan’s death? Was it an accident or a mere act of negligence? If the kitchen had ventilation, could Palan have been saved? Were Anjan and Mamata genuinely grieved by the death or is their distress a protective camouflage of face-saving? All of these perplexing questions correlate with attitudes about classism in Indian society. Sen’s overt criticism of shady values is so unmistakable and effective that viewers from across the world can get a piece of reality by experiencing Kharij. He raises questions rather than providing answers. Kharij is a scathing expose of societal problems that — truth be told — aren’t exclusive to Indian society.

Dipankar Sarkar (@Dipankar_Tezpur) is a graduate in film editing from the Film and Television Institute of India and currently based in Mumbai. As a freelancer, he frequently contributes to various Indian publications on cinema-related topics.