Gautaman Bhaskaran
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INDIAN CINEMA

Personalities

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An evening with Aparna Sen

The other evening (in July 2006), Aparna Sen walked into Madras/Chennai’s Taj Connemara lobby looking far younger than her 61 years. Clad in a pair of jeans, a kurti and black leather boots, she looked so different from the image one had carried of her, an image associated with her roots, her associations and the kind of cinema that has been dear to her.

At 16, she played in Satyajit Ray’s classic, “Teen Kanya”, then went on to study in Kolkata’s Presidency College, often considered the heart of Bengali intellectualism. Acting in Ray’s “Pikoo”, Mrinal Sen’s “Akash Kusum” and Merchant-Ivory’s “Guru” and “Bombay Talkie” among others, Sen learnt and came to cherish some of the finest nuances of India’s intelligent cinema. With a father like Chidananda Dasgupta, a veteran movie critic and director, and a great opportunity that allowed her to soak in Bengal’s fascinating cultural milieu, Sen was one hundred per cent ready to shoot her first feature, “36 Chowringhee Lane” in 1981. Tackling old-age loneliness and Anglo-Indian alienation in Kolkata, the film is undoubtedly her best till date.

I do not think Sen has bettered “36 Chowrnghee Lane”. Yes, her later directorial ventures such as “Paroma”, “Paromitar Ek Din”, “Mr and Mrs Iyer”, and “15 Park Avenue” have tackled variously different themes, but have somehow failed touch me the way the Jennifer Kapoor-starrer “36 Chowringhee Lane” did.

“But I do not like to live in the past”, Sen quips during a chat with me. “I like to move on”. Her dress that evening seemed to imply precisely that. Sen has moved on from being a demure Bengali belle to a dashing modern woman, fearlessly independent and daringly different.

Rahul Bose and Konakana Sen Sharma in "15 Park Avenue"
Her cinema has amply reflected this. “Paroma” said what is wrong with an extra-marital fling. “Paromitar Ek Din” infused into the mother-in-law-daughter-in-law relationship a delicate feeling of camaraderie, even affection. “Mr and Mrs Iyer” was, in a way, an extension of “Paroma”, where a woman empowers herself with the right to think independently of man. Her latest, “15 Park Avenue”, takes us into the world of schizophrenia.

To my question on what provoked her into filming a story on this mental disease, Sen says, “ The condition has always interested me because it is about another reality. A schizophrenic inhabits a different reality from ours. These different perceptions of reality interest me…Yes, you could even draw a parallel between this mental condition and cinema, which also takes us into another realm!

“But, schizophrenia is also the tyranny of the majority. If I were to look at this flower you see here (pointing to one in her room) and say this is not a flower, but it is a straw, and if 30 people out of the 50 present in this room agree, then it becomes a straw.

“It has always been like that. You remember Galileo. He was asked to withdraw his statement about the earth, and he did. However, he finally said, ‘but it moves’. I am not implying what a schzophrenic says is right. But it is, nonetheless, another perception of reality”, Sen avers.

“15 Park Avenue” takes us into the world of a young schizophrenic woman, portrayed by Konkana Sen Sharma, who is looking for what seems like a fictitious address. In the end, we are left wondering whether she was after all right. The movie has confused many, particularly the way it ends.

Aparana says that once she finishes a movie, it is “as much yours as it is mine”. But she does offer an explanation. She says the Konkana character, Meethi, has lived so much by other people’s “reality”, that “I thought I would in the end make a surreal leap. This has been done in cinema, in literature... I show Meethi’s relatives, her ex-boyfriend and her doctor slowly coming around to accepting her world. We see all of them looking for the non-existent address, 15 Park Avenue, in the final scenes of the film”.

It is about another world. Perhaps a lonely world. Sen says that all her movies deal essentially with loneliness. What about “Mr and Mrs Iyer” ? “Yes, this is also about friendship, but do not forget that these two people, Mr and Mrs Iyer, are lonely on a frightening journey. And, they will be lonely after they part”.

In Aparna’s other films, such as “Paroma” and “Paromitar Ek Din” the sense of loneliness is acutely felt. “I am quite happy making this kind of cinema, which is my kind of cinema”, she says.

Sen has now been making movies in English, because these have a wider reach. Also, the budget allocations are somewhat higher than what they are for Bengali films.

But is there not beauty in diversity ? If everybody were to begin making movies in English…Aparna interrupts me to say that there is a lot of diversity in the way each one of us speaks English. You speak a different kind of English. I speak a different kind of English. In ‘Mr and Mrs Iyer’, I used this variation a lot. And in an English film, you do not speak only English. Other languages are used”.

Sen sounds a note of finality. Trained in Tagorean culture and having cut her teeth in the great Ray era, Aparna’s foray into English language cinema may not be wholly welcome in her native Bengal. But, well, as they say, cinema has its own lingo that speaks to the eye and to the mind. Sen’s clinching line to her detractors may well be this.

(This story was posted on this website on July 21 2006)