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Mr and Mrs Iyer: Review

APARNA SEN'S English film, "Mr and Mrs Iyer", appeals and scores at two levels. It damns violence, and not necessarily one that seeks religion as an excuse for its murderous designs. And, it weaves a sadly sweet romance between two people who have just nothing in common, except for the fact that one is a man and the other a woman.

There are two very powerful scenes which ought to shame anybody: the shot of an old Muslim couple being taken away to be killed by a fanatic Hindu mob, and the frame that captures the agony of a Hindu child as she wails outside her burning home. Coming as the movie does after the Gujarat carnage although Sen wrote the story long before that "Mr and Mrs Iyer" can be read as a severe indictment of man's bestiality towards man.

Sen's dexterity at handling these scenes in an understated, muted fashion gives them the power to disturb and haunt you. For instance, the camera freezes a pair of spectacles and dentures to convey the fall of not quite faith, but humanism.

Unfortunately, it is when Sen slips into the love mode that she falters. Though the flutters of the heart have been treated with finesse sometimes a little too prudishly, pandering, perhaps, to middle class morality we are never entirely convinced that love could blossom between Meenakshi Iyer and Raja Chowdhary. And this is not only because she is a staunch Tamil Brahmin, and he a Muslim.

Can a married woman with a baby in arms fall in love with a total stranger that she meets on a very short bus journey, however extraordinary the situation may have been? Having decided to drive them into each other's arms, Sen thinks up situations, which are terribly contrived. Look at the way, the hotels in the curfew-bound town are packed, and the couple has to seek refuge in a forest guest house, set amid sylvan surroundings, with dancing deer thrown in!

Sen's story and script are found wanting elsewhere too. The police officer, who plays the good Samaritan, appears so unreal in the world of rancour that Sen creates. And if the folly of a Jewish passenger seems out of place, Raja being a mute spectator of crime and brutality in the face of his own liberalism and much travelled status jars at a very basic level. One scene may be cited as an example here: look at the way a college girl gets up to save the old Muslim man as he is taken away from the bus, while Raja's resistance seems like some mock drill!

Well, if one were to pardon Sen for these potholes, the ride on the high hills is not too bumpy. Meenakshi takes a bus from a mountain town to catch a train from the plains. On the way, a communal flare-up endangers Raja, who has been introduced to her before the start of the trip, and she saves him by calling him her husband, Mr Iyer.

What is close to a fairytale is given a degree of credence by some outstanding performances. Rahul Bose as Raja is marvellous in a role, which is very difficult, because it is so low-key.

However, the movie clearly belongs to Konkona Sensharma (Aparna's daughter), who as Meenakshi gets so beautifully into the psyche of a Tamil Brahmin that it is hard to say that she is an ``outsider''. The few sentences she lisps in Tamil sound authentic enough to fool even a diehard Tamil into believing that she is one of his own ilk. And, she emotes just splendidly: when her eyes well up at the thought of parting with Raja, when she gently rests her head on his shoulders in the train, and when her expressions suggest the faintest hint of love, we know that here is a great actress.

Of course, this is not to deny Sen her share of the credit for drawing the best out of her cast; her strength lies in characterisation. Remember Violet Stoneham (Jennifer Kendall) in the 1981 "36 Chowringhee Lane", who was brilliant as the lonely Anglo-Indian school teacher.

But somewhere, Sen, probably in her over enthusiasm, lets her own emotions derail her. There are at least a few times in "Mr and Mrs Iyer", when she forgets, one would think, to call ``cut''. The ending is one: was there any need to re-run the happy times the two had at the guest house. It could have been far more effective to have stopped the pan of the camera at the point where we see tears in Konkona's eye as Rahul walks away after giving her a film roll of memories.

Despite all this, "Mr and Mrs Iyer" is one of the better works this year, and is now playing in some Madras/ Chennai cinemas.

(This review appeared in The Hindu dated December 27 2002)

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