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Mr and Mrs Iyer: Romance in a troubled milieu

MEENAKSHI IYER is, well, a Tamil Brahmin. What else could she be with a name like that? But in this age and setting, could a Tamil Brahmin be so frighteningly conservative and orthodox? One who is so young, at that? Aparna Sen's latest offering, ``Mr and Mrs Iyer," appears to suggest precisely this: that her heroine is tradition personified.

Although Sen's latest offering, "Mr and Mrs Iyer," is wonderfully romantic and as appealing, in a certain sense, as her first effort, "36 Chowringhee Lane" (1981) was, there were moments in the work when one felt that the script was not entirely flawless, that it could have been polished a great deal more.


Meenakshi embarks, along with her child, on a seemingly uneventful bus journey to catch a train at the foothills of a mountain. A young Muslim photojournalist, Raja, is a fellow traveller. But as the coach rumbles along the hairpin bends, a communal riot creates fire and fury, threatening lives and forcing Meenakshi into the arms of Raja. Nothing wrong with this, Sen would argue. Agreed. But Sen's preamble does not quite lead up to this romantic encounter. To begin with, can a young, educated, even sophisticated, young Brahmin woman be so anti another religion (or, is it a case of being obsessive about purity)?

Sen initially portrays Meenakshi as such a woman, but the director is probably so troubled by guilt or nervousness midway that she makes a hurried about turn. Meenakshi not only saves Raja's life by telling his would-be murderers that he is her husband, Mr Iyer (which is understandable, given the circumstance in which they find themselves), but also falls in love with him (which is hard to digest). This change of heart, this drop of what looked like hardened prejudice, occur with such haste that it is hardly convincing. If, in the first place, we do not know why Meenakshi is so rabidly anti-Muslim, we are left wondering a little later why at all should she, a married woman, find a total stranger so attractive. Oh, well, one supposes Sen works on the assumption that love is blind and that it can happen at first sight.

After pushing her protagonists into love, Sen begins to wonder, now what. Can Meenakshi walk out on her husband? That could be too radical and hot for middleclass moral comfort. So, Sen does the next best thing. She stops the lovers from a kiss on the train which carries them on the last leg of their journey and gets a rather good looking husband to receive Meenakshi at the station.

What happens to poor Raja? He could have been left holding the baby, as he did on the drive, and the photographs of memory. Instead, he hands over the roll of film (containing the shots he took during their two-and-a-half days of togetherness) to Meenakshi on the platform before walking away, a la "Roman Holiday."

"Mr and Mrs Iyer," despite these potholes on the hill way, has its high points. One of them is Sen's daughter, Konkona Sensharma ("I am Sensharma", she interrupts when I miss out the add-on to Sen while addressing her), who is literally superb as Meenakshi Iyer. Though the movie is largely in English, the few sentences in Tamil that Konkona lisps sound so authentic that they can easily fool even a diehard Tamil into believing that the actress is pucca Thamizh ! What is more, she looks every inch a Tamil girl, as the pictures here will confirm.

They probably tell us something more: Konkona's confidence as an actress, and her decision to stick on to this profession. "Mr and Mrs Iyer" is her third feature, and "till I did the first two, I was not even sure whether I could act," she tells this writer one evening at her Calcutta/Kolkata flat which she shares with mother Aparna. "This film came to me as a wonderful opportunity . I had this privilege of working under my mother, and the script appealed to me a great deal... I loved the character, Meenakshi, and doing the Tamil bit."

Konkona stayed a couple of weeks in Madras/Chennai last year(2001) before principal shooting began, and met several Tamil Brahmins to try and "copy" their mannerisms. "I went to Mylapore, to the Kapaliswarar Temple there, and sat in the courtyard watching "mamis". I also met lots of others."

Did she meet Santhanam? Konkona bursts out laughing. "No". Santhanam is the name of her child in the movie. A little odd sounding for the baby in arms, I tell her.

"But you know, we did a lot of research. We wanted to call the child Murugan, but we learnt that it was not a common name of the community. In fact, we tried to find out the essential difference between Iyers and Iyengars, their customs, how an Iyer woman dresses and the kind of thali she wears."

Konkona's and one would assume Sen's study took her beyond the confines of the Iyer-Iyengar circle, and the young actress takes my question on "tolerance" with an ease which implies that she has given a serious thought to this issue. "You will not buy what I have to say, but I have met people my age and younger who are terribly intolerant of other faiths and points of view. It is very scary and shocking."

Konkona quickly adds: "Of course, this is not even to suggest that every other young person is rigid in a dangerous sort of way. If you remember, Raja tells Meenakshi one night, `I have lots of friends who are not at all hung up on caste/religion as you are,' he chides her. Which is true. We did not want to say that all of them are like Meenakshi. We have conservative Bengalis amongst us as we have conservative Tamils," Konkona presses the right keys, hoping they would produce politically correct notes.

She makes yet another attempt to place "Mr and Mrs Iyer" in the kind of perspective she feels it ought to be. "Meenakshi might be even a bigot, but she is certainly not one to ignore or condone destructiveness. When she sees an old Muslim couple being killed, she is so devastated that she is ready to call a rank stranger her husband to save him from death."

Whether one goes along with Konkona on this is beside the point. What matters in this scene is Sen's sensitivity in portraying brutality. All that we see is the old man's spectacles and dentures on the mud, and they tell us of one utterly inhuman and shameful act. ``My mother is dead against depiction of violence, because it tends to titillate the audience."

Well, Sen uses these troubled times as a mere backdrop for a love story. But, somewhere the director hesitates and falters.

While she peppers her work liberally with coincidences which appear so contrived at times if only to throw Raja and Meenakshi together and provide them with every chance to fall in love, Sen unfortunately plays the moral card at the end. She does not allow the two to kiss!

"I think they should have kissed, but Rahul Bose (Raja) and my mother felt that they should not. I know it is highly unnatural when they do not kiss; suddenly a man appears in the corridor of their railway coach, and the lips do not meet," Konkona smiles. "Anyway, it was purely the decision of the director,'' she adds. So be it, and Mrs. Iyer returns to her state of marital bliss after a rough ride through an emotional upheaval. Perhaps, this was one convenient way to end the tale. Sen's way, the path of least resistance.

(This story appeared in The Hindu dated December 13 2002)

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