Cruelly disturbing, fascinatingly lyrical
Aparna Sen has actors surrendering unconditionally in her soundest work, Mr & Mrs Iyer
Subhash K Jha
In one of Mr & Mrs Iyer's finely meshed lighter moments, a bemused Muslim couple --- played brilliantly by two non-Muslim actors Bhisham Sahni and Surekha Sikri --- look on a bunch of carefree teenagers singing Hindi film songs.
"Why do today's youngsters make so much noise?" the man finally wonders aloud.
Writer-director Aparna Sen's daughter Konkana, a youngster, bowls you over with her silently sledge-hammering portrayal of Meenakshi Iyer, a conservative Tamilian Brahmin housewife, journeying alone with her infant son through a treacherously tranquil hilly region to join her husband.
Konkana's eyes tell a thousand untold stories. Looking through the eyes of Gautam Ghose's illuminating lens, Aparna Sen builds a miniature, but epic, world of tremendous inner strength. In her first seriously politically committed film, Sen takes on the issue of communal conflict with the surging humanism of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, painting words on celluloid.
Though the film's political underbelly tends to stick out from unlikely places (every chit of printed paper in the narrative, including the wrapping for snacks, addresses itself to caste-communal violence), the lyrical delicacy of the director's vision blends unobtrusively into her larger preoccupations.
Over and above, a film about Meenakshi's confused religious and cultural identity triggered off by a sudden burst of communal strife during a bus journey when she meets a young, affable dependable wildlife photographer Raja (Rahul Bose) who turns out to be Muslim, Mr & Mrs Iyer is a finely woven love story about two unlikely travelling companions drawn to each other under stressful, harrowing circumstances.
Sen is seldom known to overstress her point. In Mr & Mrs Iyer, delicate emotions ooze out of the protagonists' demeanour, creating an ambrosial aura. Sequences between the married housewife and her companion in distress touch the rawest tendons of the human condition.
But Sen jabs at wounds that never heal, not to draw blood, but to extract a far more nurturing element from our hearts. The tenderly equipoised love tale could go wrong on so many perceptible and imperceptible levels. The director takes her two protagonists only as far as it can logically go. She then gently bifurcates their paths, leaving us feeling bereft, yet somehow richer and wiser as human beings.
Meenakshi's two-tiered awakening as a social animal and a woman experiencing strange stirrings in her conservative heart is achieved with noiseless finality. Her coming of age is shared by us. When in the savagery of Hindu fundamentalists barging into the bus to claim Muslim victims, she quickly introduces her Muslim companion as Mr Iyer, we know it is a turning point for Meenakshi's relationship with her immediate companion and society at large.
It is this simultaneity of sighs and groans that gives Mr & Mrs Iyer an immensely illuminating and interiorised integrity. Sen has seldom gone into such contrary moods. If the sequence of rioteering savagery on the bus is cruelly disturbing (Anjan Dutt, playing a petrified Jew, gives away the old Muslim couple to the riots and sobs, "They would have killed me. I don't have foreskin"), the scenes at the abandoned forest guesthouse between Meenakshi and Raja are lyrical.
Both moods are punctuated with passion by Ustad Zakir Hussain's background music and songs. In knitting irreconcilable moods and atmospheric pressures, Hussain proves himself a fine craftsman.
However, the sequences following the bus ambush need to be tightened. Everyone seems to have survived the trauma of the previous night and are back to the daily grind. This is perhaps the point that the director wishes to make about our insensitivity to communal violence.
On most occasions, Mr & Mrs Iyer blends social comment with a cinematic certitude without falling into the crevice that separates the two. Technically, this Aparna Sen's soundest work to date. If Hussain creates sounds within the seesaw of silences and screams, cinematographer Gautam Ghose creates a lucid contrast between the silently majestic Himalayan hinterland and the fundamentalists.
As Mrs Iyer and her 'adopted' husband journey across the mountainous trauma, we wonder if the film would have worked with any other two actors. Konkana Sen with her dead-on Tamilian accent hits you with her unspoilt charm.
Rahul Bose's subtle expressions make us wonder constantly whether we are missing something. Bose plays Raja Sen with compassion and sensitivity. His comfort level with the child is perceptible.
Some of the supporting cast, especially Surekha Sikri and Bhisham Sahni, are also admirable in their surrender to Aparna Sen's immeasurable misgivings as a creative artiste caught in times and issues that have to be addressed in her art.
Many decades ago, in M S Sathyu's Garam Hawa, Balraj Sahni, a Muslim patriarch, chose not to migrate to Pakistan. Today, in Aparna Sen's film, Balrajs brother Bhisham's character is dragged down from a bus with his wife and killed by Hindu fanatics.
Did the man in Garam Hawa make a mistake? Hidden away behind the rustling romanticism of Aparna Sen's vision, Mr & Mrs Iyer asks this deeply disturbing question through characters who are caught in a crisis far larger than them and yet an essential part of their lives.
The film is slated for an Indian release mid-November.
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