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November 23, 1998


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'I don't feel this war of the sexes is a good thing'

Aparna Sen. Click for bigger pic!
In her debut film she played a tomboyish village girl. In one scene, a squirrel was supposed to slip out of her hand. But at the crucial moment the fidgety squirrel just stayed put. "So I let it slip from my hand," she recalls. "And then, as if I suddenly realised it had gone, ran after it. I remember Bansi kaka (Bansi Chandragupta), the art director, said, "Oh hoy ni, hoy ni (Didn't work)." But Manik kaka (Satyajit Ray) said, "I rather liked it."

Aparna Sen doesn't need instructions any more. The shy schoolgirl from Samapti now calls the shots. On a recent visit to the US, the actress-director spoke to Sandip Roy about a remarkable career, both before and behind the camera.

How did Satyajit Ray discover you?

Satyajit and my father (Chidananda Das Gupta) knew each other since they were both 15, 16 years old. They were friends who discovered their love for cinema and music together. They also worked in an advertising company, which is now Clarion Advertising. When Satyajit was looking for someone to play Aparna in Apur Sansar he came to our house. It was my sister's birthday. I was in a skirt. He thought I was too young. Then Sharmila (Tagore) was found and cast. But I think he remembered that I was around and when he wanted to make Samapti (the last part of Teen Kanya) his wife Manku mashi remembered me. I was 13 or 14 -- in class 8 then.

Any incidents you remember about Samapti?

Oh, there was this sari I had to wear and I didn't have a blouse and I thought it was too thin and I started crying. I told my mother and she told Manku mashi. And she said, "Don't worry. We'll just have to tell Manik." I said, "You can't tell Manikkaka."

You know, at that age girls are painfully shy. And she said, "No, I have to tell him. He is the director." He was told. And he packed up shooting that day. Next day I got a thicker sari. I was mortified. But the incident was never referred to again. All he would keep telling me was, "Nobody is looking at you. No one is here," because I kept covering myself.

Was it hard to shake off your urban sophistication to play a village girl?

Yes, but I don't think Manik kaka cared too much about that. There were a lot of things wrong with my pronunciation as was with Rinku's (Sharmila Tagore's). But he said "Oh ei shob English mediumey pora meyeder ektu erokom hoy (Oh these girls who study in English medium schools are a bit like that).

When you finally saw Samapti on screen, what did you think?

Now I see the innocence and fun of it. Then I hated myself. I thought I looked awful and had acted badly. Our idea of prettiness at that time was very soppy. When the photographer Brian Brake came to shoot the Indian monsoon, he took me up to the roof of this zamindar's house where we were staying and had me sprayed with a hose pipe, or a watering can, and got these droplets of water on my face.

That photograph came out everywhere -- Life and Paris Match ! I was so embarrassed. I thought I looked awful. I was just a vain little thing at that time. Brian inscribed it as the Monsoon Girl. (I think he forgot my name). And ever since then I have thought of that picture as the monsoon girl.

And there was this cartoon that came out in Punch with huge eyes. I didn't know what Punch was and I was so upset that they had made a caricature of me. I was a little girl more than anything else, unable to understand any of this.

After Samapti it was many years before you acted in a Ray film -- the short film, Pikoo?

In between I did two cameos in two others -- Aranyer Din Ratri and Seemabaddha.

Talking about you in a scene in Pikoo, Ray said, "She's probably not very adept at crying on the screen. There are certain actresses who have this difficulty. It called for about three-four takes before she can really weep." That must have been a handicap in Bengali cinema.

We never got to talking about that which I wish we had, because we were friends. I have done so many scenes of crying in cinema. I did a crying scene in his Seemabaddha -- a teardrop rolls down and I lick it off. He liked it very much. So I don't understand why he said this.

But I found it very difficult to cry in that scene (in Pikoo) because I didn't feel the tears were justified. I was supposed to see Pikoo down there playing with his flowers and feel I was betraying him. But I felt I was not betraying the child. I was betraying the father if I was betraying anyone. So I found that transition to crying difficult.

In Pikoo, I found it a little difficult, because I felt Satyajit had been very unsympathetic to the mother and the lover. I think Pikoo is a beautiful film, but the attitude towards the parents is judgmental.

Were there any other roles in his films you had wanted?

I'm sure you must have read that he was supposed to cast me as Bimala in Ghare Bairey. During the 1976 Film Festival in India, I was one of the jury members and he was the chairman. He said, "I'm going to cast you as Bimala."

I'd cut my hair very short and he got very angry and said, "Erokom bidhoba pishimar moto chul kaatley Bimala kora jaay na (If you cut your hair like a widowed aunt you can't do Bimala)." Then later he said, "We can't do Bimala now because the communal situation is not good in India."

So Ghare Bairey was postponed. And then when it was finally made again, he had cast Swatilekha. I didn't say anything. I think I would have done it better though.

As a director, what did you learn from him?

It was very difficult not to be influenced by him in the same way that writers were influenced by Tagore. At that time, he was like a huge banyan tree. We had come from the same kind of background -- enlightened liberal Brahmo stock. But in cinema what I really got from him was attention to detail. In fact he commented that in 36 Chowringhee Lane he liked the dense quality of the details.

Also, you will find that in almost all of his films, usually there are several motifs repeated again and again. I have done in it too like the tree in Paroma, the gramophone and Sir Toby, the cat, in36.

You had a short stint in Bombay. What was that like?

I did my first Bombay film because after Samapti, Baksa Badal and Akash Kusum didn't do too well. And I wasn't getting any offers. I was very upset and thought of going into advertising.

Then I got this offer from Bombay and against my father's wishes I accepted because I thought this would get me the desired attention in Bengal. Which happened and I gotAparajito, which was my first big commercial success, and then there was no looking back. I think the very fact that I was acting in a Bombay film added a certain glamour. And that made my career in Bengal. Which was what I wanted.

What was that first film in Bombay?

(Sighs) Oh,Vishwas. It was terrible. I would keep praying that it wouldn't be released.

What has been the impact of the Bombay film industry on Calcutta's film industry?

See, what Bengal had was the strength of the narrative. I think it actually is a weakness if you ask me, because the language of cinema was never allowed to grow. It instead borrowed heavily from literature. Our literature was very strong. So that strength imparted itself to the films. It was good healthy, strong narrative cinema -- nothing spectacular.

But Bombay had all the song and dance and fight routines that were photographed very well. And they were shooting in Kashmir and Kulu Manali and god knows where else. They had lots of money to spend. And all this captured the imagination of the audiences. So Bengal started to copy them and make a poor man's version of Bombay films, which were very bad.

Now what has happened is that they are frightened of boring the audiences. In the earlier films, say by Asit Sen and Ajay Kar, you would have certain moods created and pains taken to create those moods. Now they try to make their films very fast-paced. So they leave no emotional impact at all. And the audience gets bored anyway.

Was there a difference in playing a heroine in Bengali cinema and Hindi cinema?

'If I'd made more compromises I may have been more successful'

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