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November 23, 1998


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

Aparna Sen in Hullabaloo Over Georgie and Bonnie's Pictures
First of all, I found it very difficult to act in Hindi. I was not comfortable with the inflection. In Bombay, I found a lot of attention was paid constantly to glamour, and not so much to acting. And besides when I was making my Hindi films, I was not sufficiently experienced, acting-wise. But by the time I did Kotwal Saab with Hrishida (Hrishikesh Mukherjee) I was much more comfortable, though I still kept refusing roles.

I did get an offer for Ankur. But when Shyam Benegal sent me the script and said I was to be a Hyderabadi servant girl and I would have to speak a dialect with smatterings of Telugu in it, it was so far from anything I'd experienced, I was very frightened. When he called I said I liked the synopsis very much but I didn't think I could do the film. And before I could explain he said, "That's fine. Just send the synopsis back." And I couldn't explain that I was frightened. Perhaps if I had, he would have reassured me. But I am glad because I think Shabana was just made for that role.

What about international films? I know you did a few films with Merchant-Ivory. Do you want to do that more?

Well I got the offer forMadame Souzatska, a role which Shabana eventually did. But at that time I was busy with my own direction. In fact, I gave them Shabana's number.

Is direction something you always wanted to do?

I grew up in a film lovers' family and I have been watching the best of world cinema from age six. I found the kind of films I was acting in were not the kind of films that I liked. During shooting, I'd think, "Oh god, I wish they hadn't written the scene in this way." And I thought, let me do something else. Let me write. So I started writing a short story about an old schoolteacher. As I wrote I found it was becoming a screenplay. I took it to Satyajit and he said, "Why don't you make a film of it?" and suggested Shashi Kapoor as the producer.

In 36 Chowringhee Lane, did you write the part of Miss Stoneham for Jennifer Kapoor?

No, I had thought I would get a real Anglo-Indian lady -- an older lady with wispy hair but I wasn't sure if she could really act. And the role was very demanding. Utpal Dutt suggested Jennifer. I'd seen her in Junoon and was wondering how such a graceful straight-backed person could play someone like Miss Stoneham but Utpalda said, "You forget that she is a very good actress."

So I approached Jennifer and she did some photo-sessions after I explained how she should look dumpy. I had imagined her with mousy blond hair. But Jennifer said, "If I leave my hair loose I will look younger. But if I put it in a bun I will look older." She said, "Don't worry. I can think wrinkles" and she did. On her own, she had some dresses made out of chintz.

Were you upset when Rekha won the national best actress award for Umrao Jaan that year?

Rekha said something very funny. I believe she said "Milna to Jennifer ko chahiye tha lekin ab jab mujhe mil gaya to mai wapas nahin doongi (It should have gone to Jennifer but now that I've got it, I'm not giving it back). I think someone on the jury said, "Well, Jennifer didn't really act. She was just behaving."

Jennifer said it was the best compliment she could have got. Shashi was very cut up and so was I. We were both very upset. If anybody ever deserved an award for acting it was Jennifer in36. I think it was just a stupid decision. I probably risk angering whoever was on the jury then, but I still think it was a stupid decision.

Film critic T G Vaidyanathan commented, 'Miss Stoneham and her ilk deserve to be quietly forgotten. They belong to the dustbin of history.' Were you moved by genuine compassion for the Miss Stonehams of the world?

Indeed I was. There was a lot of guilt for not having appreciated enough the affection they gave us. Shabana wrote to me after seeing that film was that she went to see an old teacher of hers.

I think that statement by Vaidyanthan is a cruel, unfeeling, insensitive statement. Anglo-Indians have had a hard time. I am sure they are also much to blame for not being able to adjust but I was speaking about the loneliness of an old lady. Because she is marginalised, her loneliness is that much more poignant.

In McCluskiegunj I met an old lady who was looking after someone's house. She was getting something like 300 rupees a month. All her relatives had gone away to Canada or Australia. They had moved and she didn't have the addresses any more and so she lost her whole family.

Of course, now, as things change, they become part of history, but why should they go into the dustbin of history?

36, I think, was a landmark in the way that it depicted sexuality, that too premarital sex, head-on on screen. Was it hard to persuade Debasree Roy to play that role?

No, no. I told her right in the beginning that there would be those scenes. She was a little uncomfortable, but it was OK. She was very young then. I feel scenes of sexual intimacy are ruined if the director is embarrassed. I wasn't embarrassed. There was nothing in it that I thought was obscene.

Why did you use your own voice for the film for Debasree's voice?

Oh, that was mainly because then we would have to get Debasree over and put her up, and it would take much longer. Also, Dhritiman Chatterjee who was playing the boy was a good deal older than her. So we wanted a voice that was slightly older.

What shocked people more - the premarital sex of 36 or the extramarital affair of Paroma?

Oh, Paroma! They found it shocking because it was never talked about and most people felt there were some home truths in it. People were kind of outraged and threatened. They still talk about it.

When the woman's growth is the central theme of a film it is often expressed through some aspect of her sexuality, whether it is Paroma then or Fire now?

Not always. Think of Ray's Mahanagar. Her growth is expressed in terms of her moral decisions, her integrity. But in Paroma, I realised that with the new liberalism that has spread to the Bengali middle-class, we are prepared to accept a woman's choices in many areas, but not the sexual.

A woman's independence means her independence to do higher studies, to perhaps flout family authority and do her own work. It can extend up to choosing her own husband. But if it becomes directly a matter of sex she is not supposed to have it.

Did the fact that the character of Paroma could have been an easily identifiable boudi or a mashi in a Bengali joint family raise the hackles of the Bengali bhadrolok?

Oh my god, yes. In Calcutta, people were so angry. I think that's good because that means you hit home somewhere. See, this has always fascinated me, this thing about shasuri (mother-in-law) and bou (daughter-in-law) relationship or a boudiand a nanad(sister-in-law) relationship.

Is it based on the relationship between the husband and the wife or is it a one to one relationship? What happens when there is a divorce? Does the relationship between the mother-in-law and daughter-in-law come to an end? Here, Paroma's relationship with her in-laws was very good but this one incident turns everybody against her. As if all the rest had no intrinsic value.

In films about extramarital affairs, directors often give the audience an out -- perhaps the husband is abusive. But you very knowingly take the risk of showing a woman who is apparently in a contented if somewhat bland marriage?

I also tried to show that her marriage was very empty. A marriage doesn't have to be bad only if the husband is abusive. When they make love, he is talking about a business deal, she's talking about a house that they could get. It's basically more a marriage of convenience and it is always on his terms. It's very feudal, the whole thing.

I read in May You Be The Mother Of Hundred Sons that the story of the photographer visiting Paroma's home echoes what happened to you.

(Laughs) I don't know why Elizabeth (Bumiller) said that. There was no photographer that I was involved with. Paroma wasn't me. I never had an identity crisis and this whole film was about an identity crisis.

People call it a film about an extramarital affair but that is seeing it very superficially. It is like saying Lady Chatterley's Lover is only about an affair between a gamekeeper and somebody's wife and ignoring the whole class issue.

Paroma drew on the experiences of some of my friends, in particular a friend who was very good in college and then became resigned to being a housewife, and I thought where the real person had gone.

This is the friend who said that if she got one compliment she could nurture it and live on it for months?

Yes, it is very poignant but this is something that happens to so many women. I have seen it in some of my mother's friends, some of my own friends who have been very, very bright in school and college. Life can just be wasted. I am not saying it is not important to be a mother and wife. But I think it should be voluntary. All the giving that one does should be voluntary and not obligatory.

Were you giving your Monsoon Girl photograph a kind of nostalgic salute in Paroma when Rahul sends Paroma that picture of her bare-shouldered and wet?

Not really. That's funny. That could have been part of one's subconscious. It could have been a tribute to Brian Brake, yes. I also wanted a picture that would be compromising for her yet not be very revealing, because then it would have been very cruel of Rahul to have sent it.

But having lived abroad for so long, he wouldn't think anything of a close-up with a bare shoulder. The implication of that would be lost on him but not on her family.

As a woman film-maker do you find this pressure to make sure your films are 'feminist'?

I was hailed as a kind of feminist messiah after Paroma. I kept objecting and kept saying that feminism to me is a part of humanism. While I feel that women's issues need to be addressed I don't feel that this war of the sexes is a good thing.

An article in The Hindu alleged that in your latest film, Yugant, you favoured the male protagonist.

Yugant is not a feminist film at all. It shows how the disintegration of the marital relationship is part of a greater disintegration all around of us of ecology and values.

Here the woman starts where Paroma left off. The man and the woman are absolute equals. He is not happy and wants to do something more meaningful. Whereas as she gets more and more successful, she is the one who compromises. And I have seen what price you have to pay for success a lot of the time . And the compromises that artists make.

But it is very difficult to apportion blame in this film. Sometimes you feel the wife is right and there are times when you feel the husband is right. Each has his or her point of view and I think I have really divided myself into the husband and the wife. I have faced those kind of philosophical questions and, sometimes, I have been as practical as she is.

As an artist do you feel that you have had to make a lot of compromises in your career to be successful?

No, but I think if I'd made more compromises I may have been more successful.

As times change and more and more women enter the workforce, how is it altering the family dynamics?

I wish, it was altering it more. In matrimonial ads now people want a good-looking fair, high caste and earning woman. So she has to do all that and the work at home. And that conditioning is pretty deep. I'm into that myself.

It's so important for me to keep a good house. I take a lot of pleasure in cooking and I think there is a lot in common between cooking and film-making. You put all these ingredients together to make something wholesome. Except the rewards in cooking come a little sooner.

Since you brought up cooking, what did you hope to do as editor of the women's magazine Sananda?

I don't want to use my cinema as a platform for preaching anything. I thought Sananda might provide an interesting platform for awareness raising. Except, of course, it is essentially consumerist in nature. But I think I have managed to combine that interestingly. For instance you have the regular beauty and cookery routine.

At the same time there will be articles on ecology, about legal rights of women, Medha Patkar and the Narmada issue, a debate about whether housewives should be remunerated for their work. Sananda also helps me not to compromise in the one area that I love the most -- film-making, because it gives me an alternative means of livelihood.

Many celebrities have become very active with causes they hold dear. Are there any such causes for you?

I have worked on different issues in small ways as a supporter rather than an activist like cornea donation, awareness raising programs about thalassemia, to encourage people to get a blood test before marriage to avoid thalassemic children.

On the personal front, you recently got married to a professor in the US. How does a long-distance marriage work?

(Laughs) I'd advise it for a lot of people. In the summer, we spend about five months together. He comes again in the winter. When we are together we give each other time. In many marriages I see around me, people live together but don't really see each other. The wife says, "He goes off to play golf in the morning and then I've gone to work by the time he gets home. And then in the evening we have to go a party." So I'm pretty happy.

What about your daughters?

The younger one is a good actress. The older one is studying criminal justice. I don't interfere at all.

What advice would you give your daughter -- actress to actress?

To read. To see. To be interested in people. To experience life to the fullest.

Have you?

The moment you get established you run into a problem -- you are recognised. You can't go anywhere. You are cut off. That's one of the limitations. I used to go to Shanti Niketan in a burkha in a second class compartment. But, yes, I have experienced life to the fullest -- as much as I could.

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