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June 4, 1999


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Double role

Aparna Sen
Chitralekha Basu in Calcutta

On the Bengali New Year, locals, passers-by and a few film-crazy folk swarmed around the sprawling courtyard of an old mansion in Hari Ghosh Street in north Calcutta. Some sneaked in while others craned their necks from the balconies of adjoining buildings to catch a glimpse of a sharp-featured, lanceolate-eyed lady clad in jeans and sneakers calling the shots. Aparna Sen was filming an elaborate Hindu ceremony done during the last rites of a person and almost the entire cast had come together.

The onlookers couldn't have known that this same woman would, within a couple of days, would slip out from behind the camera and face it, playing an elderly widow, wearing white with a dash of grey in her hair. But when the day came, despite the drab outfit, Sen still managed to look stunning.

Sen pottered about the sets, reconstructed on the floor of Technicians' Studio in Tollygunge, complete with stained-glass alcoves and walls made to look as if they hadn't been painted for years. She put all the bell-metal articles on one shelf and dusted the marble-topped dining table. "There should be a method as to how the room is arranged," she would say. "Can Sanaka's domain be so disorderly?"

She did umpteen rehearsals with the cast before each take because she was shooting on a shoe-string budget. The film had to be completed in just five weeks and she couldn't afford to shoot the same sequence more than twice; she would run behind the camera for a look and then run back again to face it, slipping in and out of her role with practised ease.

It wasn't as easy as it looks though. The producer of the film, Paromitar Ekdin (A Day in the Life of Paromita), had insisted that Sen play one of the two female leads.

"Had I been just the director I'd have felt the strains less," agrees Sen, hastening to add that in a way it is good that she is also acting. "Since I had written the character I understand it very well. To get somebody else to perform the way I want.... That's a difficult job."

Sen plays Sanaka, the gorgeous matriarch, a woman of great intelligence and personality who spends most of her life within the confines of a crumbling old Calcutta house. The film is woven around her relationship with Paromita, the young daughter-in-law who eventually walks out of her marriage but who maintains her link with her mother-in-law.

A still from Paromitar Ekdin
In Paromita, the educated, individualistic, rational and spirited woman, it is not difficult to find an extension of Sen herself. She is firm without being arrogant, gentle and loving to the members of her family by marriage without being subservient, and manages to retain her composure in the most tense situations.

A true replica of the way Sen is on the sets, as indeed in life. A life, in which she can and does accommodate a thousand things -- acting, direction, poetry recitals, editing a magazine, inaugurating events, decorating her home, playing mother and wife, picking up the odd vagrant woman from the street. In the film, when Paromita sees Sanaka for the first time -- when she enters the household after her wedding -- she looks at the old lady in awe and wonder. Sen too, with her versatility, leadership and ability to excel in whatever she does, continues to amaze us.

Every time she shoots in public places, there's a crowd. Even when she is shooting with a star cast, it is this attractive and quick-witted woman on the wrong side of 50 that people want to watch. Isn't celebrity an additional hassle for a filmmaker?

"On the contrary, it's easier," says Sen, always one to look at the positive side of things. "People are very receptive, ready to help. Actors will work for much less in my films, and technicians will put their best foot forward. When you have done some good work that has been recognised, people want to be associated with your work. That's an advantage."

The good work began with Satyajit Ray, who first cast her as the adolescent bride -- the tomboyish prankster who discovers the joys of wedded bliss -- in Teen Kanya (Three Daughters). Although Sen's parents (her father Chidananda Dasgupta is a critically-acclaimed film-maker) were heavily into the film society movement, which was why she was initiated early to quality films from the West, Ray was her guiding light.

When Sen wrote her first film, 36 Chowringhee Lane, it was Ray who went through the script, okayed it and suggested Shashi Kapoor as producer. The moving tale of a lonely Anglo-Indian school teacher, befriended by her ex-student and her boyfriend who used her vacant flat for their trysts and later disowned when they tie the knot, won many hearts and went on to win the Eagle Award at Manila.

Aparna Sen on the sets of Paromitar Ekdin
In the films that followed -- Paroma, Sati, Picnic and Yuganta -- Sen's lyrical, nostalgic mode of story-telling began to make way for a harsher, more complex, down-to-earth worldview. They also questioned the position of women in society, women of all kinds, the incarcerated housewife, the deaf and mute girl married off to a tree, the dependant widow who feels insecure when her brother-in-law, the provider, is attracted towards her sister, the talented dancer who stifles her desires for a child and a married life to further her career...

In Paromitar Ekdin, Sen wonders, "What happens to a relationship, which is socially determined by marriage, after a divorce. What happens to the feelings when the relationship does not officially exist any more?" What happens when the daughter-in-law cannot participate in the last rites of the mother-in-law who she so loved and admired, and is no less bereaved than others in the family?

At a time when the idea of joint families, and evening living with in-laws, is becoming passe, the film can perhaps be viewed as a nostalgia trip, if not an elegy. It is about paan-chewing women who wear the house keys in a big bunch tied to their saree-end and spend the afternoons on the verandah, tying each other's hair, exchanging notes about their lives. Bengali rituals associated with marriage and childbirth have been picturised in elaborate detail.

So, was Sen trying to record the elements of a receding era, weaving an old-world charm? "Aatkarai is the ritual performed when a male child is born," explains Sen. "I wanted to show the family members were ecstatic at the birth of a male child, so that I could show the reversal when the child turns out to be a spastic." The blame, inevitably, is heaped on Paromita for giving birth to a freak.

The reluctance to face up to the so-called aberrations that exist in society -- be it physical or mental disability in people or extraordinary human behaviour -- is something Sen feels strongly about. There is Sudhapishi in Paroma, the mentally-deranged aunt who stayed locked up in the room on the roof -- an object of curiosity for the children.

In Paromitar Ekdin, Khuku, Sanaka's daughter, is a schizophrenic, who sometimes breaks into beautiful songs. Why do these madwomen in the attic keep returning to her films? Sen's contention is the psychological problems, though rampant in society, are hardly ever dealt with realistically in Indian films. That they are either glamorised or "treated as objects of pity. But they are part of the human race as well".

A still from Paromitar Ekdin
Her ability to empathise with the sick, the repressed, the mentally challenged and the women who don't want to remain trapped forever in a wrong marriage springs out of her sensitive nature, her concern for those around her. Which gels well with her intellect, her modern dress sense and outlook, her English education and her love for poetry.

In the sixties, she had arrived on the screen -- the answer to the educated and culture middle-class Bengali's desires and dreams. Only the other day, her role as the ageing danseuse caught in a difficult relationship with her daughter in Rituparno Ghosh's Unishe April proved once again what a consummate actress she is, that she hadn't lost her magic touch even after acting in a whole lot of potboilers.

What keeps her going? Perhaps curiosity, a sense of wonderment. She is a romantic, one of the last that we have. Who can forget the young son in Paroma telling his young brother about the possibility of discovering a new galaxy as they lie side by side at night, in a house that has just begun to cool down after an ugly fight between their parents? In Yuganta, when the heroine suddenly plunges into the pool on a rainy day, her skirt billowing, just to shock her boyfriend, which adventure-loving young woman wouldn't want to be in her shoes?

Late in October this year, at the time of the annual Durga Puja, the people of Bengal will hit the streets dressed in their festive best and some of them walk into a theatre showing Paromitar Ekdin. They might not know that the film is the product of the combined effort of a dedicated team, each of whose members did their best just to be a part of Rinadi's -- as they all call Sen -- creative enterprise.

They won't know that the matinee idol of yesteryear who has made her mark as director-actress both home and abroad, addresses most of her colleagues with the more endearing tui (you), rather than the formal apni; they won't know how she first rushes rushing to hitch up the saree of the actress playing a servant because maids don't let their sarees cover their ankles when they're mopping the floor and, in the next moment, cuddles the spastic child as a reward for a perfect shot he's just given.

They won't that the film is about building relationships really, relationships that endure -- not just involving Sanaka and Paromita who meets as strangers and are separated under extraneous circumstances yet continue to occupy a special place in each other's hearts, but also that between all those people who were involved in the making of the film and the person whose baby it is.

But does it matter as long as they like it?

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