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June 30, 1999


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'The film is its own message'

Aparna Sen. Click for bigger pic!
Shoma A Chatterji

This is one woman who has broken every rule in the book and, yet, is touted as the ideal daughter, sister, mother, and now, a grandmother.

You would find it difficult to believe the grandmother bit if you see her in person. She is very pretty and that kind of pulchritude often tends to detracts from her other abilities, the most prominent among them being direction.

Sometimes back, when Femina decided to celebrate the contribution of Indian women during the golden anniversary of Indian Independence, her name shared the stage with those of Lata Mangeshkar, Indira Gandhi and Mother Teresa. And the British Film Institute's book released to celebrate a hundred years of cinema features Aparna Sen as being among the top directors in India.

Aparna ruled the Bengali cinema, both mainstream and what was termed parallel cinema, for nearly two decades. Yet, she maintains, without sounding hypocritically modest, that she is a mediocre actress. She debuted as director with an English film, 36, Chowringhee Lane, in 1981, surprising everyone with her deep empathy of an old, Anglo-Indian schoolteacher, Violet Stoneham, in Calcutta who survives social estrangement and is taken advantage of by a student who uses her house for her love trysts.

In 1986, Sen directed Paroma, with Raakhee in the title role. And it flew in the face of the middle-class morality imposed on the Bengali housewife and mother.

Sati in 1991, was her third film and the one for which she got the most flak.

This period film starred Shabana Azmi in the role of a mute young woman who is perforce married to a tree to prove wrong the assertion in her horoscope that she's destined to remain a widow.

Around the same time, Sen made a telefilm called Picnic in Hindi, which was telecast on the national network. This was about a conflicting relationship between two sisters, one a young widow, and another an unmarried miss.

In 1996-97 came Yugant, a post-modernist exploration of man-woman relationships within marriage in contemporary India. After having sped through a telefilm called Calcutta -- the Undying City, Sen is now engaged in the post-production work of her latest film, Paromitar Ek Din ( A Day in the Life of Paromita).

In all the films she directed, she herself drew up the storylines and scripts.

Faced by such a surfeit of talent, you decide only Aparna herself can classify her films.

"Neither do I make experimental cinema, nor do I make formula films. I make films that are true to my artistic vision. I think its important to make films which do not alienate the audience. I think the director can induce the viewer to come to the theatres by making films that are realistic as well as entertaining.

"The story has always been the backbone of my films. But, frankly, I am bored with stark realism. In Yugant for example, I do not have a linear story structure. The film develops in a series of fluid movements between the past and the present."

36, Chowringhee Lane 1981
Paroma 1986
Sati 1989
Picnic (telefilm) 1991
Yugant 1996
Calcutta, the Undying City (documentary) 1998
Though direction is where she's most comfortable, there are she has other facets too. For Aparna is the hyperactive editor of Sananda, West Bengal's highest circulated woman's magazine in Bengali, brought out by the Ananda Bazar Patrika group.

Not only does she pen the editorial herself unlike several star editors, but she also oversees the editorial content and the picture pages in each issue. With excellent advertising support, Sananda has been doing very well over a decade and now it doesn't restrict itself to a female audience anymore.

She also did the title roles in two Bengali commercial plays, Pannabai (1989) and Bhalo Kharap Meye (1991), both of which turned out to be big hits, thanks to the presence of the star.

The plays were invited to perform in several cities in the US. That was when she met, fell in love with, and married a literature professor, Kalyan Roy Choudhury, who teaches English literature at the University of Los Angeles. They meet during his vacations to India and when Aparna to the US, during breaks in film-making and leave from editing Sananda.

Aparna was married twice earlier. Her first marriage, to ad-film-maker Sanjoy Sen, ended in separation. Sanjoy died soon after and Aparna had to cope with a little daughter. She later married journalist Mukul Sharma and had another daughter, Konkona. When Mukul migrated to Bombay, the couple grew apart and Aparna now lives alone. Her older daughter, a PhD in sociology, is married to an economist and has settled in the US with him. The couple has a three-year-old daughter.

Konkona, is still studying, and has dreams of making her mark in cinema, albeit behind the camera.

Aparna's consistently strong and deep-rooted aesthetic sensibilities (in the context of cinema at least) is attributable, to a large extent, to her grooming in an environment where films played an important role.

"In his young days, my father strove untiringly to gain a respectable hold for the film society movement. He co-founded the Calcutta Film Society with Satyajit Ray and Bansi Chandragupta, made two delightful films himself and has remained singularly devoted to the cause of legitimate cinema," she says.

Aparna made her debut in films at 15, playing Mrinmoyee, the child-bride in Satyajit Ray's Teen Kanya (1961), based on a Tagore short story.

"Even as a little girl, I knew and heard people who were to become famous filmmakers in years to come. To know Bunuel and Bazin, I did not have to step out of my house. My father and his friends discussed them at home."

But, as critic Bhaskar Sinha says, "It is entirely to her credit that all thorough her stint as an actress in the commercial set-up, Aparna Sen could keep all that she had imbibed safely stored away in an attic somewhere in her mind till the day she started writing the scenario of 36, Chowringhee Lane." The film carried away the Grand Prix at Manila.

Asked about the women's issues projected through her films, Aparna admitted, "Yes. I'm concerned about women's issues. As a humanist, I feel strongly about it and have raised my voice on many issues. But cinema is not my platform for protesting. For me, cinema is a very personal, creative genre, like writing poetry. In fact, cinema to me is poetry on celluloid. But since cinema as a medium is very expensive, it perhaps, cannot be as personal as poetry."

Click for bigger pic!
Her spacious apartment at Alipore Park Road, an elite pocket of Calcutta, is tastefully done with ethnic wall hangings, wood carvings, bronze and copper bric-a-bracs and a photograph of Aparna with her husband.

Aparna is a very private person. She refrains from talking about her personal life and does not care about the gossip mags twisting fact to sate their need for the sensational. Seeing in her a woman who has transcended patriarchal barriers through merit, she raises some questions about the demands of conventional morality.

But her daughters still cling to her for moral and emotional support. It could have something to do her experience as the dependable eldest daughter of ageing parents. Her 77-year-old filmmaker journalist father even once said that his best production to date was Aparna Sen. And in the middle of the conversation, one suddenly finds the affectionate grandmother dying to meet her tiny little granddaughter far away in the US.

You probe beneath the surface and you find Aparna Sen tries to explore the many facets of female bonding.

From 36, Chowringhee Lane, it has grown and matured in Paromitar Ek Din. Her films also reveal a deep concern for the elderly, much before she qualified for the label herself. If Violet Stoneham was an ageing schoolteacher trying to cope with her loneliness in what was increasingly becoming an alien social milieu, then Sanaka of Paromitar Ek Din feels hurt and betrayed when her daughter-in-law Paromita, who she is closest to, decides to leave her marital home, divorcing her husband, Sanaka's son.

For the first time in her directorial career, Aparna is playing one of the two major roles in the film, that of Sanaka, who clings to Paromita for emotional support. Does it make it easier to do the role since she's also the director, we ask.

"I personally didn't want to do such an important role in my own film. I wanted Raakhee or, perhaps Shabana to play Sanaka. But I am working on a shoe-string budget, for one. For another, my producer laid down the condition that he'd put in money only if I did one important role in the film.

"But I now find that this has turned out to be an advantage. I find it easier to empathise with the characters when I am playing one of them. I am constantly stepping into their shoes to find out what their problems are. Even when I am acting -- because I have been an actress -- it's easy for me to find out what the problem in the execution is," she says as she heads for her make-up room to change for the next shot. She stops.

"I like to handle subjects that are more subtle and complex. I think mother-daughter relationships are also extremely complex. That between sisters, which I dealt with in Picnic, is also complex. But in a mother-daughter relationship, affection is something you can take completely for granted. Real affection may not exist between a mother-in-law and daughter-in-law. In my film, it does. It grows," says Aparna before going off.

Aparna Sen is clearly a director's actress. But she ended up more a star than an actress due to the demands commercial cinema placed on her. And because she needs decent direction, she has ended up giving mediocre performances in bad films or in films directed shoddily.

Click for bigger pic!
But give her a good director -- even if it be herself -- and she's on firmer ground. Examples of these are her roles in Satyajit Ray's films, in Mrinal Sen's Ek Din Achanak in which she did a special appearance, in Prabhat Roy's Swet Patharer Thala (The Marble Plate) and, of course, who can forget her in Rituparna Ghosh's Unishe April?

The transformation in Aparna, as she comes out of the make-up room, is amazing. A change in sari, make-up and body language, and she's slipped under Sanaka's skin.

Just before the camera was to roll, she goes behind the camera to peer through the lens to see how exactly the scene will appear on the large-screen.

"I've seen many women flower after the deaths of their husbands," Aparna says. "Sanaka is one of them.

"She had an unhappy marriage and thought all marriages were the same. This belief was reinforced when her own son's marriage to Paromita breaks up. The transgenerational change in women within marriage comes out through the characters of these two women. Sanaka continues to live through an unhappy marriage. Paromita doesn't. It all came out almost naturally in the script," she says.

Her crew members are very, very fond of their director and quite a few staffers of Sananda have smuggled their way into the Paromitar Ek Din team.

Among there is Amiruddha Dhar, a film critic who is assisting her. Ladly Mukherjee, a documentary filmmaker has stopped his own work to pitch in.

A novel experiment Aparna began before she begin to shoot this film was a long theatre workshop conducted along with her childhood friend and theatre-person Sohag Sen. The entire cast participated in this workshop where they considered each other's actions and reactions in hypothetical situations from life. They then rehearsed their roles, scene by scene. This helped them to get to know each other, and to become comfortable with the characters they were to portray.

The greatest beneficiaries of the workshop have been the award-winning Rituparna Sengupta who plays Paromita and newcomer Sohani Sengupta who portrays Khuku, the schizophrenic daughter of Sanaka. Both have reportedly given incredible performances in the film.

We wonder if Aparna Sen would expand into writing too. Her scripts are highly descriptive in terms of directions, physical details of set objects, costume changes etc. They offer textbook material for a budding filmmaker. Her editorials in Sananda reflect her awareness of the world around her. Her Bengali reveals a fluid smoothness that is reflective of her persona. But we don't voice our views.

Aparna likes ethnic clothes, simple food cooked in little or no oil, and wears little make-up, She reads a lot but refuses to use her films to propagate an ideology.

"I really do not know why people keep on at me about what message do I have. I do not -- cannot -- put any message consciously into a film. As the film unfolds, a message or a statement evolves and unfolds of its own to touch a part of the audience. I have not, repeat, not, put it there. Because people are desperately looking for a message when there just isn't one, many of them totally misinterpret the crux of the story. But one learns to live with all this as one goes along."

Easy to live with things if you're Aparna, isn't it?

Double role

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