July 27, 2002 
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Aparna Sen
Aparna Sen makes a statement again
The Bengali director's Mr and Mrs Iyer is off to Locarno film festival this year

Two decades after her masterpiece, 36 Chowringhee Lane, undoubtedly one of the top ten Indian films, Aparna Sen is back with her second English film, Mr and Mrs Iyer.

A love story between a Bengali wildlife photographer and a married Tamilian Brahmin woman, set in the backdrop of fundamentalism and violence, the film stars Rahul Bose and Konkona (Sen's daughter).

The film ran into some problems with environmentalists while they were shooting in North Bengal, but it appears that all issues have been resolved.

The film has been chosen as the official selection at the Locarno film festival this year, of which actor Aamir Khan is a jury member.

Deepali Nandwani met Sen to talk about her film:

What prompted you to make a film set amidst the backdrop of violence?

Actually, it is not only about violence and fundamentalism. That is just a strain running through the film. It is actually about a journey of two people --- a Tamilian Brahmin woman Meenakshi Iyer, and a Bengali man, Raja Choudhury. It is about what happens when two people are thrown together in unforeseen circumstances, amidst something as destructive as a riot.

It is about how relationships grow and are nurtured when people are forced to be together on a journey. It leaves them both richer. In a sense, it is a road movie. About three-fourths of it happens with the passengers travelling in a bus --- from the hilly terrain of some indeterminate place in India down to the plains.

I kept the geographical setting undefined and unstated because it is a journey that could take place anywhere.

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How important is the backdrop of violence in the film?

The violence brings a little poignancy to the story. Fear and uncertainty brings the people together. Some of the timeless love stories --- English Patient, Dr Zhivago --- were set in the backdrop of violence. The film is set some time after the attacks on the Indian Parliament December 13, 2001.

I have been deeply concerned about the ugly head of fundamentalism that has been ravaging the country continuously. Violence once had no place in Indian society or its thought process. I have expressed this concern time and again in my editorials in Sananda, the Kolkata woman's fortnightly that I edit.

It pains me to see that the secularism that Jawaharlal Nehru and Mahatma Gandhi stood up for is almost extinct. Even among the urban middle class and the upper middle class, the so-called educated, enlightened class, secularism is absent.

Why did you choose English as your narrative?

That is because the film deals with characters from diverse backgrounds. While Raja Choudhary is a Bengali, Meenakshi Iyer is a Tamilian Brahmin. Obviously, she cannot speak Bengali. Even the other characters in the film come from different regions of India --- they represent the country's several parts and cultures. Like there is a Muslim couple, a Jew, even two Sikhs.

Don't we tend to speak to people from our community in our language, but with people from other communities in English?

English is the medium of communication for people all over India. I am also trying to reach the urban, young, English-speaking audience both in India and abroad.

What do you think of the spate of English films being made by Indian directors?

I think it is a positive trend, since they reach an audience that is beyond one particular group. But I also believe that a film should be made in English only if the subject deserves it, if it is a universal subject and if it talks to people beyond a certain region.

How did you decide the cast for the film?

Rahul Bose I had seen Rahul Bose's work in English August and Split Wide Open. He is a good actor, very controlled and intelligent. I made him go through a costume and makeup test, and felt he would be perfect for Raja Choudhary.

My daughter Konkona plays Mrs Iyer. I think she is a very sensitive actress. She puts in a lot of research into her work. She worked quite a lot to portray the character of Meenakshi, a postgraduate in Physics.

The rest of the cast include Bhisham Sahni and Surekha Sikri, who play a Muslim couple. Bharat Kaul plays an officer of the Rapid Action Force.

Was there anything you had to keep in mind while making the film?

I had to make sure that my characters spoke in English with their regional accent. I sent Konkona to Chennai for a week to learn the nuances of the Iyers --- not only the way the speak, their expressions, the way they drape their saris, their attitude to life, their culture and the way they fit, too.

Your cinematographer Gautam Ghose has worked as cameraman for one film, his own documentary. Why did you choose him as cameraman for your film?

He is not only a close friend of mine, he is also one of the best cinematographers I know. We have a lot in common, like our passion for filmmaking and our attitude towards life. I knew he would do justice to the film.

Among all your films, which do you consider your best?

Yuganto, which dealt with subjects like ambition, ecology, politics and relationships. It was about how success makes us compromise.

In terms of making a difference, it was Paroma, which dealt with an extra-marital relationship. It shocked the Bengali society, which is not yet ready to accept a woman's right to sexual freedom. It instigated a debate, made a statement.

Are you satisfied with the way Bengali cinema has evolved over the past few decades?

Mainstream Bengali cinema unashamedly tries to copy Bollywood. They forget that they don't have the kind of budgets that Hindi filmmakers have. With the kind of money Bollywood directors have, they can at least add drama, gloss and glamour to their films, even if the stories are uninspiring and run-of-the-mill.

Without the huge budgets, mainstream Bengali cinema falls flat on its face. What I am happy about, though, is the rise of realistic cinema. There is an audience for realistic cinema now in West Bengal. Gautam's Dekha, Rituparno Ghosh's Utsab and my Paromitar Ek Din did very well in Bengal, which is a good trend.

India News Feature Service


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