Aparna Sen's “Iti Mrinalini” underlines her subtle aesthetics in detailing visuals and finesse in emotional probes. The director tells how much of the film is inspired by her life

The film was shot in 33 days. The story is simple: an actor makes wrong choices, because she has no choice. With mother Aparna Sen and daughter Konkana Sen Sharma playing the same role, continuity and credibility are assured. The men in Mrinalini's life are convincingly portrayed as three strikingly different characters — two weak-kneed men, who are successful directors (Rajat Kapoor, Priyanshu Chatterjee); and an idealistic writer (Kaushik Sen), who keeps saying there are many kinds of love, love need not be pain, it can set you free.

“Iti Mrinalini” also has what one has come to associate with director Aparna Sen since her outstanding debut with “36, Chowringhee Lane” — accessibility, subtle aesthetics in detailing visuals, finesse in emotional probes. Political awareness underpins the narrative, as the film speculates on the cyclical nature of violence and the need for solace.

Loneliness, a recurrent theme with Sen, is here allied to the quest, not for fairytale happiness, but for steely wisdom, unfound maybe, but holding promise for the race, soul, survival. The denouement is masterly, a touch of O. Henry.

Excerpts from an interview with the ever-elegant Aparna Sen, who introduced “Iti Mrinalini” at the Chennai International Film Festival:

What made you pull out so much from personal life in “Iti Mrinalini”?

From personal life, yes, but not autobiographical. Like me, Mrinalini was a literature student with political-minded college friends, got pulled into mainstream cinema, but never totally part of it. She rejects a producer's offer with my own words from life: ‘You didn't want me when I had the dates. When you want me, I have none.'

Her love of books, words, poetry is yours. She completes other people's quotations from Mayakovsky, Tagore, Yeats. She edits scripts…the story of Karna and Kunti.

You know, I've actually translated that poem… And she's a control freak like me! We think we can control life by controlling our immediate circumstances. But we can't! I wanted to bring out the randomness in life.

With her intellectual attributes, the woman ended up in commercial cinema, and with a married mainstream director!

Even minor characters such as like the maid Kamala di, or the famous actoress in cameo linger…

From what's buried in the subconscious we make an amalgam. Kamala di was real, shy, shrinking, a poor widow with two daughters. She did get up at 3 a.m. to make lentil paste for local confectioners. I wrote about her in my editorial in Sananda as one of the women whom I admired.

Mrinalini explains that she stopped acting at the peak of her career when Satyajit Ray died because now she knew he never would call her. A personal reaction?

Women, especially actors, always want to look young. In “Iti Mrinalini” you are unabashed about accepting your age — shot yourself in bright sunlight, in the depressed, deglamorised moment…

Oh! The camera was brutal — moving close over veins… Well, I've got nothing to prove. My self-confidence doesn't come from my looks.

What's it like to direct Konkana now? How do you react to her Bollywood forays?

Earlier she was timid, more in awe of me! Always a very good, instinctual actor, now she's become confident, professional. If she disagrees she will still do it the director's way. I did get angry with her for cutting off the little wisp of hair we both have at the top of the forehead that emphasises the widow's peak without asking me!

You said you made least compromises in “The Japanese Wife”. What compromises are you compelled to make?

To capture the unbelievable surreal innocence in the story, I got the visual effects at a cost not quite recoverable in this kind of film. With “36, Chowringhee Lane” I wrote the script without thought of funding, audience or even making a film. Now the more one thinks of such things, the more one loses creative freedom. The pressure is not from producers, I'm the one who censors myself. I have wanted to do “Sitayan”, my own take on the Ramayana. It would need international funding to be filmed. I'm not good at that sort of thing. So I'm going to write it as a book.

Mr. and Mrs. Iyer and now Chintan Nair…

I find South Indian accents fascinating (laughing), sexy.

Though your Chintan Nair keeps saying there are many kinds of love, not just one, the way he looks at Mrinalini reveals he loves her as a man loves a woman. Where does the that leitmotif of loneliness in all your work come from?

I go deep into psyche, peel off the layers one by one. All human beings are lonely at the core. We come alone, we go alone.

It's banal to talk about women versus men directors. But isn't there a difference in perspective, especially in dealing with love? Young Mrinalini's first inexperienced lovemaking, seen through the fish tank… She's giggling, he's frustrated… You had this playfulness in “36, Chowringhee Lane” too.

It's difficult to do a love scene in Indian cinema. The censors are sitting on top of your head. It could be that our male directors are awkward with instructions, actors too aware of each other's bodies, you get the feeling of being ogled….

How do you get your actors to overcome inhibitions — not just in love scenes? either?

Workshops for actors before every film. For “Iti Mrinalini” we read poetry and discussed it. Improvised scenes of college students singing, laughing, debating… In my workshops actors are made to look like the characters, get familiar with clothes and accessories. I'm constantly looking at my actors. Rahul has a beautiful jawline? I'm going to use it! Actors are also props. A director's vision can make a hand on the table express so much! Remember how Ray used a single eye (Sharmila Tagore) in ‘Apur Sansar'? I choreograph my movements very carefully. Like Rajat Kapoor pacing against the black-and-white photographs of himself on the wall.

I've heard you even act out tricky situations. How many directors have helped you like that? Why do you say you aren't as happy with acting as directing?

“Iti Mrinalini” is not art cinema. The form is simple, the characters familiar. But do you think its writerly, readerly screenplay may limit its appeal? to viewers of a certain background?

I understand what you are saying. Everyone may not get the layers, but there's a basic story that I hope everyone will enjoy.