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Aparna Sen talks to Gowri Ramnarayan about her transformation from an actress to a film maker

From "Mr. and Mrs. Iyer".

WHY DID she choose a Tamil Brahmin woman, and not a Gujarati or Punjabi, as the protagonist in "Mr. and Mrs. Iyer"? It was with a mischievous twinkle that the film maker answered, "Because I don't think I could have found the combination of deep-rooted traditionalism and sharp intelligence in any other part of the country." Aparna Sen was in her element at Ellements, the Chennai-based international women's organisation, where she talked about her work from her debut as actor in Satyajit Ray's "Teen Kanya," to her first directorial feature "36, Chowringhee Lane," screened in the city last week.

The event had Surekha Kothari as moderator, with Uma Ganesan (Cleveland Cultural Alliance), Tim Murari (writer/film maker) and Pradipto Mahapatra (president and CEO, RPG Enterprises) as panellists.

Surekha Kothari

How did the actor become film maker? "I was in this mainstream film in 1976 when I thought oh-my-God, will I be doing this kind of thing all my life?" To overcome her dissatisfaction, Sen began to write a short story. It took her five years to finish what finally ended up as a screenplay with a school teacher as protagonist.

Tim Murari

"Like all Bengalis, I too had Communist ideals then, but knew so little about farmers and workers that I had to find a subject from personal experience." And the old Anglo-Indian teacher from her convent days became a metaphor for loneliness and marginalisation. Sen added that though she felt strongly about women's issues, she was really looking at the human condition. She was keen to bring as much of the teeming diversity of India to the screen as she could, particularly as formula-ridden mainstream Hindi cinema — with its upper class Hindu macho protagonists — is identified as `Indian' cinema, accompanied by Punjabi music, projected as the only kind of music in this country.

However, with globalisation making it everywhere accessible "it's an exciting time for mainstream films," she conceded. But no transformations, Hindi cinema remains as formula-ridden as before, with very few features daring to be even a little different, like "Koi Mil Gaya" which had a challenged person as hero, and Sanjay Leela Bhansali opting for a deaf-mute heroine in his "Black." However, such offbeat characters are rarely real, remaining "beautifully blind or exquisitely dumb." Communities other than the monocultural segment under focus, register only a token presence on the Bollywood screen. Even the music, though drawn from folk and classical streams, is synthetic. All this leads to a warped notion of India, particularly for roots-thirsty NRIs feeding on the mainstream.

Sen's charisma had entered the room before she did in crimson bordered cream silk, but she most enchants in animated descriptions of forthcoming projects. "Gulel" (Hindi) looks at the strange relationship that grows between a Bihari Muslim professional killer hired for the first time and his rich Parsi victim in Mumbai. Sen has long been writing about the growing violence in Sananda, the Bengali magazine she edits. "Now I'm deeply concerned about mindless violence, and my way of looking at it differs from the male perspective. Nothing explicit, no blood and gore, not like Bush going to war for the sake of peace!" She aims at a subtlety that shocks more.

Pradipto Mahapatra

"The fact that he is more widely read doesn't make Ludlum a better writer than James Joyce," was her wry response to a question about the elitism of serious cinema. Sen added more reflectively, "Not everyone can communicate so widely and effortlessly as Chaplin could. But the great masters of cinema were acclaimed not because they made slow or difficult films, but because they touched hearts. As viewers, if you want a worthwhile experience you can't be lazy."

Sen recalled how as a child she had been forbidden to watch formula films and was taken to see the classics. Sadly, schools failed to educate children on film appreciation, and television made viewers passive, torpid.

"Goynaar Baaksho" is a film she longs to do, stalled due to lack of adequate funding. "Since the main character is a ghost it needs a lot of expensive digital optical work."

Uma Ganesan

The comedy tells the story of three generations of women, and their relationship with a box of jewels. Pishima (aunt) clings to it, her niece uses it as business capital, the grand niece gives it away to a worthy cause.

"I would love to do the role of Pishima myself, comedy is a challenge to measure an actor. But my mother pointed out rightly, that I don't have the figure for it. Ghosts are supposed to be wispy and wiry, and this one is fair and foul-mouthed too!" she chuckles.

Panellist Ganesan who had been Sen's schoolmate, recalled how young Aparna used to stride up and down the stage entertaining everyone with her parodies of different Indian accents rendering "The Charge of the Light Brigade." That sense of the absurd continues to be a refreshing part of Aparna Sen's personality. She certainly needs it in the demanding world of film making.

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