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I deal only with individuals. Even if an ‘ism’ surfaces, it is not underlined: Aparna Sen

Chronicler of human experiences: Aparna Sen has a deep and abiding faith in human goodness

Chronicler of human experiences: Aparna Sen has a deep and abiding faith in human goodness

Like her films, Aparna Sen has a lot to say. Like her films, it is seldom on the surface; it is only when you process it that you get the essence. The celebrated actor-director was in Delhi recently to participate in an international symposium on ‘Creativity and Freedom’, organised by the Kolkata-based CIMA Gallery, Ashoka University and India International Centre. As a film writer, one is always keen to know what was playing on the director’s mind when she shaped certain characters. For Aparna, one has a long list. From trivial details like why did she name the photographer in “Paroma” as Rahul Rai? Did the fact that Aparna was herself photographed by a celebrated photographer for Life magazine play on her mind when she was writing the Rakhee-starrer? Aparna says, “no”, with a smile. She reveals that she met Raghu Rai much later though she was aware of his work. During the course of the interview, she admits that some things that exist in the subconscious mind do slip into the narrative. Perhaps, it addresses the more complex questions like the bond between the mother-in-law and her daughter-in-law in her “Paromitar Ek Din” (House of Memories) or giving a woman agency in a communal riot-like situation in “Mr. & Mrs. Iyer”.

Edited excerpts:

What are your thoughts on the theme: ‘Creativity and Freedom’?

Well, not only cinema but in every sphere! I believe this is the raging topic of the day because your creative freedom is being suppressed in so many areas. At the drop of a hat, people have begun to take offence. You can’t write, paint, make films without worrying about some faction or other whose ‘sentiments’ will be hurt! If you critique the state of affairs in your country in any way, you are branded an anti-national. Freedom of expression, which is a fundamental democratic right granted to us by our constitution, is under threat today.

Many different groups of people have become more sensitive than they used to be. They are well within their rights to object to something a filmmaker may have said, but they often indulge in rioting or vandalising cinema halls or forcibly stopping entry into theatres. The various state governments, which should be dealing with such law and order problems, put a stay on the release of the film. For a creative person, the atmosphere is stifling!

Rahul Bose and Konkana Sensharma in Aparna Sen's English film 'Mr. and Mrs. Iyer'.

Rahul Bose and Konkana Sensharma in Aparna Sen's English film "Mr. and Mrs. Iyer".

Did you ever face censorship?

During ‘Mr. and Mrs. Iyer’, some dialogues were cut out in Mumbai and Pune if I remember correctly. The consensus was that what had been said about Muslims in the film would enrage them and create law and order problems. But you have to take into account the intent of the film. One person or a character saying something derogatory about a Muslim doesn’t mean that the filmmaker herself is against the community. In fact, she is trying to say that such comments should not be made. Unfortunately, a scene or a piece of dialogue in a film is taken out of context and judged.

Your films had female characters at the centre of the narrative much before it became a trend. What were your concerns?

Look, I make films about individuals. But I do have my politics. No person is apolitical. The very act of voting is a political act. But I don’t make a film as a platform for my politics. My real interest is the psychology of the individual. The individual herself is part of the system, part of many converging political ideologies. When I make a film about a woman, it is possible that my feminist politics surfaces somewhere but it is not with the intention of propagating feminism. I certainly am a feminist but, in my cinema, I don’t talk about any ‘isms’. I deal only with individuals; even if an ‘ism’ surfaces, it is not underlined.

How it has evolved over the years and if we could compare it with the present?

It is very interesting because earlier when we were making such films, many men were also making women-centric films. But most of them and many feminist filmmakers, in particular, were talking about women negotiating space for themselves in a male-dominated society. Women were mostly shown as persons trying to fulfil their own potential. A notable exception is ‘Mahanagar’ by Satyajit Ray. Here you find a very early feminist narrative where the man and the woman are treated as equal. At the end of the film, when both are without jobs, both stand looking out at the city stretched out before them, and the husband says, ‘In such a great metropolis, surely at least one of us will find a job?’ They are treated as equals by the filmmaker. Even if one of them finds a job, they can function as a family. It is one of the best feminist films I have ever seen.

After that, it was more about women trying to realising their own potential and their fight to do so. Any talk about female desire or sexual choice was strictly taboo. That’s why in 1985, my second film ‘Paroma’ created such a furore! Many people wanted it taken out of theatres. They felt that women’s freedom didn’t mean licence for adultery! My point is, licence according to whom? The male-dominated patriarchal system where the moment a woman exercises her sexual choice, it is called a ‘licence?’

Today, the situation is completely different. Women filmmakers are now very comfortable in their shoes. They are critiquing women even. They are comfortable making films about male characters, who are persecuted by other males or even females. Alankrita Shrivastava addressed the issue of female desire in ‘Lipstick Under My Burkha’. Konkona Sen Sharma made a film (‘Death in the Gunj’) about a young man where the macho world around him bullies him so much that he commits suicide.

Film Director and Actress Aparna Sen

Film Director and Actress Aparna Sen

There is a lot of subtext in your narratives; one could draw different meanings...

‘36 Chowringhee Lane’ was about an Anglo-Indian school teacher and her dilemma about remaining in India. She chooses to remain. There is no jingoism here. She is not talking about her motherland, which she will not leave because she is patriotic. It was simply a personal decision of a woman who is unwilling to leave a place she has known all her life. She opts for the country that she was born and brought up in. In that sense, she is a true Indian. So, you can read the text that way too, if you wish. But I made it as a human being’s personal choice, which I find much more interesting. ‘Paroma’ was about a woman who exercised her personal choice and in the process came across the wrath of the family. Eventually, she realises who she is. She realises that she is a person in her own right. To that extent, it was about a woman discovering her own identity.

Film director Mrinal Sen

Film director Mrinal Sen

In “Mr. & Mrs. Iyer”, the female protagonist rises above the barriers of caste and religion for a bigger cause.

She was going to Kolkata, and she didn’t know that the bus would be caught in a riot. Had she known, she would not have gone. I didn’t plan to make the characters as Hindu and Muslim to start with. I was just going to make a love story about two strangers who meet during a journey. They surfaced because of my deep involvement with secular politics. Meenakshi Iyer tells the rioters that she is the wife of her co-passenger, who is a Muslim, just to save his life. She herself had not known until that moment she would do so! In a physical journey, which is a wonderful metaphor for a journey into oneself, the woman discovers that humanity is more important to her than her caste or religion or gender identities. In spite of so much corruption and violence around us, I still have a deep and abiding faith in human goodness.

In some of your films, we find women smoking? Isn’t it bad for both men and women?

Of course, it is! But, people do smoke in real life you know! In any case, I haven't shown women smoking that much in my films. Some women do smoke, yes.

For a long time, women smoking publicly became a kind of political statement. But, of course, it is bad for you. In ‘Paroma’, one of my characters smokes, but she is not the central character. In ‘Sati’, ‘Yugant’ or ‘36 Chowringhee Lane’, or ‘The Japanese Wife’ , for instance, there are no such scenes.

In ‘Sonata’, you resisted giving a name to the simmering desire between two women...

There really was no ‘simmering desire’. There was just the hint of a grey area. It is left open. I like to leave such things open. Why should I always tell the audience what to think?

How much do you invest in your characters?

Hugely. In the process of fleshing them out in the script, they take on a life of their own. I had planned on having Violet Stoneham of ‘36 Chowringhee Lane’ to go away to Australia in the end. That was then the reality of India in 1981. Anglo-Indians migrated all the time to England, or Australia, New Zealand or Canada. But I just couldn’t make her go! I get very to my characters. In ‘Yugant’, which many outside of Bengal haven’t seen, the dissolution of a marriage was used as a metaphor for the slow destruction of the earth. The couple there were called Deepak and Anusuya. When I was making the film, the shooting went on for a long time as we had no money. In between, I was in New Jersey with my husband and suddenly one night, I started crying. When he asked why, I said, I was missing them so much. He asked, “Who?” ‘Deepak and Anusuya,’ I said, ‘I haven't seen them for so long!’ I get emotionally involved with my characters. I care about how they think. They indicate to me how they should behave or what their dialogue should be.

Do the actor and director reside in two different compartments in your body?

They merge. The actor comes to the fore when I am writing. I write dialogue, which very few actors have difficulty in speaking. because when I am writing, the actor in me is silently acting it all out in her mind. And when I am directing actors, the actor in me is very helpful. I know exactly what problem the actor is facing. I understand the physical and motivational problems of the actors. If an actor asks me “Why am I saying this?” I can usually tell the actor how he or she can motivate himself/ herself.

Is there ever a clash?

Only when I am acting and directing at the same time. I had a problem in ‘Sonata’ as I had to keep running to the monitor after giving a shot.

What are your memories of Mrinal Sen?

To me, he was always a young man, even when he was old. He was mentally the youngest person I have known. Always ready to try something new, always fresh. That was the most wonderful thing about him. He was not afraid of experimenting and that is so necessary in order to develop the language of cinema. He tried to experiment with cinematic form and language as well as subject matter. I worked with him in two films, but he and his wife were family friends as well – friends of my parents.

You also tried to experiment in Arshinagar...

It is not an easy path because when you are experimenting, you are running into orthodox thought.

Like you, it seems Konkona also loves to explore the psychological space of characters

Her form is not too different, but hers is a new voice with a new perspective. She is another person.

Is her style more technical?

No, I don’t think it is technical. It is removed from the classical format. In the classical format, there is a beginning, a middle and an end. She opens with two people looking into the boot of a car, which is interesting because it is dramatic and intriguing with no formal 'introduction' to the characters as such.

Why don't you make films in Hindi?

I would love to make a film in Hindi. I don’t want to make it with stars though. I have tried that but it is a pain to pursue stars. In any case, markets are not as star-driven as they used to be. They are much more content driven now.

What are you working on?

I am making an adaptation of Rabindranath Tagore’s ‘Ghare Bairey’ (The Home and the World) . I have called it ‘Ghaire Bairey Aaj’ , because it is set against a contemporary backdrop. It is about how the world outside impacts relationships at home. I don’t want to talk more about it beforehand. I hope it will release in April.


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Printable version | May 13, 2022 3:13:44 am | https://www.thehindu.com/entertainment/movies/i-deal-only-with-individuals-even-if-an-ism-surfaces-it-is-not-underlined/article26272530.ece