Aparna Sen is one of India's finest filmmakers today. But then she was born in 1945 into a family of filmlovers, her father, noted film critic and historian Chidananda Dasgupta, being a founder member of the Calcutta Film Society along-with Satyajit Ray. Aparna made her debut in films as an actress in 1961 while she was still in school, in Satyajit Ray’s Teen Kanya (1961). She has since acted under the directorial baton of noted film directors including Mrinal Sen, James Ivory and Satyajit Ray. She received the Best Actress Award for her performance in Mrinal Sen’s film Mahaprithibi at the Moscow Film Festival.
Recalling her introduction to cinema, Aparna says, “When Renoir arrived in India to make The River, I was a baby. In his younger 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. He also made two delightful films himself. He has remained singularly devoted to the cause of ‘legitimate’ cinema. 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 come out of my house. My father and his friends discussed them at home. We were taken to screenings held by the Society. At times, there would be screenings in our own home. This evolved within me an eye for good cinema. Till this day, unless the visuals please me, I don’t like the film. I never rely only on the story. We were not allowed to see populist Bengali films like Harano Sur, Sagarika, etc. Suchitra Sen - Uttam Kumar starrers were a big no-no. It is one of the living ironies that later I became a leading star in these very populist films I was not allowed to watch. Pather Panchali was the very first Bengali film I saw.”
She remembered having seen Wild Stallion (1952) about a little boy and a black horse. Charlie Chaplin, the Marx Brothers, and De Sica’s films were her favourites. She remembers Kurasawa’s Ran (1985). She watched documentaries too. “We settled into a discipline of watching good films,” she added.
As an actress, Aparna held fort in Bengali cinema as number one for nearly two decades. She has acted in a variety of roles in commercial films under the directorial batons of some of the best in Bengali mainstream cinema. She evolved as a star along with actors like Soumitra Chatterjee and Ranjit Mullick while she also did a whole lot of films with the great Uttam Kumar. From Ajoy Kar to Prabhat Roy on one end of the scale, from Satyajit Ray to Rituparno Ghosh on the other, Aparna has been there, done every kind of role a star-actress can imagine. She did a moving cameo in Paroma (1984) as a close friend and confidante of the heroine, Paroma. As she mellowed, the actress in her overshadowed the star and she came into her own in films like Unishe April, Titli and Paromitar Ek Din. She keeps away from the camera and chooses to remain behind it these days. Her short stint in Bollywood was a commercial disaster with films like Vishwaas (1969) opposite Jeetendra and Imaan-Dharam opposite Sanjeev Kumar though the banners were good and the films had a good star cast. One story also goes that she refused Shyam Benegal’s Ankur (1973) but she does not regret it because it gave the film industry one of its most talented stars in Shabana Azmi. Aparna Sen is clearly a director’s actress. Sadly, she has been more of a star than an actress because those were the demands commercial cinema placed on her. Because one has seen her give totally mediocre performances in bad films or in films directed shoddily. Give her a good director, including herself, and she takes complete charge of herself.
Asked to tick off her favourite performances as an actress, Aparna pointed out, “among my better films, I’d mention all the films of Satyajit Ray and Mrinal Sen I performed in. Tapan Sinha’s Ekhani, Inder Sen’s Asomoy, Ajoy Kar’s Nauka Dubi and Bishobriksha, Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s Kotwaal Saab, Prabhat Roy’s Swet Patharer Thala (1992), Biresh Chatterjee’s Kori Diye Kinlam and Partho Pratim Choudhury’s Jadu Bansha. I also enjoyed acting under the direction of Salil Dutta and the late Dilip Mukherjee. If I were to tick off five of my favourite roles to date I’d mention these films -Paromitar Ek Din, Teen Kanya, Asomoy, Jadu Bagsha, and Rater Rajanigandha. I have directed myself in Paromitar.... In Asomoy, I play a woman of 36, full of inhibitions. In Rater Rajanigandha, for most of the film, I am a ghost, a very unusual role. I strongly believe that as an actress, my performance has improved largely after I became a director myself.”
Describing her success as a top star in mainstream Bengali cinema, Aparna recalled, “I really do not know what drew me to mainstream films. Time went by and I found myself getting more and more embroiled in formula films, for that is how the box office functions. The films I worked in appalled my father. Gradually, certain restlessness began seeping in. I ignored it for a while, but the anxiety surfaced at the oddest moments. For example, I would walk into a set and find it had nothing in common with the character I was playing. The contradiction worried me and I began making suggestions. They were not always welcome. I was interested in the craft and found myself making note of the trolley movements. Many a time, when I watched the film later, I felt that the director should have used a wider frame, but hadn’t. Once I was playing a housewife and had to shoot a scene where I am ironing clothes. During the shot, I suggested to my director that may be I could burn the shirt in the process. He loved the idea but when I saw the film, I noticed that he retained only my close-up. I was livid. ‘Where is the burning of the shirt?’ I asked him. “It is not necessary,” he explained. In another film, I was playing a pregnant woman visiting a doctor. The actor was wearing a torch band on his forehead and looked more like an ENT specialist than a gynecologist. On hindsight, these were amusing and in a way, I think they were the germs of the director getting ready in me.”
Aparna debuted as director with an English film, 36 Chowringhee Lane, in 1981, surprising everyone with her deep empathy for an old, Anglo-Indian schoolteacher, Violet Stoneham, in Calcutta who survives the social estrangement from the Bengali ethos and refuses to go away to Australia. The film won the Grand Prix at the Manila International film Festival in 1982 and the National Awards for Best Direction and Best Cinematography in India. Recalling how she got to direct her first film, Aparna said, “I did not know direction, but I saw vivid pictures in my mind and I was unafraid to ask questions. I was already dissatisfied with the roles I was playing. I had made up my mind to do something more creative, attempt writing short stories. But because I am not a professional writer, the short story resembled a screenplay. Then, I began to write a short story that evolved into a screenplay. I discovered that I was writing in pictures more than in words. I wrote the entire screenplay in English After reading it out to some friends, I decided to take it over to Satyajit Ray. Ray liked it immensely, said there was a lot of heart to it and advised that I make the film myself. He suggested that I contact Shashi Kapoor who was funding middle-of-the-road cinema in those days. I wrote to him a letter, he called me to Mumbai and 36 Chowringhee Lane was born. Jennifer (Kapoor) loved the screenplay and heard it ten times. That was how I directed my first film. If I were to re-shoot this film, I would not change the content because I agree with Ray that there is a lot of heart in the film. If I were to make the film now, I’d edit it differently.”
In 1984, Sen directed Paroma, with Raakhee in the title role, upsetting the politically correct apple cart of middle-class morality imposed on the Bengali housewife and mother in post-Independent India. Sati in 1991 was her third film and the most criticized one in her directorial career. This period film starred Shabana Azmi in the role of a mute young woman who is perforce married to a tree to break the forecast of widowhood stated in her horoscope. Almost 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 a young maid, which gets resolved by the end of the film. Then, 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 directed and starred in Paromitar Ek Din (A Day in the Life of Paromita). Incidentally, the storylines for each directorial film are Aparna’s own creation, as are the scripts. Mr. & Mrs.Iyer is about love that triumphs over all obstacles, violence included. “We shot against the picture-postcard backdrop of Lava and Paparkheli, two picturesque hamlet-like towns near the Garumara Forest Camp in Jalpaiguri,” informed Aparna. The volatile content would perhaps stand out in sharp relief against this picture-postcard backdrop. “The ambience was beautiful, the cold was welcome because the nip in the air was sharp but not freezing. The landscape was dotted with people of all shapes and colours, characters from the film. They travel together on a bus journey from some hilly place in India down to the nearest city to catch a train to some destination. I have deliberately kept the identity of my setting vague and undefined. According to me, it could happen anywhere in India. The passengers thus, offer a grand melting pot of Indians from all over the place. English is the main language of the film, true. But I have made people of regional groups talk among themselves in their mother tongue. The English they speak has the strong flavour of their own tongue,” she explained.
When asked to classify her films, Aparna says, “neither do I make experimental cinema, nor do I make formula films. I make films, which are true to my artistic vision. I think it’s important to make films that 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.”
Her meticulously detailed screenplays, stemming from her own storylines, offer an insight into her growth. 36 Chowringhee Lane’s script is typed in English, neatly bound with a soft cover, detailing each sequence, each shot, with bracketed directions for her and for the cameraman. Paromitar Ek Din was published in a screenplay annual number of a Bangla magazine, it was that professional. Though she chooses her technical crew with great care, she never allows the work of a brilliant technician to overwhelm or to overshadow her directorial treatment. About her concern for women’s issues as projected through her films, Aparna says, “Yes. I am 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.”
From Mr & Mrs Iyer, Aparna has transcended the borders of regional cinema to venture and explore the world beyond and make films in English even if they were rooted to the soil of West Bengal. 15 Park Avenue is an example. 15 Park Avenue, also in English, explores several layers of life and living, centering on the alternative world of the mentally challenged and branching out to weave in shades of sisterhood between a much-older, normal sister and her mentally sick, younger sibling. The title of the film is an address that does not exist, except in the hallucinatory world of the younger sister’s distressed mind that keeps searching for the address where, she believes, her 'husband and children' live. What made her move away from the confines of the seemingly peaceful urban Bengali, middle-class family (except for Sati, a period film) out into the world beyond? “I wished to enlarge the horizons of work as filmmaker. Continuing to make films within the four walls of a home was beginning to stifle me a bit. Besides, I wanted to express my feelings about the continuous state of communal tensions in the country. I began to shoot Mr & Mrs Iyer immediately after the bombing of the Indian Parliament on December 13 the year before the film was released. At the same time, I wanted to uphold my ideology of love that survives above everything else and in spite of everything else.”
The director Aparna Sen has broken every rule in the book of Indian women and yet come out with flying colours as daughter, sister, mother, and now, a grandmother to boot. You will not want to believe the grandmother connection if you see her in person. She is beautiful to a fault. Because, her beauty often detracts from her more lasting and historic talent - direction. Sometime back, Aparna featured among the top fifty Indian women selected by Femina over the past fifty years to celebrate the contribution of Indian women during the Golden Anniversary of India’s Independence. Her name appeared along with Lata Mangeshkar, Indira Gandhi and Mother Theresa. The British Film Institute’s book released to celebrate the centenary of cinema features Aparna Sen among the topmost directors in India. The Calcutta International Film Festival 2002 featured a directorial retrospective of five films of Aparna Sen. Her sixth film Mr & Mrs Iyer was premiered at the festival. If just six films raised questions about the fitness of a retrospective for a director, the versatility of her oeuvre in terms of choice of subject, treatment and theme, and the sheer quality of the films offers a fair answer. These five films were – 36 Chowringhee Lane, Paroma , Sati , Yugant and Paromitar Ek Din.
Aparna is today shooting the final lap of her under-production The Japanese Wife, in English, based on a novel of the same name by Kunal Basu. About this film, Aparna says, “It is purely a love story. It does not have any message, nor does it contain a political agenda. Love, I believe, is the only way out of this moral and social decay the world is going through. If this is the message that gets across to my audience, then that is fine with me. But I did not consciously put it there. Love, I think, is the only emotion that can bring back our respect for the values that are getting lost today. It is for my audience to decide whether it is a love story or whether there is a subtle agenda flowing like an undercurrent right through. Then there is the question of the art of letter writing. In this age of electronic correspondence like the e-mail, people have stopped writing letters to each other. But it is such a moving emotional experience. I still feel it has the emotional touch e-mails and faxes can never have.”
But acting and direction is not all that you see of this incredible woman. She was the hyper-active editor of West Bengal’s highest circulated woman’s magazine, Sananda, in Bengali, brought out by Ananda Bazar Patrika group for nearly fifteen years till she retired a couple of years ago. She penned the editorial herself, and unlike several other 'star' editors of women’s magazines, she personally oversaw the editorial content and the photographic pages that went into each issue. It is an up market magazine, which caters to the upper middle-class working woman and housewife. It has excellent advertising support and is doing very well for more than a decade now. When she was the editor, Sananda ran cover stories that encompassed an entire gamut of life in the country and did not confine itself to women. It had a special series on Culture penned by Chidananda Dasgupta, Aparna’s father, the most scholarly film critic in the country today. Issues dealt with covered everything from health, food, relationships, marriage, adoption, transsexual lifestyles, obesity to beauty, cinema and television. When she retired from Sananda, Aparna joined the newly founded Bengali television channel Kolkata but quit again to join Saregama Limited as its Creative Director, a post she holds till today.
In the late 1980s and early ‘90s, Aparna has also emerged as a ‘voice’ heard through recitations, commentaries for stage programmes and seminars on poetry, literature and the arts. Her spacious apartment at Alipore Park Road, an elite pocket of Calcutta, is tastefully done up with ethnic wall hangings, wood carvings, bronze and copper bric-a-brac and a photograph of Aparna with her husband, Kalyan Roy Choudhury, who teaches English Literature at Morris College in USA. She stepped onto the proscenium to don stage make-up for the title roles in two Bengali commercial plays, Pannabai (1989), based on the story of the Suchitra Sen starrer Uttar Phalguni (1963), and Bhalo Kharap Meye (1991), both of which turned out to be big box-office grosser, thanks to the box-office pull of this star-actress. The plays were invited to perform in several cities of the USA. This is when she met, fell in love with, and married this literature professor who lives and works mainly in the US. They meet during his vacations when he comes down to India and when Aparna flies off to the USA, during breaks in filmmaking.
Aparna Sen has also served on the jury at the International Film Festival of India in 1976 and the Moscow Film Festival in 1989. She was Chairperson of the Jury at the Hawaii Film Festival in 1991. She was member of the SAARC team of Observers for the Bangladesh Election in 1990. She was honoured with the title of Padmashree by the government of India in recognition of her contribution to cinema in 1986. She made a telefilm in Hindi called Picnic in 1990 and another six-part docudrama in English called the Undying City for Doordarshan in 1998. At The National Theatre, London, a retrospective of Aparna Sen’s films was presented by in Focus and Asian Images as part of the Asian Women’s Festival titled Tongues On Fire, 2000. Screenings of 36 Chowringhee Lane, Parama, Yugant and Paromitar Ek Din were followed by discussions and workshops at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, London. Cine Central, one of the oldest film societies of Calcutta, honoured her with their Lifetime Achievement Award for her contribution to cinema in 2001.
Shoma A Chatterji is a freelance journalist who specialises in cinema and gender. She has won the National Award for Best Writing on Cinema twice.