Millennials Review Classics: Loneliness on ‘36 Chowringhee Lane’
(Akriti is 23 years old and watched ‘36 Chowringhee Lane’ for the first time.)
For a film unlike its contemporaries, the bar for my expectations was set really high. Going just by the name, I could not guess what 36 Chowringhee Lane would be about. The opening shot was of a cemetery and I grimaced thinking it would be a long, morose film to get through and I was not wrong.
Before I crib about the film, I will concede that it stood apart from its contemporaries. It was not an action-packed film that was a signature of the eighties, the frames never made space for ill-fitted bell-bottoms from the seventies, it featured non-glamorous actors who did not look like show clowns with caked makeup on their faces, and it was almost entirely in English.
Stuck in Time
Shashi Kapoor as a producer put his money into films that he felt had soul and weight, regardless of the commercial viability, and that showed in 36 Chowringhee Lane. The film is about an English teacher, Violet Stoneham, played by Kapoor’s wife Jennifer Kendal, who happens to be a spinster. She lives in a dilapidated flat in Kolkata, while her brother Eddie (played by her father Geoffery Kendal) is in an institution.
Her niece Rosmary (played by Soni Razdan) has moved to Australia and writes to her frequently, asking her to come live with her, but Violet is just not ready to let go of the land she was born in for the unfamiliar.
Even her home seems to be a little time capsule where she has preserved artefacts from her youth like a gramophone and records from the 1950s, a study table which has never been moved and cutlery which looks like it belonged to the early days of the Raj.
Violet looks much older than she really is because of how she is surrounded by her past and her loneliness, for her only family is a brother on the verge of senility. The other constant in her life is the cemetery which she visits almost like a pilgrim.
Sex and Deceit
One day, Violet runs into her old student Nandita (Debashree Roy) and her author-boyfriend Samaresh (Dhritiman Chatterjee). While Nandita genuinely offers companionship to Violet, Samaresh who is down-on-his luck and unemployed, coerces Nandita into letting Violet use her home while she is in school to work. Of course the work was only a smokescreen and they are using her home for sex.
However, after a while they do give Violet meaningful company, and it’s in one scene when they go out to Victoria Memorial to have puchkas and ice-cream that we see Violet smiling and enjoying herself.
Once Nandita and Samaresh get married, they almost neglect Violet, who was still hoping to be a small part of their lives. While they made plans with her for Christmas, they back out at the last minute saying they will be out of town. But Violet, who promised them a Christmas cake, goes to drop it off at their home, only to discover them laughing and dancing at their house party after lying to her about their plans.
At the end of the film, you can’t help but feel a little broken inside for Violet who loved and gave whatever she could to other people in her life, only to be left lonely, wandering the streets with no one to return to.
Almost a Play Masquerading as a Film
Maybe it was the enunciation of the dialogues or the fact that they were in English or that there was no soundtrack in the film, but 36 Chowringhee Lane felt like a play being acted out on celluloid.
The entire film was probably shot in just a few locations — in Violet’s home, the nursing home where her brother was, the cemetery and her school.
36 Chowringhee Lane, no doubt, was ahead of its times for not depicting actors prancing around trees when in love. It normalised intimacy by showing the lovers kissing and embracing. The narrow lanes and Violet’s home stood testimony to Kolkata’s reputation for being a sleepy, laid-back city, also depicted through the life of Nandita and Samaresh, who spent days together cooped up in Violet’s home, without any hurry to get anywhere.
I cannot imagine this being a comfort-film for anyone, for it leaves you with a sense of guilt and heaviness.
But I can imagine why Shashi Kapoor believed in this film, because the nuanced portrayal of loneliness and Jennifer’s lone woman shone all through.