B’Day Girl Aparna Sen’s Storytelling Rises Above Gender & Borders
Aparna Sen was born into a culturally progressive family where art and cinema were practised with vehemence by her parents. Her father Chidananda Dasgupta was a veteran film critic and documentary filmmaker who was responsible for the film society movement in Kolkata. Whereas her mother, Supriya Dasgupta, was a reputed costume designer in the Bengali film Industry.
So it comes as no surprise that filmmaking has been Sen’s constant companion since childhood. She made debut at the age of 15 in the Bengali film Teen Kanya (1961), directed by the legendary filmmaker Satyajit Ray.
Sen holds the credit for being the only Bengali female actor to have worked in three films by the Merchant Ivory production - The Guru (1969), Bombay Talkie (1970) and Hullabaloo Over Georgie and Bonnie's Pictures (1978).
Sen also acted in a few hindi films, but mostly worked in the Bengali film industry during the ’70s. In the early ’80s, she donned the hat of a screenwriter and director and went on to make some remarkable films that has made a significant contribution to Indian art house cinema.
As she turns a year older today, here’s looking at five of her best films.
36 Chowringhee Lane (1981)
This was the first film to be directed Aparna Sen and is the first English language film made by a woman filmmaker living in India. The film narrates the tale of a lonely Miss Violet Stoneham (Jennifer Kapoor), who lives alone in a dingy apartment in Kolkata (then Calcutta). The title of the film refers to her home address.
Ms Stoneham is an ageing schoolteacher who takes active interest in teaching Shakespeare to schoolgirls. However her students are least interested in understanding literature, and instead browse through comics during their class hours.
Here is a short clip of from the opening of the film that brilliantly captures the tatty Calcutta apartment where the mousy old Anglo-Indian teacher Violet Stoneham is trapped in an austere spinsterhood.
Parama (1984) is Aparna Sen's second film. It also marks her second collaboration with the National Award Winning cinematographer Ashok Mehta (post 36 Chowringhee Lane). Rakhee Gulzar plays the titular role in the film, which depicts the journey of a married woman whose circumstances push her to discover her own voice and rebel against the patriarchal domination of her strict Bengali household. It conveys the intricate tale of an illicit affair through a simple narrative.
Sen considers the film to be her most feminist film. The director looks at the mental tenacity of a married woman dealing with the restructured phase of her life when confronted with her act of sexual liberation.
At the 33rd National Film Awards in 1986, the film won the National award for the Best Bengali Feature Film and Deepankar De, who played the role of Parama’s husband, won the Silver Lotus Award for Best Supporting Actor.
In her third film, Sen tells the story of a deaf girl, played by Shabana Azmi, who is discriminated against in an orthodox Hindu community in a 19th century village in India. The film delves into how women were exploited during that time.
The film begins with an act of sati being performed with the brutal act of displaying the ritual where the widow who is kind of unconscious is being taken to the pyre and one of the two guys taking her says that the widow is very brave she didn't even utter a word or protest against the ritual which is a sort of social evil.
The film won a jury mention at Montréal World Film Festival in 1989. Here is the trailer of the film that highlights the key events of the film without being a spoiler.
Yugant (The End of an Era) is Aparna Sen's fourth directorial venture. Unlike her previous films, Yugant was not shot by the veteran Ashok Mehta. In fact from this film onwards, Sen started working with different cinematographers that included Abhik Mukhopadhyay, Hemant Chaturvedi, the acclaimed Bengali film director Goutam Ghose and others.
The narrative of the film follows the travails of a couple & their failed relationship. While their past life is shown in a series of flash-backs, the sea, polluted by conspicuous consumerism, symbolises the current state of their relationship. The film was honored with two awards at the 43rd National Awards in 1995. Sen won an award for the Best Film in Bengali whereas the the Award for Best Choreography was given to Ileana Citaristi, who till date remains the only National Award recipient of Italian origin.
The film highlights contradictory tendencies in the practical manifestation of the couple’s respective professional ideals, which is another reason for the ensuing difference between them.
Mr & Mrs Iyer (2002)
This is the second English film written and directed by Aparna Sen. It is basically in English language sprinkled with Hindi, Tamil and Bengali. It stars Konkona Sen Sharma and Rahul Bose as the main protagonists.
The movie begins with the collage of the clippings highlighting communal violence, against which the story unfolds. Konkona Sen Sharma plays the role of a Tamil Iyer Brahmin, who embarks on a bus journey with an infant to meet her husband. The film won the National Award for Best Actress, Best Director and Best Screenplay.
Check out this scene from the film.
(Dipankar Sarkar is a graduate in film editing from the Film & Television Institute of India, and is currently working as a Data Manager in the film industry.)
(This story is from The Quint’s archives and is being republished to mark Aparna Sen’s birthday.)