Interview: Internationally Acclaimed Film-Maker Aparna Sen (ITI MRINALINI): "Direction is Logical Extension of Acting"

Konkona Sen Sharma

Konkona Sen Sharma | Image via Wikipedia

By Shoma A. Chatterji

Aparna Sen ‘s later films like Mr. & Mrs. Iyer,  15, Park Avenue, The Japanese Wife and the very recent Iti Mrinalini  is a journey of reinventing herself as a filmmaker. With … Mrinalini receiving awards and critical acclaim, Shoma A. Chatterji, whose book on Sen had ended with  Paromitar Ek Din,  tries to look back on the director’s  rich oeuvre over the years.

Note: You might also check out the prior appearance of Aparna Sen on WBRi in this audio feature >


Her meticulously detailed screenplays, mostly scripted from her own story, 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 herself and for the cameraman.

Paromitaar Ek Din was published in the 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 whether it is Ashok Mehta who cinematographed her first film 36, Chowringhee Lane, or whether it is Anay Goswami, a FTII graduate who did the cinematography for The Japanese Wife.

Kolkata was the  setting for all her films till Paromitar El Din. With Mr. & Mrs. Iyer she moved beyond the confines of the city. For 15, Park Avenue, the story and its characters moved between Bhutan and Kolkata.

For The Japanese Wife, it was the Sundarbans with fleeting flashes of a Japanese ambience.  Sen made a departure by moving outside the city with Mr. & Mrs. Iyer. She comes back to her home city in her latest film Iti Mrinalini scheduled for release at the end of this month.

Sen's journey has been shaped by her convictions and her desire to make different kinds of films. Her recent films, Mr.& Mrs. Iyer, a strong statement for secularism, and 15, Park Avenue, a moving statement on a different world inhabited by people we consider out of the mainstream, are just two examples of her versatility in terms of theme, storyline and characterization.  Before making The Japanese Wife, Sen’s original plan was to make a fictionalized film on the five trekkers from Jadavpur University who died in a trekking tragedy. Then Kunal Basu narrated the storyline of his unpublished work, The Japanese Wife and she decided to make this film instead.

The subject, treatment and theme of her films offer more than a glimpse of her belief in love in its multilayered forms, and in the essential goodness that underlies humanity.  The nine films she has made are – 36, Chowringhee Lane (1981), Parama (1985), Sati (1989), Yugant (1996) Parnomitaar Ek Din (2000), Mr. & Mrs. Iyer (2002) and 15, Park Avenue (2005), The Japanese Wife (2009) and Iti Mrinalini (2010).

Iti Mrinalini revolves round the life of an actress looked at in retrospect where the actress looks back at her life in the past. Iti Mrinalini is autobiographical only in the sense that it carries images and experiences Sen has gathered over the years as an actress in the film industry.

It is not, she insists, autobiographical in the literal sense. It is the first film that casts a daughter and her mother portraying the same character in two different phases of time. Konkona Sen Sharma plays the younger Mrinalini while Aparna plays the older one which she did with some reluctance because she does not really like to carry the dual burden of director and actress.

As an actress, Sen ruled mainstream Bengali cinema for more than 25 years. The director in Aparna Sen has outshone the actress. As a director’s actress, she has demonstrated her latent histrionic talents in Satyajit Ray’s Samapti, her debut film when she was barely 14, followed by Tapan Sinha’s Ekhoni, Inder Sen’s Ashamay, Ajoy Kar’s Nauka Dubi and Bish Briksha, Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s Kotwaal Saab, Prabhat Roy’s Swet Patharer Thala, Biresh Chatterjee’s Kori Diye Kinlam and Partho Pratim Choudhury’s Jadu Bangsa.

Her directorial films showcase her rare insight into human relationships. The relationships are familiar, but the perspective she places them in make them appear strikingly unusual. Along with Buddhadeb Dasgupta, Rituparno Ghosh and Goutam Ghose, she defines a genre within Bengali cinema where the universality of emotions like love – and hate, transcend the borders of culture, language and geography. The uniqueness of Aparna lies in her diversity within a brief oeuvre of the seven feature films and two telefilms she has directed over a span of 31 years.  Every single film explores a miniature world of human relationships, each distinctively different from the other.

The Best Director Award for Iti Mrinalini at the NYIIFF in December 2010 has come after a long string of awards. She received the Best Actress Award for her performance in Mrinal Sen’s Mahaprithibi at the Moscow Film Festival. 36, Chowringhee Lane (1981) won the Grand Prix at the Manila International Film Festival in 1982 and the National Awards for Best Direction and Best Cinematography in India.

The Munich International Film Festival held a retrospective of her works as actress and director in 2002. The Calcutta International Film Festival held a retrospective of her films in the same year. Mr. & Mrs. Iyer fetched her The Best Director Award at the National Awards in 2003 while daughter Konkona Sen Sharma complemented this with the Best Actress Award for the same film. The Japanese Wife  won the Best Film Audience Award – the only award in the festival at the Hidden Gem Film Festival at Calgary in Canada last year.

INTERVIEW

Aparna Sen is a rebel in a manner of speaking, not only in terms of the films she directs but also in terms of her personal decisions. Excerpts of an interview by Shoma A Chatterji

Why did you transcend the constraints of acting to step into direction?

After some time, I became restless with the way in which the scenario worked when I was an actress. Anxiety would surface at the oddest of moments. I began to take interest in the craft and found myself making note of the trolley movements. When I watched a film later, I felt that the director should have used a wider frame, but hadn’t. Once I was playing a housewife ironing clothes. I suggested to my director that may be I could burn the shirt to suggest the emotions of the woman. 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. So direction came from the dissatisfaction that I encountered as my career as an actress evolved. It was a logical extension of acting.

How did you begin to write 36, Chowringhee Lane?

I began to write a short story that evolved into a screenplay. I discovered that I wrote more in pictures than in words. I wrote the entire screenplay in English and took it to Satyajit Ray. He liked it. He suggested I write to Shashi Kapoor. Kapoor liked the synopsis very much. Jennifer (Kapoor) heard it ten times. That was how I directed my first film, 36, Chowringhee Lane. I did not have to direct Jennifer Kapoor much; she knew what was expected of her. She did her homework well. Looking back, I think it had a lot of flaws. But it also had universal appeal. It has endured the vagaries of time. People still come back and tell me they loved the film. The cinematography was superb. The same goes for Jennifer’s performance.

You write your own detailed scripts for your films. Comment.

That’s right. I am not against making films on other people’s stories. Till date, I have done only one film on someone else’s story – The Japanese Wife. The how of any film story is more important to me than the what. The characters I create take over from me after a point of time. In 36, Chowringhee Lane, for instance, Violet Stoneham, the Anglo-Indian teacher, was supposed to go away, according to my original script. But she became too strong to surrender to pressure and decided to stay back. I believe in surrendering to the character I have created. Sometimes, though, it could hurt when they become real. The last day of the Yugant shoot was painful. I missed Deepak and Anu, the characters, terribly for some time after the shooting ended.

Were you disappointed that Iti Mrinalini did not win any prize at the Cairo International Film Festival last year where it was entered in the Competition Section?

Is there a filmmaker who is not disappointed if his/her film does not draw notice at any festival, big or small? Why should I be different? But perspectives differ and I respect the decision of the judges. The film had its Gulf premiere at the Dubai International Film Festival and was the opening film at the River-to-River 2010 Florence Indian Film Festival in Italy. It is getting international coverage and visibility which is very important for any filmmaker. And then it won the two prestigious awards at the NYIIFF last year.

(Shoma A. Chatterji is a National Award  winning film writer.)

-- INDIA BLOOMS NEWS SERVICE

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