Aparna Sen, much like Suchitra Sen – not related though – has been part of the Kolkata kaleidoscope.
As much as an integral part of the teeming megalopolis as its football craze, its undying love for Rabindra Sangeet, its mouth-watering ‘sandesh’ and its passion for meaningful cinema. Which men like Satyajit Ray, Ritwick Ghatak, Mrinal Sen and later, Buddhadeb Dasgupta, Rituparno Ghosh and, of course the two Sens created.
There was, though, an essential difference in the kind of pictures Aparna Sen made. They were postmodern, if not in content, certainly in approach, and it was daring, a part of this going to the credit of her very liberal parents and the kind of people she had the chance to be associated with.
Aparna's father, Chidananda Dasgupta, was a noted film critic, and Aparna was barely 16 when she stepped under Ray’s arc lights in Teen Kanya (Three Daughters). She did several movies later, some by Ray himself, like Aranyer Din Ratri (Days and Nights in the Forest) and Jana Aaranya (The Middleman).
As much as Sen was a fine actress, her crowning glory was the cinema she directed, and her very first work in 1981, 36 Chowringhee Lane, still remains my favourite in her oeuvre.
Call it nostalgia, call it unmistakable association with the metropolis that grew up, the film haunts me even today. Now, Chowringhee Lane actually exists in Kolkata, and is located just at nodding distance from the famed New Market – perhaps the country’s first shopping mall that used to throb with life during festivals.
Yes, Aparna (or Rinadi as she is affectionately and reverentially addressed) went on to make more films – some as scintillating as Paroma, The Japanese Wife and Mr & Mrs Iyer -- but somehow, 36 Chowringhee Lane refuses to stop tugging at my heart.
When I recently spoke to her after watching her latest work Goynar Baksho (The Jewellery Box), it was with Chowringhee… that I began my conversation. She found it amusing that I was still thinking of a movie she made decades ago.
The core of the story, which begins just after India’s independence and stretches till the birth of Bangladesh tracing the lives of three women in a family of lazy men, is a jewellery box – which Rashmoni guards even after she is dead! Married at 11 and widowed at 12, she might have sacrificed colours and life’s other charms, but not the box of precious of gold and stones which came to her as part of her dowry. Much later in life, she befriends her younger brother’s wife (Somlata), and returns ever so often to the house as a ghost, instructing the young woman how to keep the box safe. Ultimately, when Somlata’s daughter (Chaitali, essayed by Srabanti Biswas) grows up, Rashmoni asks her to give the jewels away for the Bangladesh war.
The film has its hilarious moments – with Rashmoni, the ghost even sharing a cigarette with Chaitali or riding the pillion of her scooter. The third segment is rather weak, though the movie is nearly always cheerful and uplifting – with the men shown as bumbling idiots. There is one scene where Somlata’s husband, depressed over the family’s dwindling fortunes, tries to hang himself from the roof. But ends up making a mess of even that, and when his wife asks him whether he believes in ghosts, he jumps into her arms! Even Rashmoni’s acidic rants are laced with laughter, and couched in all this is her smartness in an essentially man’s world.
As Aparna admits, this is what women in those times did. Somlata is as clever as Rashmoni, “negotiating a space for herself in the male dominated household and society. Timid outwardly with a stutter (I really wanted to introduce this human element in her character), Somlata turns out to be the force behind the family, gradually pulling it out of the ruin that the men pushed it into, with their debauchery that extends to heaping riches on their mistresses”.
Sen tells me that when she read Mukhopadhyay’s novel (strictly speaking a novella) in one of the Durga Puja issues of a popular magazine, “I was frankly quite taken in by the plot’s magic realism and ghostliness, and its Latin American feel.”
In fact, Sen wanted to make Goynar Baksho even before she made Mr & Mrs Iyer in 2002. “But it fell through, because the producer backed out”. So she began shooting Iyer at the end of 2001, and quite eerily, canned her last shot on the day the Godhra massacre happened in February 2002. Mr & Mrs Iyer narrates the horrific experience of a man and a woman, total strangers, travelling in a bus that is stopped by an angry mob out to butcher Muslims. She had to wait to complete three more films – 15 Park Avenue, The Japanese Wife and Iti Mrinalini – before the reluctant producer smiled and opened his money box to let Rinadi shoot the story of that merry ghost and her naughty adventures. Which included causing an earthquake in Somlata’s kitchen, whispering the names of mistresses in the ears of the men as they assembled to chastise Somlata, and egging the young bride to have an extra-marital fling with a stalker.
“You have only one life. So make the best use of it”, Rashmoni tells Somlata. Goynar Baksho is full of such amusing lines. But scratch the wit, and we see pluck and an ability to be daringly different, even provocative. Sen is just that.
(Gautaman Bhaskaran has watched just about every film of Aparna Sen.)