When Aparna Sen begins a new film, it becomes big news. She does not direct too often but when she does, she takes a significant subject as story and sets down to make an important celluloid statement. As an actress, she has ruled the commercial Bengali cinema scene for more than 25 years, beginning with the role of the teenage, tomboyish Mrinmoyee in the last story of Satyajit Ray’s three-segment film Teen Kanya. But as director, she has graced the screen with her rare insight into unusual human relationships. Over the years, beginning with 36, Chowringhee Lane, more than 30 years ago, she has emerged as one of India’s major filmmakers.
Currently, she is busy putting the finishing touches to her new film Sonata based on a one-act play in English of the same name by noted writer Mahesh Elkunchwar in 2000. And for a change, she is acting in the film along with her close friend Shabana Azmi and noted theatre person and actress Lillete Dubey who she is working with for the first time. Female bonding has been a favourite subject for women filmmakers and Aparna is no exception. She completed a major part of the shoot over 20 days in Kolkata and decided to make the film in English.
“What drew me to this play is the main thread of the story. It engages with the lives and relationship between and among three women who are middle-aged, live together in a flat in Mumbai and face the challenges and struggles of living from day to day,” she says. “They had once aligned themselves with the woman's movement but 30 years later, they have abandoned it to opt for marriage and kids. The play explores the theme of loneliness and bonding, solidarity that flourish despite their differences after they have left their families and kids behind to live a different life together under the same roof.”
She has broken her own rule of keeping away from acting in films she directs herself with few exceptions like Parama in which she played a cameo, Paromitar Ek Din that saw her as one of the two main female protagonists and in Iti Mrinalini in which she plays the title role. What made her break her own rule? “I decided to play one of the two women because the three women characters coincide with the age-group I belong to and so do Shabana Azmi and Lillete Dubey who play the other two women. Shabana and I have worked together before and she is one of my closest friends. But Lillete is a powerhouse performer who made me wish I had worked with her before. My childhood friend Sohag Sen famous for her work in theatre is also in this film. Aruna, Dolon and Shubhadra, are subtly depicted as victims of their own minds and of the independent lives that they have chosen to lead.” Dubey plays a journalist, Aparna plays a teacher of Sanskrit and Shabana is employed in a big post in a multinational.
Azmi plays a Bengali character while Sen plays a woman from Uttar Pradesh and Azmi has belted out a couple of Tagore songs herself after training under an accomplished performer of Tagore songs. “I did it deliberately to give a different dimension to the three characters. Add to this the Mumbai backdrop where these women live, one of the most cosmopolitan metros in the country and this adds to the colourful backdrop of the film,” says Aparna. The title of the play is probably inspired by Beethoven’s wonderful composition Sonata because in a few of the theatrical productions of the play, this composition ran like an undercurrent through the play.
“Through their lively, energetic interactions, the play examines their position in society. It articulates their relationships, aims, ideals, psychology and sexuality. In an apparently peaceful environment, the play sometimes explodes into numbing silences full of betrayals and unshed tears. What transcends all these is the love and bonding that the friends share, despite their differences,” Aparna sums up.
Aparna Sen’s oeuvre of films offers a fresh insight into several things. This is apart from a purely woman’s way of looking at love, life and relationships against the changing backdrop of an India-we-do-not-really-know. All her films repeatedly underscore three realities of life — (a) life does not have happy endings, (b) life is not confined to educated/middle-class/able-bodied/ youngish people, and (c) life can mean different things to different people. Therefore, its representation through cinema should be socially extensive. It may not remain focussed on privileged groups such as the Hindu majority, the upper class and of course, men.
She hates being labelled a feminist. “I see myself as a humanist, not a feminist. Men have been a very important part of my evolution as a human being, a director and an actress. It began with my two highly principled and industrious grandfathers, continued through my father who taught us to believe that once we had made up our minds to do something, nothing in the world could stop us from doing it. My husband Kalyan complements me, understands my work and me and gives me a lot of space. I respond to him the same way. So frankly, I have no reason to hate men. I have no political agenda to present through my films and I do not believe in raising slogans for or against this or that cause. So please save me from such meaningless tags,” she sums up.
Written byShoma A. Chatterji
Dr. Shoma A. Chatterji is a freelance journalist, film scholar and author based in Kolkata. She has 20 published titles, has won the National Award twice and the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Rotary Club of Kolkata Metro. She has done her post-doctoral research on cinema and has juried at national and international film festivals over time