The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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The author is former secretary, ministry of information and broadcasting

Mr and Mrs Iyer is a film that raises a host of issues and handles them with superlative skill and insight. The film presents a young, conventionally brought up Tamil Brahmin woman, Meenakshi Iyer, married, with a small child, and a Westernised young man, Jehangir Chowdhury, known as Raja to his friends, who is a professional photographer and is a Muslim. They are both travelling back to Calcutta, and the first part of that journey is by a bus from a mountain town to the railway station in the plains. Just before the journey, the parents of the girl request the photographer to help her, as she is travelling alone. They are introduced to Raja by a common friend who calls him Raja, and they have, consequently, no way of knowing that he is a Muslim. The bus is stranded in a remote forest area where communal violence has broken out, and the film actually takes off from there.

Raja has been helping Meenakshi with little things before the bus journey is interrupted — holding the baby while she prepares his feed, cleaning up the mess when she spills the baby food on a fellow passenger and so on — when night sets in and a group of hate-filled Hindus, out to take revenge for the killing of a Hindu earlier on, force their way into the bus and demand the names of the passengers. Meenakshi has by then discovered — to her conventional distaste and dismay — that her protector, Raja, is a Muslim, and yet, when there is a possibility of his being discovered as one, she makes him hold the baby, and she says simply to the rioters that they are “Mr and Mrs Iyer and the baby is Santhanam”. Her obviously Tamil Brahmin appearance make the rioters lose interest and move on. Protected becomes protector.

The rest of the film depicts their attempts to get out of the area, and the girl’s coming to terms with her desperate attempt to survive and her deep-rooted social prejudices, and the recognition by both of the essential bonding that one human being can have with another. Prime to the relationship — if one can call it that — between the two is the terror and need to survive in a place where hate and murder are all around them. It is that which brings them together and keeps them together. The girl sees that without Raja she cannot cope with the terrible situation in which she is trapped, and clings to him more for her own safety, and her child’s. That overcomes her prejudice — that he is Muslim — and even propriety, which had initially obliged Raja to sleep out in the open since the forest rest-house in which they had taken shelter had only one bedroom. When a mob chases a Muslim into the compound of the rest-house, Raja tries to push Meenakshi into the room and lock the door; she resists, and forcibly pulls him in and then locks the door. “If something happens to you”, she says, “what will happen to me and Santhanam'”

But terror and the need to survive are the levers that unlock much else — her Tamil Brahmin social attitudes, and caste considerations. How this is done, and how both find a space where these are irrelevant is what makes this film special. Mr and Mrs Iyer is lit with compassion, understanding and a wonderful use of understatement and insight — Aparna Sen uses images as much as words. At night, in the forest rest house, Raja remonstrates with Meenakshi, “What’s all this Tambram bullshit' I have plenty of Tamil friends and they don’t have hang-ups about caste like you.” Meenakshi just says, “Let’s not talk about all that.” And they fall silent. Yet the image — the conventional Tamil Brahmin girl alone at night, conversing with a Muslim man — speaks for itself. Words aren’t needed; the image says it all. Gently, with no shrill finger pointing.

There is beauty, and the glow that comes when two people touch each other. Meenakshi’s fear rises to terror when she believes Raja has indeed gone away, because she had made it clear that they could not share the same room. Her relief, when she sees him lying in the grass down in the garden, translates into a tender, happy reaching out, as, for the first time, the barriers of communal prejudice come down. Sen presents this with restraint and intelligence, and the sequence, which would have been maudlin and gooey, if this had been made in Bollywood, is one of the delights of the film, a gently joyous moment.

That is, essentially, what the film is about, at least to the viewer, whatever it may have been to the film-maker; about two people reaching out to each other, initially out of necessity, and then out of the wonderfully portrayed attraction each discovers for the other. And this is a part of, and yet rises above, the surcharged atmosphere of communal hatred and killing amidst which they find themselves. “You gave me your name,” Raja tells Meenakshi, “when a husband gives his wife his. And because you did, I’m sitting here telling you all this.” Again, Meenakshi says, “Please don’t talk about it”, and indeed he and she don’t need to. The two of them, in that context, shown as the director shows them, using close-ups of Meenakshi’s wonderfully expressive face, over which a myriad emotions and thoughts pass like shadows, shots of the tall trees and the serene sky above them, of Raja’s apparently composed appearance which seems to conceal torment and haunting memories say far more than words can.

Meenakshi’s terror and hysteria when she witnesses a brutal killing and Raja’s gentle, soothing comfort and reassurance are the elements of another memorable sequence in the film. Again, fear and terror bring the two close together, as people, and physically, but emerging from that is an infinitely tender emotion, still not formed, between the two. As the early morning light streams into the room, and Meenakshi rises quietly from the bed, gently moving away from Raja, who is sleeping on the floor, head on the bed, and goes into the bathroom. She looks into the mirror and at the bindi askew on her forehead, and takes it off. Just for a while. So she can see herself, as it were, as herself. As if the bindi symbolized the cloistered, conventional life she has led and from which just for a moment she stands apart. It is a sequence which marks Aparna Sen out as a truly superb film-maker.

Finally, they reach Calcutta, where Meenakshi’s husband is waiting. She introduces Raja, but not as Raja, as Jehangir Chowdhury. “He is a Muslim”, she says clearly. No more pretence; that time is over for her. Raja leaves, after a formal farewell, but then turns back and hands Meenakshi the roll of film which has the shots he’s taken of her and the times they’ve been through. “Goodbye, Meenakshi,” he says and she replies, “Goodbye, Mr Iyer”. Precisely. “Mr Iyer” is the metaphor for all that they have shared, it is all the hatred, guilt, cowardice, anger, and unconcerned self-interest that they have seen; it is also what they have discovered for themselves about each other and about themselves. Something that has left them more aware, and something they will obviously treasure. And something that must, inevitably, be forsaken, consigned to the realm of possibilities, as the bands of convention enclose them both again.

In these sad, disturbed times, this is a film that is almost like a re-affirmation of what is precious and enduring in all of us. All this needed to be said. Aparna Sen doesn’t, however, say any of this; her compelling images and eloquent scenes do that for her. Which is what makes this one of the finest, and most important films of our time.

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