The first heroine in Indian cinema was a man. Anna Salunke played Rani Taramati, wife of Raja Harishchandra, in the eponymous 1913 film that is regarded as the first feature film in India. Breaking the taboo of appearing in films, legends like Devika Rani and Durga Khote graced the screen in the 1930s. Over the decades, women have played an invaluable role, but their involvement has for the longest time been limited to being actors or as make-up and costume artists.
More than a century later, women filmmakers are still a rarity. A new book — Films Through Women’s Eyes: A Study of 17 Women Directors of India — edited by Maithili Rao and N. Manu Chakravarthy, and published by Suchitra Film Society, celebrates the contribution of some pioneering women filmmakers of India in a medium that has been dominated by men.
Here is an excerpt from the chapter on Aparna Sen, by Saibal Chatterjee.
When Aparna Sen debuted as a director all of four decades ago, she was well-nigh one of a kind. She still is. Many female filmmakers – a few of them, like her, moving from acting to directing – have followed in her footsteps across the country and contributed to reducing, no matter how marginally, the gender disparity in the business. Many other changes have inevitably swept Indian cinema over the past 40 years but the contemporaneity of Sen’s distinctive voice has not dimmed one bit.
Coming off a successful, if not always creatively satisfying, acting career, Sen wrote and directed 36 Chowringhee Lane in 1981. The film was memorably headlined by Jennifer Kendal in the role of an elderly Anglo-Indian school teacher in Calcutta (now Kolkata) grappling with a world passing her by. 36 Chowringhee Lane fetched Sen the top prize at the Manila International Film Festival and the Best Director award at the National Film Awards. It instantly marked her out as a social chronicler of exceptional acuity.
Sixteen feature films in 40 years: she is by no means a prolific filmmaker. Just as well. Being slow and steady has enabled Sen to maintain firm quality control on her creative output. 36 Chowringhee Lane and Mr. and Mrs. Iyer (2002), both in English, are her best-known films nationally, but it was through works such as Yugant (What the Sea Said, 1995), Paromitar Ek Din (House of Memories, 2000), Iti Mrinalini (An Unfinished Letter, 2011) and Ghawre Bairey Aaj (The Home and the World Today, 2019) that she has articulated her worldview with the greatest emphasis and lucidity.
Sen’s career as a writer-director could, for the sake of convenience, be divided into two distinct phases. In the course of the first (1981 to the turn of the millennium), a sizeable part of which she also devoted to her responsibilities as the Editor of the popular Bengali women’s magazine Sananda, she made a quintet of richly textured relationship dramas that mined both human emotions and social veracities with a keen eye for detail.
The second phase, from 2002 to the present, has seen her direct ten films (plus her latest, The Rapist, which has yet to go into distribution) that have embraced global and national concerns (first articulated in her fourth film, Yugant, which juxtaposed the disintegration of a marriage with the ageing of the world and environmental pollution) in narratives about women – and sometimes men – confronting impulses and compulsions springing from a spectrum of external stimuli not always in their control.
Over her steady four-decade-long directorial career, Aparna Sen has given Indian cinema some of its most powerful fictional women, presenting their struggles against patriarchy and recording their accomplishments, big and small, in subtle and telling ways.
The men around her female protagonists may have suffered just a tad owing to the largely reactive nature of their presence in the various storylines that Sen has crafted, but in film after film, she has, with perspicacity, examined notions of masculinity and the workings of patriarchy without adopting a recriminatory – or superficially declamatory – tone.
In Sen’s cinema, acts of resistance, rationalisation, realisation and reconciliation, seen from the perspectives of individual characters, are integral parts of her textured portraits of life that address gender dynamics in relation to specific experiences. Just as importantly, her narratives spring from a much more extensive awareness of the ways of the world, the nation, and the society.
At one end of the Aparna Sen’s gallery of heroines are Uma, a mistreated mute girl in 19th century Bengal who is married to a banyan tree in Sati (1989), Khuku (Paromitar Ek Din, 2000) and Meethi (15 Park Avenue, 2005), two young bipolar women up against their own and their respective family’s confusions and frailties, and Sandhya (The Japanese Wife, 2010), a young widow negotiating repressed physical desire in a conservative semi-rural setting.
Also among Sen’s screen women is Brinda (Ghawre Bairey Aaj, 2019), a reimagining of Tagore’s Bimala as a tribal girl who becomes a part of an upper-caste Bengali home in present-day Delhi and is trapped in a war of ideologies between her liberal, moderate and gutsy journalist-husband and his politically ambitious, right-wing college mate who comes visiting.
At the other end of the spectrum are infinitely more assertive yet variably vulnerable women like the past-her-prime movie actress Mrinalini Mitra in Iti Mrinalini (2011), the successful dancer Anasuya wrestling with emotional and psychological turmoil in Yugant and the conservative Tamil Brahmin homemaker Meenakshi Iyer who must overcome her inhibitions and prejudices in the course of an eventful journey back home in Mr. and Mrs. Iyer.
The specific and the universal coalesce in Sen’s depiction of women navigating the challenges that emanate from the act of confronting firmly ensconced societal structures and belief systems. The all-encompassing sweep that the writer-director imparts to these sharply etched characters and their choices liberates her films from the confines of feminism, which, undeniably, is the bedrock of her cinematic output, and facilitates an embrace of far wider humanist principles. In other words, in her films, Aparna Sen views life and society through a prism that is refreshingly free from any sort of ism and are, therefore, that much the richer.
It was in 36 Chowringhee Lane itself that she revealed glimpses of the essential stylistic dimensions that were to define her directorial oeuvre as a whole. Sen’s fictional universe, which germinates from her urbane, genteel sensibility, is rooted in real socio-political environs and is manifested in the ways that individual urges, family pressures, social roles, national preoccupations and global concerns play out for the characters on the screen. The last two components – national and global points of reference – are not, as has already been submitted, as much a part of the films of her first phase as they are of her subsequent work as a director.
Although Sen started out as a filmmaker who had to learn the ropes on the job, there was nothing at all in her maiden film, 36 Chowringhee Lane, that reflected her lack of experience behind the camera. Aided by cinematographer Ashok Mehta and art director Bansi Chandragupta, she crafted a film that belonged to the topmost drawer – one of the finest debuts ever in the annals of Indian cinema.
Bansi Chandragupta was only one of the links that 36 Chowringhee Lane had with Satyajit Ray, a long-time friend of Sen’s father, Chidananda Dasgupta, a highly influential film critic/scholar and filmmaker. It was the master himself – he had given Aparna her first screen role in Samapti, one of the segments of his Teen Kanya, when she had barely stepped into her teens – who read the short story Sen had written and suggested that she turn it into a film.
And what a film it turned out to be! 36 Chowringhee Lane was a departure from norm in more ways than one. Produced by Bombay movie star Shashi Kapoor – again it was Ray’s idea that Sen should approach the popular Hindi movie actor with the film proposal – the film was made in English. It not only laid emphasis on female subjectivity and brought to the screen a community rarely portrayed in Indian cinema, it also put at its centre an elderly woman and dared to focus on a young couple engaging in pre-marital sex. 36 Chowringhee Lane explores the loneliness of an unmarried Anglo-Indian school teacher left to fend for herself in Calcutta in the wake of the marriage of her niece and a steady exodus from the city of people from her community. It is a striking cinematic essay bolstered by a phenomenal central performance by Jennifer Kendal in the role of Violet Stoneham, a Shakespeare teacher whose only companion is a pet cat Sir Toby, named after a character in Twelfth Night. The Bard, a constant presence in her life, gives her a reason to carry on. The real world around her is, however, anything but reassuring until an ex-student and her lover enter her life.
Nandita (Debashree Roy) and her boyfriend Samaresh (Dhritiman Chatterjee), a writer, use her home as their secret meeting place when Ms. Stoneham is away at school. For the lonely old spinster, their presence in the house when she returns from work is a source of great joy. The apartment gives the lovers the privacy they desperately seek. They become her only friends. Inevitably, the lovers get married and move on. Ms. Stoneham is left to her own devices.
36 Chowringhee Lane wasn’t an instant commercial success but it earned unstinted critical applause all around. It broke new ground in one significant way. Prior to the film, Indian filmmakers never considered the English language as an option. 36 Chowringhee Lane paved the way for Indian films made in English. While Sen herself made films such as Mr. and Mrs. Iyer and 15 Park Avenue in English, her actress-daughter Konkona Sen Sharma did the same with her directorial debut, A Death in the Gunj (2016).