By Papri Sri Raman
If one were to describe Aparna Sen and her work, there is just one Bengali phrase that comes to mind: Bhalo Kharab Meye (The good bad girl).
This is the title of a 1993 play, for which Sen won the Best Actor award from Kalakar Awards. So, what is a good bad girl? How can a bad girl be good? Experts on archetypes will tell you, she is really harmless but hits hard, because she is mischievous like the Matrkas, can run a meticulously kept household like Lakshmi but likes to swing upside down from the tree just to shock patriarchy. Aparna Sen is like that.
The roles she plays are perfect and the films she directs or produces are precise and pointed but if you patiently watch them, you will see how naughty she can be. Imagine doing a film like Goyna’r Baksho (the Jewell Box), it so reminds us of the Bengali writer Lila Majumdar’s Padi Pishir Bormi Baksho. Satyajit Ray had thought of filming Padi Pishir Bormi Baksha; Arundhati Devi made it into a film in 1972.
Like several Bengali actors of the time, Sen too made her film debut (at age 15) with Satyajit Ray’s film (as Mrinmoyee) in 1961; it was Teen Kanya. As Span editor, writer and film-maker Chidananda Dasgupta’s daughter and her mother Supriya Dasgupta an award-winning costume designer (for Chidanand’s Amodini, 1995), it is no surprise, limelight drew her. Clothing, posture, that enigmatic smile, the mischief in the eyes, all put together comes alive in a 196o’s photograph by the New Zealander Brian Brake for his series ‘Monsoon’; the photo graced the cover of Life magazine.
Films like Iti Mrinalini (2009), which Sen directed show her versatility as she also plays the role of the aging Mrinalini, a difficult role to do. But here, she, as director, knew exactly what she wanted, and gave it herself. This eye for detail is also visible in all the films in which she has directed Konkona, her daughter.
The rebel lurking in the woman comes out in all the role-plays by both Sen and her daughter. The films Aparna directs are not in any wayplaying-to-the-gallery stuff. The 1981 film 36 Chowringhee Lane, for example, is one of the first mainstream films depicting the plight of the old and lonely, also the alienation that the Anglo-Indian community faced after India’s freedom. It is, again, very different from Goynar Baksho, also a story of an old woman.
Then comes a film like Mr. and Mrs. Iyer in 2000 the backdrop of a communal riot. Twenty years later, in a politically effervescent atmosphere of love jihad, when one looks back at Mr. and Mrs. Iyer, one remembers the music by Zakir Hussain, and the cinematography by Goutam Ghose, and wonders, if this kind of films will be possible now?
It is rare to find a feminist actor-director who is not only a sensitive craftsman, at the same time impishly defiant of norms of the times. The 1987 Padma Shri award is well deserved, so few women filmmakers get that kind of recognition. Her films Paroma, Paromitar Ekdin and Ghare Baire Ekhan not only explored the depressed women’ urge for expression against patriarchy but also contemporarised the content taking into account the specific social perspective. In her Ghare Bairen Ekhan, Aparna adapted the Tagor’s novel based on the phase of terrorist activities in the Swadeshi movement of Bengal in early 20th century in the present Hindutva phase of our nation’s polity and gave the theme a topical touch in her film. Satyajit Ray made the film Ghare Baire adapting the Tagore novel more or less in the original milieu.
Her latest film, The Rapist holds society responsible for producing rapists. This has been a subject of debate since the arrest of a juvenile in the Nirbhaya case in Delhi in December 2012. The film was nominated for the Kim Jiseok award at the 26th Busan International Film Festival. One protagonist is raped, testifies in a court that eventually leads the rapist to a death sentence. At the same time, she also discovers that she is pregnant. Eventually, she decides to keep the baby and starts talking with her rapist in order to better understand the reasons behind his action.
The victim is a criminal psychologist, and it is her job to want to know. However, in this film the focus is more on the victim than the perpetrator; his social circumstances, upbringing and violence. The subject of death sentence is also brought up; but the point is, a country is what its society is.
In the award-winning Delhi Crime, the focus was on the police chief. In Rapist, the focus is on the victim. Never is the focus on the perpetrator and his social circumstances. The reality of poor India today is, verdicts are given from pedestals; actually however, society has decided to look away from the crime of rape. One would have expected a filmmaker like Aparna Sen to delve deeper. Nevertheless, it is the second step in discussing rape in cinema and acknowledging that unless we start resolving the issue of social equality, education and employment, rapes in India cannot be contained, whichever way one looks at it.
At 75, Aparna Sen, looks at rape as a tool of expression, a way of expressing anger. That is a beginning. One wishes for more films that at least presents the question ‘why’? In an era of resignation, it is important to have such good intentions to understand the bad. And Sen is a very good Bad Girl, as far as the themes of her films go.
Long live the Quintessential Good Bad Girl. (IPA Service)