Aparna Sen, 76, has just received the Icon Award at the London Indian Film Award for her contribution to cinema. Her latest film, The Rapist, a complex look at how impact the perpetrator, the survivor and her husband has been winning Awards and accolades across the Indian and International festival circuits.
Sen is the daughter of the acclaimed film scholar Chidananda Dasgupta and designer Supriya Dasgupta, who founded the Calcutta Film Society in 1947. She debuted in Satyajit Ray’s Teen Kanya (1961) while still in school. “ I was not allowed to watch mainstream cinema until later in life”, she recalls. “My friends would watch the Suchitra Sen—Uttam Kumar starrers and describe them in great detail. I had not seen a Bengali film until then. Of course, I was taken by my parents to watch Satyajit Ray’s Pather Panchali (1955) and cried copiously. My taste was formed by those kinds of films. My parents were aghast when I decided to do mainstream cinema, but if I were to wait for Ray or Mrinal Sen to cast me, it would not be much of a career.”
After two decades of starring in Bengali films and a handful of forgettable Hindi films, Sen was nudged towards film making. “ During shooting of Immam Dharam (1977), I was waiting for another star, or for the light to be set up or something and I thought of myself or something, and I thought of myself, ‘I don’t want to be doing this for the rest of my life—acting in Cinema, I do not believe in’. I knew I could write. I started writing what turned out to be 36, Chowringee Lane (1988).”
Even for a star, it was not easy to find a producer for an English film about a lonely, elderly Anglo—Indian woman, modelled after some of her own school teachers. “I was prepared to go door to door. I met this guy who was in-charge of spending 20th Century Fox funds in India. When I narrated the story, he said, “ what are you trying to sell here? Violence? Sex? I said ‘Thank you very much and ran from there. It was the story of a little old woman. I was terrified, I would be asked to put in sex, violence. Eventually, Sashi Kapoor produced the film. His wife, Jennifer Kendal, played the teacher, Violet Stoneham. It remains one of her mostly widely watched and admired films.
By the early 1980s, Sen along with Sai Paranjape, Vijay Mehta and Prena Kara found themselves part of a novel set– women film makers. The industry, she says, expected them to make small-budget films about women issues. “It is so stupid for women to be making films about women”, Sen says. “36…. Could have been a film about a man except that I did not know about boys schools”.
If Sen finds it hard to fit pigeonholes, her films too. Sati (1989) draws from a Kamal Kumar Majoomdar story of a mute orphan who married of a tree because her horoscope suggests that her husband will die. Mr and Mrs Iyer (2002) is about a Tamil-Brahmin woman saving a Muslim man from communal violence. The Japanese wife (2010) is about pen relationship between a Bengali man and a Japanese woman. “A lot of them are about loneliness, but they were traverse in different paths”, she said. (IPA Service)