What Satyajit Ray asked Aparna Sen after she made 36 Chowringhee Lane

For Sen, 75, the Kim Jiseok Award at the recent Busan International Film Festival holds special significance. She talks about being outspoken and why women don’t have to bear the burden of being virtuous all the time

You called winning the Kim Jiseok Award for The Rapist, at the recent Busan International Film Festival (BIFF), special.

Many years ago, when Donald Ritchie was the chairman, I was one of the jurors for this festival. At that time, I had met Kim Jiseok (the late South Korean co-founder of BIFF), who worked very hard to promote Asian movies. That’s why this award has a special significance for me. I am very happy for my team whose hard work has been recognised. In India, the movie will most likely release on an OTT platform after doing the festival rounds.

You thought of the story of The Rapist some years ago. What prompted you to finally make the film?

The idea came to me about a decade ago. When you read about rape cases, they leave an impact. The 2012 Delhi gang-rape case was brutal. We don’t know what the trigger is — why do men rape? What is it about a society that creates rapists? Is it just about inequality or the caste system? I have these questions in mind. Even though women are coming forward to speak about it, the frightening fact is that it continues to take place with impunity. In the case of the Hathras incident (2020), the victim’s family was demonised. In the 2018 Kathua case of the Kashmiri girl Asifa Bano look at the way the perpetrators went about bragging about it. There are cases where people have videotaped the assault and shared it. It’s because they think they won’t be punished.

The film raises questions regarding the death penalty for rapists.

After some gruesome incidents, I have felt that these criminals have no right to live. But, that’s not the right way to think. Are you putting someone to death so that you can set an example or instil fear in potential perpetrators? It has been proved by research that capital punishment does not deter people from committing crimes. They do it in a state of blind rage or passion or for a sense of power.

How did you research for the film?

I was deeply impressed by dancer Alokananda Roy, who had access to the inmates of Kolkata’s Presidency Jail; they call her Ma. With them, she has staged Valmiki Pratibha, written by Rabindranath Tagore, which is a story of reformation. Valmiki the poet (who wrote the Ramayana) was a dacoit before his transformation.

When I asked Roy about visiting rape convicts, she said she had a mental block. But, she steeled herself and spoke to one of them. For a number of days, she questioned him and he kept quiet. One day, he said: ‘No one asked me what I went through’. This episode made me question why men become rapists. There could be a combination of many things. I have tried to explore that in the film.

What made you cast your daughter Konkona Sensharma in the lead role?

She has always been a fine actor. Shabana Azmi watched this movie and asked how did Konkona get into the soul of the character so perfectly. She is any director’s dream. And, I am not talking as a mother, but as a director.

What was your process prior to the shoot?

We did workshops. Kanishka Agarwal, who has now moved to California, worked with the actors for four to five days; she made them open up emotionally. Gitanjali Rao, who plays the rapist’s mother, was wearing a salwar kameez and Kanishka asked her to roll from one end of the room to another. Even if her kurta rolled up, she was not allowed to pull it down. Gitanjali said it somehow freed her. Konkona and Arjun (Rampal) were asked to look into each other’s eyes without saying a word. They continued doing that till they started smiling or tears rolled down Konkona’s eyes.

When you made 36 Chowringhee Lane (1981) in English, people thought it wouldn’t work. The characters in The Rapist speak in English and Hindi. How do you decide on the language of your movies?

My characters and story determine the language. There is only one film that could have been made in Hindi but I made it in English – 15 Park Avenue (2005). 36 Chowringhee Lane is about an Anglo-Indian woman. How can she talk in Bangla? Our society is becoming multi-lingual, so are the films. One can argue that people in villages won’t be able to read the subtitles. The point is the kind of films I make are niche. Usually, my films are for an urban audience.

I made Parama (1985) in Bengali and Hindi. The Hindi one didn’t do so well but the Bengali one played in 17 theatres for three weeks. Often, it also depends on what the producers think. I wanted to make Ghawre Bairey Aaj (2019) in Hindi as it talks about national issues and voices of reason being silenced everywhere, but couldn’t.

Has the intellectual and cultural environment in West Bengal, where you’ve grown up and worked, encouraged you to speak your mind?

Definitely, it has contributed. Also, there is a certain kind of morality that was instilled in me. By that, I don’t mean conventional morality, I mean intellectual honesty. My grandfather was a Brahmo Samaj preacher. Personally, I am an agnostic on the verge of being an atheist. The ethics and morality of my father and grandfather have been passed on to me. That has translated into humanism and a strong sense of morality. It teaches me to speak out.

How much of your political views are reflected in your movies?

Sometimes, practical considerations come in. I may not have dialogues or scenes expressing my views but I may suggest it. I don’t want scenes from my movie to be censored; it is important that people watch the film. In Ghawre Bairey Aaj (2019), I could have named political parties but I didn’t do that. I brought up issues that I wanted to talk about — the plurality of India that I love and how that has diminished.

You have handled different responsibilities as actor, director, writer, and editor of a magazine.

When I was an editor (of the Bengali fortnightly Sananda, a women’s magazine), it helped me understand what was happening around us. That’s when my idea of politics also grew stronger. As (writer-director) Rituparno Ghosh once remarked, most of my editorials were about communal harmony. The world changed after the 1992 Babri Masjid demolition. People ask me why am I not making movies like 36 Chowringhee Lane or Parama (1985) anymore. That’s because the world around me has changed. Since I am occupied by what’s happening around me, naturally I tend to tell those stories.

What has been exciting — to be in front of the camera or behind it?

Always behind the camera. My daughter (Konkona Sensharma) is an actor-director, so am I. During my time as an actor, we had to act coy and flutter our eyelashes all the time. After a while, I didn’t care about that. A woman is portrayed either as helpless or virtuous. I didn’t think it was incumbent upon a woman to bear the burden of being virtuous all the time. They can be corrupt too.

In a movie like Parama, you moved away from the conservative depiction of women. How did the audience react?

For people, Parama was an adulterous woman, I saw her as one making a sexual choice. Before that, being a progressive woman meant going for higher studies or marrying against the family’s wishes. But being a mother of three, having an affair and not feeling guilty, created so much controversy. I know women who sneaked out to watch Parama, without telling their families. After its premiere, three old ladies came up to me and said “Bless you, dear”. The movie changed a lot of mindsets.

Your casting choices have been remarkable. Tell us about them.

Well, there are different ways of doing it. For the role of Violet Stoneham (in 36 Chowringhee Lane), I wanted a real Anglo-Indian lady. Utpal da (Utpal Dutt) said, ‘Are you mad? You want to cast a non-actor for your main character?’ He then suggested Jennifer Kapoor’s name. She was so graceful and I had my doubts if she could be dumpy, but she assured me that she could. I had met Nutan for Parama but didn’t cast her. To me, Rakhee epitomised the bahu of a conservative north Kolkata household.

For Mr. and Mrs. Iyer (2002), I hadn’t thought of Konkona. The desktop computer used to be in her bedroom. She has the habit of reading late into the night and I have the habit of working late. Sometimes, I would read out the scenes to her. One day, I looked up as I was reading and saw the expressions fleeting across her face. I thought my actor was right there.

It is 40 years since you debuted as a director. Have we reached a stage when we no longer need to use expressions like ‘women director’ and instead just say ‘director’?

We have. However, it is the gaze that’s important. (Filmmaker Satyajit) Ray and Rituparno portrayed strong women characters. Showing explicit violence, I would say, is the male gaze. Nandita Das showed a riot in Firaaq (2008) but there was nothing explicit. It’s the same in Mr. and Mrs. Iyer. This, I think, is the female gaze. I am proud that many female actors have turned producers and are making non-mainstream movies.

You were exposed to world cinema from a young age. Did this shape your aesthetics in later years?

At that time, we watched too many films. I was almost breathless when I watched Sergei Eisenstein’s Ivan the Terrible (1944), especially during the scene when a door opens and light pours in while Ivan watches from the top. At that time, it was very new. I loved the movies of François Truffaut, Ingmar Bergman, and Akira Kurosawa. Kurosawa’s Rashomon and Throne of Blood left a tremendous impression on me. Later, when I watched his Ran, I cried so much.

Sixty years ago, you entered the world of movies when you acted in Ray’s Teen Kanya. How do you look back at it?

My nature is not to look back. For some time, when the film was playing, I thought I should have done certain things differently. In Mr. and Mrs. Iyer, for instance, there is the girl who protested when Muslim guys are taken away, and she is slapped. Later, we see her eating phuchka with her friends and laughing. People are not in a continuous state of protest and they have lives. But I should have given her a black eye. This, I thought two years after the film was released. As for the awards that I have received, I don’t think about them unless I have to write in my bio. My films have won several National Awards, but I don’t dwell on them.

You have worked with some great directors such as Dutt in theatre, and Ray in films. How have they influenced you as an actor and director?

Utpal da was a leftist. I often argued with him about ideas of a revolution. He used to dismiss them and would call me a ‘reactionary’. He had a great sense of discipline and working in theatre instils that in a person. He was very particular about being punctual and learning the lines.

Ray, of course, was a mentor, the way my father (critic and filmmaker Chidananda Dasgupta) was. But the idea was never to imitate Ray but to imbibe the essence of his work and ethics. He was very particular about every little detail on his sets. He was economical in the way he designed a shot or wrote a film. In one scene, he could impart a lot of information. This helped keep the length of the scene in control. These things stayed with me.

When he asked me how 36 Chowringhee Lane had turned out, I told him: ‘There are mistakes’. He said that was given, but was I able to create some moments? A film is not something you just watch, it’s the human qualities and interactions that create a moment in the film and that stays with you. That’s why one can watch Ray’s movies again and again. It’s like visiting your favourite holiday haunt or country house.

You were close to Ghosh and together you made a wonderful movie Unishe April (1994). People have often spoken about the void since he left. What do you think of contemporary Bengali directors?

Ritu was a very talented filmmaker. He understood the middle-class Bengali psyche extremely well. His passing away definitely left a void. There are filmmakers like Kaushik Ganguly, who have filled that to some extent. I like some of Anjan Dutta’s movies, as well. But, Ritu was popular and people enjoyed his brand of cinema.

Making an allusion to Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, I am curious to know what does a female director require — support system, budget or people who believe in her?

We need all of that. Women filmmakers, particularly those married with children, have to have some space when they are left alone. In our country, men are not hands-on homemakers. At times, it’s also about conditioning, especially in the case of women of my generation. We think we will manage everything. Then, one gets irritable and exhausted.

Konkona manages her time well, with her son (Haroon), acting, yoga classes and physical training. It’s commendable when a woman is able to manage everything but she doesn’t have to. Also, any director, irrespective of gender, needs a producer who believes in his/her vision and the product.

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