Aparna Sen is asking tough questions with ‘The Rapist’ and winning awards

The filmmaker’s 16th film just picked up the top honour at the Busan International Film Festival. She discusses how she meticulously researched the subject and then trusted her instincts

‘Why does a man become a rapist?’ The question has been fermenting in filmmaker Aparna Sen’s mind for close to a decade. “The idea came to me first as a germ [she can’t remember if it was before or after Nirbhaya, the 2012 Delhi gang rape and murder case]. Then it gradually got fleshed out into a story with characters and setting,” she says. Now, with The Rapist, Sen has posed the question to the world.

A very matter-of-fact film — or as Variety magazine calls it, a “richly-layered discussion starter” — it takes no sides. It follows Naina, played by Konkona Sen Sharma, a criminology professor in Delhi who survives a brutal rape and assault, while putting forward various points of view and also questioning the validity of the carceral state and the death sentence.

In early October, The Rapist premiered at the Busan International Film Festival, and won the prestigious Kim Jiseok Award and numerous accolades. The actor-auteur’s 16th film, it was shot in 27 days in Delhi, in the slim window between the first and the lethal second Covid-19 wave. They finished shooting on April 6; the lockdown was announced on the 8th. “Actually, it was supposed to be a couple of days longer. We finished ahead of schedule thanks to our DOP [director of photography] Ayanaka Bose, who was extremely fast,” she says, recalling how they all stayed at The Leela Palace in Chanakyapuri. “We used to go down to breakfast along with the other guests staying at the hotel. So, it was not as though we were living in a bubble. We also shot in a real slum for four or five days. We were extremely lucky that [through the entire shoot] no one got sick.”

At 76, Sen is still raring to go, with more ideas, including a memoir, germinating. In an email interview, she looks back at her 40-year career as a director, and what prompted her to take on the subject of The Rapist.

Edited excerpts:

A still from Aparna Sen’s ‘The Rapist’ | Photo Credit: Special arrangement

The title is a forceful one.

Yes, it is. We didn’t want to hide behind a more innocuous-sounding title. However, the theme is not about whether rapists should be given the death penalty, though that question is likely to come to mind when one watches the film. The theme is about what happens to three people whose lives are changed overnight after a horrific incident. Yes, it is also an exploration of what turns a person into a rapist because nobody is born as one. Is it genetics? Is it his environment? Or both? What is it about our society that turns such a large number of men into rapists? Social inequality? Ingrained patriarchy? Envy of the new, successful woman, and the desire to put her in her place? Or is it a combination of all these factors? It is an extremely complex issue that is addressed in the film, though not in an obvious or underlined way.

Whom did you consult while writing the script?

I talked to lawyers and activists, but not to rape survivors. I had a gut feeling that they would not wish to relive the experience by talking about it. Two of my feminist friends, who head organisations to help abused women, gave me important insights. Anuradha Kapoor, who runs Swayam — of which I, too, am a member — gave me a lot of material to read about rape survivors and details about the procedures immediately after a rape is reported. Shamita Dasgupta, who heads an organisation called Manavi in the US, told me about a new approach to crime called Restorative Justice where the victim and the perpetrator meet and talk about the reasons that made the latter act in the way he/she did. Restorative Justice isn’t mentioned in my film, but the knowledge was useful when I was writing certain scenes. For the most part though, I relied on my intuition and observations, which have served me well in the past.

This is the sixth film you have worked on with your daughter, Konkona — from Picnic (1989), when she was around 10, to The Rapist. How has your artistic collaboration evolved?

There is implicit trust on both sides. We have the same mindset and value systems. This makes it easier for her to understand what I am saying, right from the script stage. And, on my part, I know that Konkona has a very fine sense of balance, that she knows where to draw the line and will never go over the top. She has had tremendous screen presence from a very early age. It is difficult to delineate exactly how our relationship has evolved — I think she used to be very obedient earlier and listened to me much more than she does now! But then, she is much more mature as a person now and also far more proficient as an actor. I hardly ever have to direct her now. The only problem I had with her earlier was that she was rather uncomfortable doing intimate scenes. This time, I told her right at the beginning that she will have to get rid of those qualms. She looked at me with a wicked glint in her eye and said, ‘Okay, you just watch me!’ And I have to say, she delivered perfectly.

National Award-winning director Aparna Sen with her daughter, Konkona Sen Sharma | Photo Credit: Special arrangement

Tell us about the unusual casting of Arjun Rampal as Naina’s husband.

Why unusual? You know, the problem is that everyone just gapes at Arjun’s good looks and is unable to see beyond that! I had seen him in only two films before this, Rock On!! and Rajneeti, and I liked him very much in both. But for this film, I chose him because his appearance, or maybe his persona, exudes a certain nobility. This was necessary for the character. Also, I had noticed that he tends to underact. That was perfect for the role of Aftab. Despite all this, I was not entirely certain that he would be able to deliver and hold his own alongside Konkona. But I have to say I was in for a very pleasant surprise. Arjun is an extremely sensitive, finely-tuned actor underneath that gorgeous exterior. He and Konkona exuded the most wonderful chemistry together. He was quite a revelation as the understated, intellectual, highly-principled but emotionally-torn Aftab Malik.

In Mr and Mrs Iyer, you’d said that the characters were not supposed to be Muslim and Hindu — it was an organic development. Was it the same with The Rapist? Or was the love angle a reaction to the current climate?

No, it was not. At least, not consciously so. I had reasoned that having a couple who were Hindu and Muslim, where neither had the slightest desire to convert the other, would be the most economical way of imparting the information that they were truly liberal and secular. Aftab’s one line to the officer in charge immediately after the rape sequence, ‘Meri biwi Hindu hain. Koi problem hai aapko?’ [My wife is Hindu. Do you have a problem with that?] says it all!

Delhi looks dingy and grey in the film, almost like all the colour has been sucked out.

Yes. [DOP] Bose and I decided to go for a desaturated look. As if the colour is being drained away from the lives of the characters. It starts brightly enough when Naina and Aftab are leading a happy, normal life. But after the rape incident, as the mood of the film gets darker, we gradually remove the colour. In fact, both Bose and I would have been very happy if we could have shot the film in black and white, but other considerations prevailed.

A still from ‘The Rapist’ | Photo Credit: Special arrangement

How would you describe your artistic vision? How has it evolved from the ’80s to the digital and OTT space we are living in now?

I make neither experimental cinema nor so-called formula films. I make films about human beings — tell their stories, bring their joys and sorrows, desires and frustrations to the fore. Even in films like The Rapist or Mr and Mrs Iyer, which deal with issues of national importance, it is the individuals who matter and who the audience identifies with.

Digitisation, or the OTT space, has never really bothered me too much. It is true that initially I resisted the transition from celluloid to digi-tapes. They seemed to have a more brittle quality and lacked the softness of colour and detail that we could get in celluloid. But science does not sit still. The quality of the digital medium has been improving so fast and giving such brilliant results, that one does not miss celluloid any more except for nostalgic reasons.

As far as the OTT platform is concerned, it is something we have had to accept with a shrug, particularly after the onset of the pandemic. But there are merits too. We get to see the best of international cinema on OTT platforms. I saw films like Roma, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, Capernaum sitting right in front of my TV. Of course, nothing compares to the experience of sitting in a darkened auditorium and watching a film with a room full of people with no doorbell, no telephones, no sudden guests to disturb you! As far as my films are concerned, most of them have been intimate stories about individuals, not elaborate spectacles. So the OTT platforms are not unsuited for viewing them.

A career spanning over 40 years, and yet you’ve noted that when you look back at your old films you only see mistakes. Is there one you’ve wished more people would have seen and talked about?

It is true that glaring mistakes are all I see when I review my films. But this is mostly with the recent ones. When I watch an old film like 36 Chowringhee Lane or Paromitar Ek Din, I often find myself thinking, ‘Well, that’s not too bad after all!’ I wish more people could have seen Yugant, which was somehow neglected outside Bengal. I wish I could have made it now with all the computer graphics available to us today, because there is an apocalyptic scene at the end with the sea breaking into flames. Yugant should really have been my swan song. The other film that I feel didn’t get its due is The Japanese Wife. It should be on one of the OTT platforms at least, so that more people can watch it. But it was marketed very badly at the time and few people outside of Bengal got to see it.

The Indian theatrical release of The Rapist is yet to be confirmed.

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