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Aparna Sen: Sticking to my guns and making the films I wanted to – leading Indian director tells BFI…

Aparna Sen: Sticking to my guns and making the films I wanted to – leading Indian director tells BFI…

She remains one of India’s best known directors and one of the few women with a very long career of filmmaking behind her – including working as an actor and appearing in iconic director Satyajit Ray’s films and will introduce one at the BFI tomorrow…

By Suman Bhuchar

FAMOUS Indian director Aparna Sen was in London as the guest of the London Indian film Festival (Liff) which presented the UK premiere of her film, ‘The Rapist’ which wowed audiences at the Busan International Film Festival (Biff) where it had a world premiere in October 2021.

This hard-hitting drama won the top prize Kim Jisoek award at the 26th Festival and deals with themes of rape, crime, punishment and justice. (The award is named after the festival’s founder and deputy director who passed away in 2017) and the festival is considered to be a major festival in Asia and attracts global interest.

Aparna Sen at the BFI Southbank

The main character Naina (played by her daughter, Konkona Sen Sharma) is raped and wants her perpetrator to be brought to justice.

The film is divided into chapters and each section deals with the aftermath and trauma. It’s an engrossing watch and Sen sets up an argument about whether criminals are made or created which she tries to explore through the film.

Sen said that she wanted to look at the power dynamics and her way of dealing with violence is not to show it but for it be seen through the eye of the victim.

At Liff, she was interviewed by journalist Jane Crowther of Total Film at the BFI Southbank on Saturday (July 2) and talked about working in film for over four decades, the growth of female directors in India and transitioning from an actor to director and never compromising her artistic integrity.

Jane Crowther (Liff) and Aparna Sen

She was joined by her daughter, Konkona half way during the conversation and when asked what advice she gave her daughter, said: “Lose weight and look after your skin!” This didn’t seem to cohere with her self-avowed declaration that “we are all feminists’’ although the audience was quite forgiving and didn’t pursue this conversation.

Sen began her career in cinema working as an actor in Satyajit Ray’s films, as her father, the film critic, Chidananda Das Gupta was a friend of Ray and together they began the Calcutta Film Society in 1947.

Aparna Sen

As a Bengali, Sen explained how her mother used to make her read Rabindranath Tagore’s stories as homework and one day the phone rang when she was reading a story, entitled ‘Samapti’ (‘The Conclusion’) she picked up the phone and it was Ray or “Manek Da” as he was known.

“There was this deep booming voice. ‘Chintu ache che?’ ‘Is Chintu there?’ – the pet name of my father – and he and Ray were friends from a very young age”, she recalled.

To the delight of the audience, she mimicked his voice as he asked for her father, who later told her that Ray had asked if Aparna might like to be in his film, and she ended up acting in that same short story she was reading, playing the role of Mrimoyee, a tomboy. This film is part of the anthology entitled ‘Teen Kanya’ (‘Three Daughters’) and is showing as part of the Ray Season at the BFI and Sen will be introducing two of those films tomorrow (please see link below for listing details).

After making her debut at the age of 15, she continued to act in some more of Ray’s films, other Bengali and Bombay cinema where she was so bored that she began to write and later transitioned into a director.

Sen’s films have explored themes of social concerns, such as loneliness in her 1981 debut directing film, ‘36 Chowringhee Lane’; mental illness in ‘15 Park Avenue’(2005); communal tensions in ‘Mr and Mrs Iyer’ (2002) and the nature of love in ‘The Japanese Wife’ (2010) while female protagonists are at the heart of her stories.

She told the BFI audience: “I was acting in Bombay in a Hindi film and you had to wait long hours for other actors who were late, or for the lighting to be completed and so on. I thought to myself, is this what I am going to do all my life? I used to be not a bad writer, so I thought, what should I write? At that time because we had acted with Utpal Dutt who was a very leftist director on stage – and we were all left orientated.”

It was an indication of the type of films she might create herself, she suggested.

After much laughter from the audience, she continued: “I feel it was my good sense at that young age, I didn’t try to write a story about labourers or farmers because I didn’t know anything about them. So, I thought about my school and I thought about our Anglo Indian school teachers I wanted to write about them.”

Sen ended up writing a short story which naturally became a script. Eventually she showed it to Ray, who encouraged her to make it, saying the time was right to make a film in the English language.

Mother and daughter Aparna Sen and Konkona Sen Sharma

Long story short, he persuaded her to find a producer and spoke to actor, Shashi Kapoor who agreed to produce it after hearing the story and his wife, Jennifer Kendal played the central protagonist, Violet Stoneham in what became ‘36 Chowringhee Lane’.

The film went to on win several awards including Best Director at the National Film Awards and Evening Standard Film Awards Best Actor for Kendal in 1982.

“We didn’t have stars or anything and I was a first time director. Audiences loved the film. We were so happy they loved the film. Of course it was validation. Jennifer put in a stellar performance,” pointed out Sen.

Other topics explored at the conversation was the increase in the number of women film directors in India and the challenges of trying to raise funding for non-mainstream stories.

Crowther asked her what were the topics she kept on returning to in her work, Sen replied: “I think it’s probably the harmony between communities. The Hindu-Muslim community something that has troubled me for a very, very long time. Another, is loneliness, which was there in ‘36 Chowringhee Lane’ and in my second film, ‘Parama’ (‘The Ultimate Woman’, 1985), where the character gets isolated within the family, until the time you get into the psyche of the character and reach the area of aloneness.”

Aparna Sen and Kokona Sen Sharma

Konkona was asked about working with her mother, especially in the context of ‘The Rapist’ and she said: “I really trusted her.”

“We always hear about rape. It is not about sex, it is about power, why is power used in this manner and society has to take some responsibility for churning out rapists.

“I did feel that when the child is born, he’s a toddler, at what point does he become a rapist? This film is more me asking questions than offering solutions,” Sen said.

Crowther asked: “Did you give any advice to your daughter, when she was starting out?”
“I told her to lose weight,” from gasps and laughter from the audience. “Look after her skin and things like that.”

“She may have mentioned grooming,” interjected Konkona, “because I was not really interested in it. It’s amazing living with you, you don’t know when you’re getting watched. It’s such a privilege watching her work.”

Cary Rajinder Sawhney, executive director LIff and Tony Mathar of sponsor Blue Orchid Hotel present Aparna Sen with an award

Aparna Sen said she was quite proud of “sticking to her guns over her career”. She said she deserved a pat on the back for following her own course and gave herself one verbally – and the audience responded warmly, agreeing.

“The kind of films that I’ve made have always been films I wanted to make on my own terms. Sticking to your guns for forty years is not easy, I can tell you. But I did not compromise. I did not make the kind of films that I was asked to by producers. Here I think I deserve a pat on the back.”

‘Two Daughters: The Postmaster and Samapti’
Aparna Sen (Samapati) will introduce this programme in the Satyajit Ray season tomorrow (July 7) at 5.50pm, NFT3, Belvedere Road, London SE1 8XT. (see link below for tickets).
Ray adapted Tagore’s short stories, ‘Teen Kanya’ (‘Three Girls’) in is centenary year (1961). The film ‘Teen Kanya’ which is part of this anthology will screen next month.

More info/tickets: here

Kokona Sen Sharma at Liff 2022 (Cine Lumiere talk) – here

Our final Liff 2022 (June 23-July 3) round-up and video of the closing gala film, ‘Superfan: The Na Bhatia’ story will be out shortly… Follow our socials to find out when it drops or subscribe to Youtube

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Written by Asian Culture Vulture