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IFFK 2017: Filmmakers today are driven by fear, says Aparna Sen at Aravindan Memorial Lecture

While the Bengali actress and filmmaker urged to stand up against the environment of fear, she also stressed on the importance of exposing children to good cinema from the very beginning.

Anita Paikat

The ongoing International Film Festival of Kerala (IFFK) 2017 has a packed schedule, from screenings, master classes, workshop, panel discussions to open forums. One of the attractions at the 22nd edition of the festival was the 13th Aravindan Memorial Lecture by the famed actress and filmmaker from Bengal, Aparna Sen, on 10 December.

The session began with an introduction to the man after whom the lecture series is established — G Aravindan, a film director, screenwriter, musician, cartoonist and painter from Kerala.

Born on 21 January 1935, Aravindan established himself as a cartoonist in the early 1960s with the series Cheriya Manushyarum Valiya Lokavum (Small Men and the Big World). Later, shifting his focus to music and theatre, he established the Sopanam and Navarangam clubs, respectively. Working in collaboration with the theatre legend, Kavalam Narayana Panicker, he made several acclaimed plays like Kaali and Avanavan Kadamba.

Aravindan made his first film in 1974, taking from his cartoon series. Uttarayanam (1974) exposed opportunism and hypocrisy set against the backdrop of the Independence struggle. The very first film established him as a director, winning him six Kerala State Film Awards and two National film awards. In all, he directed 18 Malayalam films and composed music for four. His films mainly took from the Indian mythologies and the rich folklore from Kerala, albeit each time he would present a unique perspective.

Aparna, a little at loss for words, after listening to the achievements of the late filmmaker, thought it best to begin her address with an introduction to her own background. The purpose of doing so was to put forth the importance of exposing children to good cinema from the very beginning.

“Understanding cinema is not as important as getting exposure to it is,” she said. Her parents were liberal and lived their lives in the arts, the kids were taken to various events from music concerts, to Bharatnatyam performances, to plays, and so on. “What was being done was a mind was being prepared. Without knowing I was absorbing life like a sponge,” she reminisced.

The Sonata director also marked the importance of raising a child without any inhibitions of sex and gender, saying, “My parents never let me feel that I could not do something that I wanted to do just because I was a girl. That idea never entered my head. Provided I was not harming anybody, I could do whatever I wanted.” She began her acting career with Satyajit Ray’s Teen Kanya (1961) when she was in class VIII.

After finishing her higher secondary school, Aparna joined Utpal Dutt’s theatre group and in the meantime also started getting film offers. Beginning with Mrinal Sen’s Akash Kusum (1965) and then Baksa Badal (1965), which was scripted by Satyajit Ray and directed by one of his assistants, she also signed up for mainstream films. However, once the desired success was achieved, she grew tired of the commercial films and decided to make her own films, instead of waiting for artistic projects to come by.

She began writing the script for her first film 36 Chowringhee Lane (1981) in 1976 and took 2-3 years to finish it. “I gave it to my mentor Satyajit Ray... and then two months went by and he said nothing. He called me up and asked to come over. He thumped his heart and said, ‘it’s got a lot of heart, go ahead and make it,’” she said.

It was Ray who suggested Aparna approach Shashi Kapoor to produce the film. By producing Junoon (1979) and Kalyug (1981), Shashi had established himself as the go-to guy for off-beat films. The very best synopsis that the to-be director could muster was penned down and sent to Shashi in Mumbai.  

Soon Aparna got a call from Shashi who said he liked the synopsis, but wasn’t sure if Aparna would be able to direct it and asked her to meet him in Mumbai. “You come over at your own cost, fly down. If I hire you as the director am going to fly you down at my cost,” she said, amused. Jennifer Kendal Kapoor, Shashi and Govind Nihalani together met with her and a happy Aparna returned home with her contract.

Aparna observed that after 36 Chowringhee Lane, she was branded as a feminist filmmaker. While she didn’t mind the tag, she learned the importance of representing the female gaze only later.

She elaborated on the difference between the male and female perspective with an example from her film Mr. & Mrs. Iyer (2002). “The scene where the old man played by Bhisham Sahni is taken down (from a bus). I think what would happen if a man had made the film is that the violence would have actually been shown. While men make films saying that it is against violence, they’re actually relishing that violence. When a woman make a film speaking against violence, I think her approach will be different,” she explained. However, she also believes that the “true artist is androgynous.”

She further commended the Women in Cinema Collective, initiated in Kerala by the women in the Malayalam film industry and reiterated the fact that women are very much a part of the patriarchal system as men are. She noted the increase in number of assault cases against women and wondered if it was the changing power structure and the breaking of gender disparity in the society that was threatening the men. Aparna urged the fathers and mothers to change their own behaviours for the children to grow and imbibe ideas of gender equality.

Moving to her last point of discussion, Aparna said, “When I started making films, there was a sense of great joy. There were no creative limits. Today, there is a sense of fear every. Every time you make a film you think, ‘can I do this?’ It is fear at many levels, we are frightened of the audience. The producers, too, are frightened that the censor board will not give a certificate or will give an 'A' certificate or they are frightened that there will be a law and order situation and a film will not be made. So, at every level we are being driven by fear.”

She confessed that this factor bothers her that the filmmakers in the future will not be able to execute their visions, and will start with them being crippled in the stage of vision. They are being frightened to think of themselves.”

She concluded her lecture by urging people to stand up against the environment of fear that the filmmakers live in today.

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