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Interview Bengali Hindi

We answered in practically the same words: Aparna Sen on her tuning with Jennifer Kapoor

On the occasion of Jennifer's 85th birth anniversary, Sen remembers the actress who knew how to bring to life a character without using too many words.

Jennifer Kapoor and Aparna Sen on the sets of 36 Chowringhee Lane (1981)

Anita Paikat

Jennifer Kapoor, née Kendal, was born on 28 February 1933 in England to Geoffrey Kendal and Laura Liddel. Her parents devoted their lives to theatre and formed a travelling theatre company called Shakespearana. Following her father's footsteps, Jennifer, too, made her way into acting and joined her parents in India. On one of the trips to Calcutta, actor Shashi Kapoor joined the troop and soon Shashi and Jennifer fell in love. They decided to marry and leave Shakespearana and form their own theatre company.   

Shashi and Jennifer Kapoor

 While Shashi concentrated on acting in commercial films to earn enough to produce his own films, Jennifer was the pillar of Prithvi Theatre, a theatre space that the couple founded in the memory of the late Prithviraj Kapoor, Shashi's father. In 1978, the duo set up a film production company called Film Valas which brought to fore some critically acclaimed films such as Shyam Benegal's Junoon (1979) and Kalyug (1981), Aparna Sen's 36 Chowringhee Lane (1981), Govind Nihalani's Vijeta (1982) and Girish Karnad's Utsav (1984).

When Jennifer Kapoor helped out Ismail Merchant on Bombay Talkie

Sen was an established actress in Bengali cinema when she set out to turn filmmaker. On her mentor, filmmaker Satyajit Ray's advice, she approached Shashi and Jennifer to produce 36 Chowringhee Lane (1981). She flew down to Mumbai from Kolkata and met Shashi, Jennifer and Nihalani and there was no looking back for Sen. Not only did Film Valas produce the film, Jennifer also agreed to play the role of Violet Stoneham. She won a nomination for BAFTA Award for Best Actress in Leading role for her performance.

Jennifer worked in only a few films, namely Ray's Bengali film Ghare-Baire (1984), James Ivory's Shakespeare Wallah (1965), Bombay Talkie (1970) and Heat And Dust (1983) and Benegal's Junoon (1979).

On the occasion of Jennifer's 85th birth anniversary, Sen remembers the actress who knew how to bring to life a character without using too many words. Excerpts:

When did you meet Jennifer Kapoor for the first time? What was your first impression?

I had seen Jennifer, though not actually met her, way back in school when they used to visit Calcutta with Shakespearean plays produced by their theatre group Shakespearana. I saw a couple of plays staged at the St. Xavier's School auditorium, Henry V among them. I remember Jennifer from there. She was very good!

I met her finally for the very first time when I came to Mumbai to read my script — 36 Chowringhee Lane — to them. She was very warm, very welcoming, and kept a beautiful home at their Harkness Road apartment in Malabar Hills.

Jennifer and her father, Geoffrey Kendal, both were a part of the film. Was it intimidating for a new filmmaker to direct these stalwarts?

Not really. To start with, they had no airs at all and they had totally accepted me as their director. Secondly, I was very confident about my script and very clear about what I wanted to see on screen. So there was no problem at all.

I must confess that initially I had not wanted to cast Geoffrey Kendal. I had wanted a real Anglo-Indian who would be gaunt and thin and crochety. However, Shashi, who never interfered in my directorial decisions normally, persuaded me to cast Geoff. As it happens, it turned out for the best, and I am very glad that I did cast him. Geoff was adorable as the demented Eddie Stoneham, and a very fine actor!

The film focused on a lonely, ageing teacher. Her yearning for companionship is beautifully captured by Jennifer Kapoor. Did you discuss the character and her emotions before filming?

Jennifer had heard the full script about six times. She used to be present at every reading I did for every HOD. I think she imbibed the spirit of her character during the course of those readings. We never discussed her emotions very much, as they were pretty clear in my screenplay anyway.

We did discuss Miss Stoneham's look though. I had wanted her to have wispy hair that she wore loose. But Jennifer told me that she would look younger if she wore her hair that way. We agreed that she should be wearing a lot of floral prints and chintzes. What Jennifer then did was remarkable!  She got those dresses made with her own designs, did her hair up in a small bun, had herself photographed and sent the photographs to me. I received them while I was on Satyajit Ray's set, acting in his [short] film Pikoo [1980]. I showed them to him, as he'd been the first person to read my script and suggest that I approach Shashi to produce the film. Ray took one look at the photographs, and clapped me on the back. 'There! you have your Violet Stoneham!' he said. Can you imagine how reassuring that was for a first-time director?

Jennifer Kapoor in 36 Chowringhee Lane (1981)

I had confided to Jennifer that I had reservations about casting her after I saw her in Junoon because she looked so straight-backed and graceful in that film, nothing like the wimpy Violet Stoneham that I had in mind. 'Don't worry, I can think wrinkles,' she replied, 'And I will sit hunched with my feet apart and loosen my bra straps and I promise I won't cheat!'

We always discussed nitty-gritties rather than feelings. I did tell her that perhaps she should keep pulling the collar of her dressing gown closer in an effort to cover herself when her student came on a sudden visit with her boyfriend, because she was unmarried and still had some virginal airs in spite of her age. I told her that just once as a suggestion, but when Jennifer did the shot it was as if she'd been doing it for a hundred years.

She was without doubt one of the finest actors that I have ever worked with. She never grilled me about what her character's motivations were, or what she was supposed to be feeling. Instead she would ask me questions like, 'Are my eyes open too wide? Am I looking too stare-y?' She was an actor you didn't really need to direct apart from blocking the scene of course. Once I asked her, 'Am I over-directing you? Please tell me if I am, and I'll stop!' She replied, 'At this point I think you know Violet Stoneham better than I do. When I know her better than you, I'll tell you.'

Would you like to share an anecdote from the times you worked with Jennifer?

During the filming of the storm scene, when Violet Stoneham returns home to find the latch of her front door broken and the lovers kissing inside, I had not directed Jennifer at all, correctly assuming that she knew what she would have to do. However, my chief AD [assistant director] came and asked me, 'What do you think Miss Stoneham feels when she sees the couple kissing inside?' I got very embarrassed. I didn't want to ask those questions, as they seemed to be too probing, and invasive of Miss Stoneham's privacy. I said, 'Oh, I don't know. There is this storm, you know...and she's just had a fight with her brother...it will all work out...just let it go.'

But my AD was insistent! He went up to Jennifer who had just come into the room, and asked her the same question, 'Jennifer, what do you think Miss Stoneham feels when she sees the lovers?' As it happens, I overheard her reply and, to this day it gives me goosebumps when I think of it!

She said, 'Oh, please don't ask me that! There's a storm blowing and she's just fought with Eddie...it will just happen.' And neither of us had discussed this before! It was just that we were so finely tuned as actor and director that we answered in practically the same words!

And how beautifully she did that shot! As she had said, it just happened!

Anything you would like to say on her persona? Something that struck and stayed with you...

Jennifer had a lovely sense of humour! She rarely lost her cool. She used to be very good at embroidery and made needle point cushion covers for which she used an almost antique square wooden frame. The frame itself, like everything else in her tastefully decorated home, was very beautiful and very unlike the ugly round aluminium frames that one was used to seeing! I used to tease her, saying that she sat embroidering those cushion covers because she wanted to look like the heroine of a period film. She would smile and replied, 'Yes Rina, (both Shashi and Jennifer called me by my pet name, Rina), it's pure affectation!'

Years later, when I came to Mumbai and heard that she was very ill and probably had cancer, I wanted to call her but didn't know what to say. I didn't want to probe, but I really was concerned. Finally, I summoned up the courage and made the call. 'How are you Jennifer?' I asked, 'I believe you have been ill?' She sighed and said, 'Come over Rina, and I'll tell you all about my illness.' I started feeling terrible! Perhaps, I should not have called! But I went over anyway, and what she said that day has stayed with me forever.

She said, 'You've been an actress too, Rina. Like all actors, we have wondered that if we ever had to play a scene where we are told 'you have cancer,' how would we play it? Well, now I know.'