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I am not so much a cinephile as a cine-activist: Aparna Sen

Filmmaker and actress Aparna Sen, who presented her film Sonata at last month's Habitat Film Festival in New Delhi, speaks about her work, her journey and her motivations.

Photo: Habitat Film Festival

Prateek Rawat

Filmmaker, scriptwriter, actress and Padma Shree awardee Aparna Sen presented her film Sonata (2017) at the 13th Habitat Film Festival in New Delhi last month. Sen is a renowned figure in Bengali cinema, and has won several Bengal Film Journalists Association, National and international awards for her acting and direction.

Cinestaan.com caught up with Sen at the festival and engaged her in a conversation about her motivations, her cinematic journey and her work with the stalwarts of Bengali cinema. Excerpts:

"What awful creatures we are – no commitment, no aim, no ideology, we are not even feminists." A very provocative line from your film Sonata that cuts to the heart of contemporary feminism. As a feminist filmmaker, what is the relation between this statement and your own feminism?

In this day and age, it is a very silly thing to say you are not a feminist. The statement in the film is made by women who are sloshed out of their minds. You can’t say you are not a feminist, especially when you are working and showing narratives that are of a feminist nature. My attempt at coding feminism into my narratives is to show these feminist ideas in very humanist ways. I take my influences from everyday acts of feminism.

How does your feminism play into your cinephilia and cinema as a woman filmmaker, especially in your narratives?

As a woman filmmaker, I am always conscious about the way I look at feminism within my narratives. I try to present these ideas in humanist terms so that owing to my gender and my ideology, my films aren’t relegated to the domain of propaganda. As a woman, there are so many stakes when you set out to tell a story and so many challenges and pitfalls that the way you tell it has to be universal and humanist, without losing its radicality or subversive nature. In fact, I am not so much a cinephile, as much as I am a cine-activist.

Could you talk about your influences as a director? What prompted you to move from acting to direction? As an actress who has worked with the likes of Satyajit Ray and Mrinal Sen, what is the difference between the narratives you have played and those that you create for your female protagonists?

I have always admired the works of great Bengali and world cinema directors like Satyajit Ray, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Francois Truffaut and others. However, having worked with Satyajit Ray, I have made a conscious attempt to move away from his particularities of style and stories to develop my own identity and sensibility as a filmmaker.

The kind of narratives and films I work with — even when I am adapting literary works — are based on everyday slices of life which add a feminist and humanist sensibility to them. My debut film as director, 36 Chowringhee Lane (1981), has elements of feminism in the ideological coda of its narrative.

When I was working in the 1970s, I was quite frustrated with the turn in cinema, regional cinema or in Bombay, where female protagonists were constantly presented as passive, stereotypical creatures. So, I decided to write the script for my first film and went to Ray for counsel. Ray told me to leave it with him and not to rush him into giving his views. A few months later, he called me and told me I should go ahead and make the film.

Shashi Kapoor is the best producer I have worked with so far. He told me to buy a ticket to Bombay and bring the script to him. If he liked the script, he would buy me a return ticket (laughs).

Honestly, I have never really considered myself a great or accomplished actress, and so directing films where I don’t play roles makes for a fulfilling experience.

A lot of your work is based on adaptations of literary works by maestros. Could you talk about your motivations and the challenges you have faced when adapting such cultural stalwarts, especially within Bengali cinema?

I mostly write my own scripts. However, due to my rootedness in the heavily reading culture of my family and Bengal at large, I have grown up with a lot of literature along with cinema, and I am quite willing to adapt literary forms like books and plays into films. Adapting Mahesh Elkunchwar’s play Sonata into a film, or Badal Sarkar’s play Saara Raattir into Saari Raat (short, 2013). I am quite satisfied with the adaptation of Kunal Basu’s short story The Japanese Wife into a film.

Could you talk about your cinephilia in the context of your personal motivations while belonging to the rich and complicated collective cinephilia in Calcutta? How have you traversed this cinephilia between the personal and the cultural collective?

I come from a typical Bengali family with a great investment in literary and cinematic sensibility. We were members of film societies and constantly discussed writing and making films. As a bilingual family, I have been introduced to a rich corpus of Bengali and English literature along with cinema. Calcutta was a rich cultural hub of literary and cinematic engagement as well with so many film clubs and film festivals constantly happening in the city.
In fact, along with some others, I tried to set up cinema clubs but it just never really worked out.

Despite my cinephilia and influences from directors, I have always tried to move away from any imitative overbearing influence. Ray was my mentor from the start of my career, but I have never wanted to be derivative of Ray’s specificities.

In fact, English language and regional cinema are my forte. I have always rejected any proposals for directing mainstream films. I also believe that English language cinema in India should be considered wholesome Indian cinema because in many ways English is also an Indian language.

There are several undertones of queer female sexuality that may be read into your films like Sonata, Paromitar Ek Din (2000), Parama (1984), etc. Could you comment on the sub-textual nature of this recurring theme?

I like to keep the tropes of female sexuality as an open-ended undercurrent in my narratives. I like to leave it to the viewers to watch and analyze the film and its sub-texts and see for themselves the possibilities of representation and experiences that it may offer.

In my films, I try to avoid intrusive close-ups because they are too sentimental and overstating. In the closing scene of 36 Chowringhee Lane, all my assistants and advisers wanted me to end the film with a close-up of Jennifer Kendal’s face. I found that too melodramatic and contrived and decided against it, to allow a personal space for my characters and for the viewers to engage with the possibilities of this gap.

In Paromitar Ek Din, there is the scene of the daughter-in-law and mother-in-law bathing together. There is no explicit comment on queerness of female sexuality. However, the very set-up of that scene allows for conversations and commentaries about the implicit queerness of the narratives. I try to avoid any engagement with the moral constructs of sexuality, rather delineating the everyday nature of it.

What do you think of the state and motivations of contemporary Bengali cinema?

There is a certain lack of vision within contemporary Bengali cinema. Especially in the mainstream circuit, filmmakers are giving in to the demands of producers and production companies, turning cinema into an industrial commercial project instead of a visionary transformative art form. In fact, when I tried to take a different directorial approach and vision in my film Arshinagar (2015), the film was universally panned for deviating from a definite aesthetic style. This critical judgement was declared even before the film was watched. Experimenting with radical narratives, non-traditional aesthetics for the fulfilment of vision, which is so central to cinema, has been abandoned for commerce and profit.

This is not to say that there are no good directors, but that the motivations behind filmmaking are quite dodgy.

Do you think you play into/with a certain kind of self-censorship, especially within the current politically fraught climate of the country?

I can’t tell you much, but I am adapting Tagore’s Ghare-Baire for my next film. Wait for that film for the answer to your question.

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Habitat Film Festival