Interview English

Birthday special: Aparna Sen on the making of her directorial debut 36 Chowringhee Lane

On her 76th birthday, the director speaks of how the film starring Jennifer Kapoor, Debashree Roy and Dhritiman Chatterjee took shape under Satyajit Ray's guidance.

Roushni Sarkar

Award-winning filmmaker Aparna Sen has confessed many times in interviews that at the height of her career as an actress, she came to a point of saturation. She was fed up of playing characters she wasn’t able to relate with. At the same time, the director in her was eager to tell relevant stories.

But the journey to make her first film 36 Chowringhee Lane (1981), which established her as a new-generation filmmaker to look out for, was not easy. With the film starring Jennifer Kapoor (Kendal), Debashree Roy and Dhritiman Chatterjee, the young director forayed into cinema that not only catered to a cerebral audience but also discussed bold issues relating to women’s space in society and offered strong commentary on the socio-cultural context.

On her 76th birthday today (she was born on this day in Calcutta in 1945), Aparna Sen shared her vision as a filmmaker and the fascinating journey of depicting a transitional period in post-colonial Calcutta, centring on the story of an Anglo-Indian spinster and her conflicts with the emerging Bengali bhadralok class. Excerpts:

It is interesting to know that Satyajit Ray, who would have been 100 this year, guided you on 36 Chowringhee Lane. Would you like to share the experience?

I asked Ray to read the script because I didn't think I would find a producer for an English-language film. He agreed to read it but told me not to rush him because he already had a lot on his plate.

I didn't rush him at all. He called me himself after about two months and asked me to come over. When I did, he told me it was very good and "had a lot of heart". My own heart almost leaped out of my body when I heard that from the master himself.

Then he suggested I write to Shashi Kapoor because Shashi was producing non-mainstream films, which were different from the formula fare. He said. "I have a gut feeling he will agree to produce the film." So I went ahead and wrote to Shashi. The rest is history. If it hadn't been for Ray, I don't think I would have had the courage to write to Shashi!

Jennifer Kendal, Dhritiman Chaterji and Debashree Roy in a scene from 36 Chowringhee Lane

You chose a layered theme that focused on the waning colonial culture through the character of a lone Anglo-Indian spinster and, at the same time, brought out the conflict with two characters of the urbane Bengali bhadralok class, who revel in showing off their colonial obsessions but refuse to make the same benevolent Anglo-Indian character a part of their life as she doesn't fit in their cultural sphere. What was the inspiration for this tale? How did you manage to pay such close attention to detail in amplifying the characters' socio-cultural context?

I think the inspiration came from the Anglo-Indian teachers we had at school. Not all of them were good teachers, but they made up for any lack of skill with the affection they showered upon us. Some of them were lonely spinsters whose young nephews and nieces had all migrated in search of greener pastures.

I remember Miss Scolt in particular. She used to live in Karnani Mansions in the Park Circus area, and I had gone to visit her after I decided to make my film. What I saw was very sad. All her young relatives had migrated and she lived alone. She had taken a fall and broken her elbow. If it had not been for kind neighbours who took her to a doctor, got her fractured elbow put in a plaster cast, and sent her food every day, Miss Scolt would probably have been discovered dead in her apartment one day.

As for the Bengali couple, their attitude was something I had observed during my childhood and youth. The Anglo-Indians' greatest tragedy was the end of British rule, during which they had felt superior to the Indians or 'natives', as they were referred to at that time. On the other hand, Indians looked down upon the Anglo-Indians as they were neither British nor Indian, not having integrated into mainstream Indian society as yet.

I did some research into Anglo-Indian society, of course, but what made the film credible more than anything else was my involvement with the characters. I loved my characters deeply despite their flaws, and when that happens, an inner eye opens up and you are able to pick out details that will fit. Besides, my chief assistant Amitabha and I roamed the Anglo-Indian quarters of Calcutta.

We would walk down Elliot Road, for instance, and peep into shabby Anglo-Indian homes. Most of the elderly inhabitants had been left behind by younger generations. They lived in abject poverty on their meagre pensions coupled with what little was sent by their relatives from their new habitat in Australia, Canada or New Zealand.

However, at all the homes we visited, we were greeted with warmth and hospitality and offered some leftover pudding or cake. They also lent us their old and weathered furniture and knick-knacks [free], which helped us to dress up Miss Stoneham's home in such detail.

Jennifer Kendal, too, helped a lot by lending us her old album of family photographs. The Anglo-Indian lady who lived below the apartment where we were filming lent us her sofas with their lace antimacassars. We got a lot of help from Bithi and Eric Bose, a Bengali Christian couple who lived in Bithi-di's quarters at Pratt Memorial School, where Miss Stoneham was shown to be teaching. Bithi-di was then headmistress of the school.

It would have been much harder if I had attempted to make the film today. The entire scenario of Kolkata has changed. The elderly Anglo-Indians have mostly died or merged seamlessly with mainstream Bengali society. Gone are the lazy afternoons of the city filled with the calls of hawkers. All that was part of my girlhood and youth and filled me with nostalgia, a great deal of which went into the making of 36 Chowringhee Lane.

Another scene from 36 Chowringhee Lane

The film had several bold points. It painted the loneliness of an elderly lady of a minority community in a city that also gave her the space to lead an alien lifestyle, following Victorian ideals. The film also dealt with the emergence of premarital sex among a new generation with acceptance. Was it challenging to convey these ideas at the time?

Not really. I think I just put into my script what I had observed around me. There was honesty and keenly felt truth in those observations, which made the film ring true. I never thought of premarital sex being a particularly bold idea, as I had observed many of my friends and acquaintances practising it.

It is true that we had not hitherto seen kissing or premarital sex in a film, but then we Indians are very hypocritical — or were then. There has always been premarital sex among young people and adultery among married couples. We knew it all but never talked about it.

I had no such pretensions. Besides I have never thought of how the audience would react. I was telling the truth, after all, and felt sure my audience would recognize it as such.

Did you ever think making a film with a strong social message in English would not appeal to many? Or did you have a target audience from the very beginning?

No, I did not have a target audience in mind. As I just told you, I never think of audience reactions, only about the honesty of my artistic vision.

I don't underestimate audiences. If I like a story that I am trying to tell with the best of my ability, I feel there is no reason why audiences would reject it. I am not always right, of course, and audiences have rejected some of my films. But that happens to every director. Not every film, even of recognized masters, is liked equally by audiences. That is something you have to accept as a given and not let it upset you too much.

Also, I have never deliberately put conscious social messages in my films. I try to tell stories about individuals, and since I am a political person like any other human being, my politics and my socio-political views automatically emerge through my films.