The song of life


The recently released film Sonata by Aparna Sen is about three middle-aged women, shot at a single location, and in English to boot. Shoma A. Chatterji reviews this film and the filmmaker who has always followed her own instinct, and made films she believes in.

Abrief interview with Aparna Sen, asking her to hold forth on her latest film Sonata in English, hardly does justice to one of the best directors Indian cinema has produced, and I would hate to add the prefix “woman” to “director”, because gender does not come into the scenario at all. So, here are a few snippets on her and from her, that does zero in on her new film Sonata, which presents for the first time, her transposition of a play into a film.

If Aparna Sen appears to be a rebel of sorts in personal life and also in terms of the films she makes, it would not be wrong to say that the rebellion is in her genes. Her jet-paced lifestyle and her oeuvre of films – each one dramatically different from the next – are enough to stand testimony to the radical spirit that lies hidden behind that charismatic persona, mellowing beautifully. With two marriages behind her and the third a very successful one, two daughters, and three lovable grandchildren later, Aparna Sen is one woman you would love to envy. Yet, a few meetings down the line and you end up an ardent fan, wondering how on earth she manages to wear so many hats at the same time, without letting a single one slip off.

Her background
“Story has always been the backbone of my films” says Sen, adding, “I do not believe in delivering messages through any of my directorial films. If the audience discovers some hidden message in them, well then, it is purely the audience’s take on it, and not mine. In the beginning, I wrote my own scripts based on my own stories. But since Japanese Wife, I have sometimes begun to rely on stories written by others. The Japanese Wife is from a novel by Kunal Basu before the book came out in the market. Goynar Baksho (The Jewel Box) is adapted from a novelette by Sirsendu Mukhopadhyay. Aarsinagar was written jointly by Srijato, a noted Bengali poet, and myself. Now, I have taken Mahesh Elkunchwar’s play Sonata (2000), originally written in English, for my film.”

She is proud of the fact that her parents brought up the three sisters quite liberally. “Our parents vested us with the entire responsibility of the choices we made. ‘You have an opinion of your own, never mind how small or big you might be,’ they would tell us. Our parents never shooed us away when guests came visiting. There would be sessions of poetry reading with lots of classical music thrown in. We were allowed to sit around and listen. I was brought up with the feeling that if I really wanted to do something, nothing, but nothing, would come my way. My father once told me, ‘your life is yours to do what you want with it.’ This has stood me in good stead all my life. Neither parent nagged us for going along when we told them we were done with the homework. If I could finish a two-hour project in one, that was my responsibility. ‘Responsibility’ was the operating word since early childhood.”

Aparna has been so very versatile in her choice of subjects, her storylines, her approach and her style while retaining her signature individuality, one really cannot place any expectations about what her next film is going to be and Sonata which seems to have been her biggest commercial flop, proves this.

Direction and acting are two dimensions of this multi-dimensional woman. She edited the largest selling women’s glossy in West Bengal called Sananda for two long decades. She was no ghost-editor who delegated her editorials to competent juniors. She conducted editorial meetings herself, and set out the editorial content of each issue. Her editorials were reflective of current events around her. Over the years, she managed to earn the undisputed loyalty of her hardworking staff. All of who pitched in, trying to elbow in when their editor sat on her directorial chair. One of them, Saborni Das who looked after fashion and style, is now a much-in-demand costume designer for films and television, and has also won the National Award for her costume designing and styling in Jaatiswar, a period drama by Srijit Mukherjee.

Debut as an actress
Aparna’s debut into direction has been a sort of logical extension of her work as an actress. She made her debut as leading lady in the mainstream and somehow, almost all the films were big hits and she became the numero uno of commercial Bengali cinema after Suchitra Sen. Among her better films, Aparna chooses all the films of Satyajit Ray and Mrinal Sen that she has worked in. Among the rest, she cherishes having worked in Tapan Sinha’s Ekhoni, Inder Sen’s Ashamay, Ajoy Kar’s Nauka Dubi and Bish Briksha, Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s Kotwaal Saab, Prabhat Roy’s Swet Patharer Thala, Biresh Chatterjee’s Kori Diye Kinlam and Partho Pratim Choudhury’s Jadu Bangsa. She enjoyed acting under the direction of Salil Dutta and the late Dilip Mukherjee. “If I were to tick off five of my favourite roles to date I’d mention these films – 1) Paromitar Ek Din, 2) Samapti, 3) Ashamay, 4) Jadu Bangsha, and 5) Raater Rajanigandha. I have directed myself in Paromitar Ek Din. In Ashamay, I play a woman of 36, full of inhibitions. In Raater Rajanigandha, for most of the film, I am a ghost, a very unusual role. I strongly believe that as an actress, my performance has improved largely after I turned director.”

The film Mr and Mrs. Iyer where Aparna Sen directed her daughter Konkona  (above)

The film Mr and Mrs. Iyer where Aparna Sen directed her daughter Konkona (above)

Aparna Sen was born into a family of film-lovers. Her father, noted film critic and scholar Chidananda Dasgupta, was founder member of the Calcutta Film Society alongwith Satyajit Ray. Aparna made her debut in films as an actress in 1961 while she was still in school, in Satyajit Ray’s Two Daughters. She has since acted in films of several noted film directors including Mrinal Sen, James Ivory and Satyajit Ray. She received the Best Actress Award for her performance in Mrinal Sen’s film Mahaprithibi at the Moscow Film Festival. She made her debut as director with 36, Chowringhee Lane, based on her own story and script, in 1981. The film won the Grand Prix at the Manila International film Festival in 1982, and the National Awards for Best Direction and Best Cinematography in India. The Munich International Film Festival held a retrospective of her works as actress and as director in 2002. The Calcutta International Film Festival held a retrospective of her films in 2002. Mr. & Mrs. Iyer fetched her The Best Director Award at the National Awards in 2003, while daughter Konkona Sen Sharma complemented her with the Best Actress Award. She made more films as time moved on and among them are – Iti Mrinalini, 6, Park Avenue, The Japanese Wife, Goynar Baksho and Aarshinagar.

The sonata
What made her choose Sonata, a chamber drama enacted on a single set with three middle-aged women as protagonists and friends for her new film? “My friend Sohag Sen who collaborates with me in every film, is a noted theatre personality, who has her own group and stages plays with them. She had directed Sonata for the Kolkata stage some years ago and it appealed to me to turn into a film. I decided to make the film in English because the original play was written in English though Elkunchwar is noted more for his Marathi writings. A film in English would automatically widen the parameters of the audience and give the film an international market – hopefully.”

“I began as an actress in Bengali films, but when I decided to turn director, I clearly knew what kind of films I would make. I did not want to direct the same type of films I had acted in. I wanted to do meaningful films as a director. Films, I believed in, and not dictated by terms and conditions. It’s my choice. This is what makes me happy, this is what I am comfortable doing. Or I would have continued to act in commercial films. I direct in English and Bengali as these are the languages I am comfortable in,” she sums up.


Shoma A. Chatterji

Shoma A. Chatterji is a freelance journalist, film scholar and author. She has authored 17 published titles and won the National Award for Best Writing on Cinema, twice. She won the UNFPA-Laadli Media Award, 2010 for ‘commitment to addressing and analysing gender issues’ among many awards.