Mr & Mrs Iyer has won several awards on its tour around the international festival circuit. At home it has also been feted by critics and even if it has not had the commercial impact of a Bollywood film, being deemed a low budget ‘regional film’ for ‘urban audiences’ only, it has been widely seen.
“This is one of the year’s most unabashed and powerful love stories, using flawless performances, intelligent dialogue, crisp camera work and emotional connection that many similar films miss. Put together this is a symphony of the senses.” (Ram Kamal Mukherjee, The Asian Age)
The story idea is very simple – a man and a woman meet on a bus. The journey is disrupted by communal violence and the passengers react in different ways – John Ford’s Stagecoach (1939) is just one possible narrative model. However, the resonance of many elements in the film depends on the complexities of Indian culture.
Communal violence – primarily the conflict between Hindu and Muslim – flared up in many parts of India during the 1990s. This film was shot in the hill country of West Bengal but the starting point for the director was a real life incident affecting bus travellers from the mountain resort city of Ranchi in neighbouring Bihar state. India has many religions and there are significant minority communities across the country, but the choice of characters and the location of this story are important. ‘Mrs Iyer’ is a Tamil Brahmin from South India. Brahmins belong to the upper caste of Hindu society and the Iyers are well known in India – so much so in fact that Konkana Sen Sharma, the daughter of director Aparna Sen, had to spend some time in the South learning the ‘Tam-Brahm’ way of speaking and gesturing. (The ‘Iyers’ entry on Wikipedia at <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Iyers> gives interesting background.) The Muslim character played by Rahul Bose (and disguised by the nickname ‘Raja’) is a Bengali. The Bengalis were severely affected by the partition of India in 1947 with predominantly Muslim East Bengal going to Pakistan (and later separating to form Bangladesh) and predominantly Hindu West Bengal staying within India. The Bengalis and the Iyers from Tamil Nadu and Kerala do have things in common – a reverence for education and experience of elected Marxist governments. Raja, the wildlife photographer fantasises about a life with Meenakshi and tells her about the Periyar nature reserve in Kerala.
Bengal has a reputation for education and culture and Bengalis are proud of their history, but also very conscious of the process of division (the British had previously created ‘East’ and ‘West’ Bengal). By making the two characters Bengali Muslim and Tamil Brahmin, the filmmakers immediately set up the possibility that the film will operate in terms of a metaphor for the Indian state. We might expect the other characters on the bus to be similarly representative of Indian society as well (e.g. the Jewish man, the Sikhs and the ‘modern’ westernised young men and women).
Tamil and Bengali are distinctively different languages and this presents the characters with a communication problem. As educated Indians, the two could use either of the ‘official national languages’, Hindi or English. They choose to converse in English much of the time. English is convenient because it does not carry the sense of ‘Northern’ superiority embodied in Hindi. The North-South divide is an important and sometimes sensitive issue in India. English also makes the film more accessible outside India as well as in other Indian regions.
The Tamil-Bengali axis has another dimension and that is in relation to Indian Cinema. Aparna Sen has been a critic of Indian government policy:
“I don’t think the Government is at all interested in developing regional films. A Government which is supposed to be dedicated to the cause of good cinema, goes to Cannes with a mainstream film which can make an all out effort by itself! Nor does it promote filmmakers who have been winning awards year after year just because they don’t have stars, or don’t make films in Hindi. No effort either to show regional cinema on the national TV network at prime time. For 20 years I’ve been saying, introduce film appreciation courses from junior school. Our children don’t know there is an alternative to commercial cinema. Box office hits have their value, give joy to millions, but the language of cinema does not develop through mainstream cinema anymore than literature does through bestsellers.” (from an interview in The Hindu 20/9/2002)
Non-Indian audiences in the UK in the 1960s and 1970s got their cinematic images of India from the Bengali films of Satyajit Ray, a revered cinematic auteur whose films circulated in European and North American art cinemas. Film students and scholars in India have been inspired by Ray and by fellow Bengalis, Ritwik Ghatak and Mrinal Sen. Indian audiences for what would now in the UK be called ‘specialist cinema’ are aware of this Bengali tradition and have expectations that are quite different to those of a Bollywood audience. They expect, for instance, a serious discussion of social issues and possibly a more literary/theatrical presentation than in a Bollywood film – and certainly no big stars or elaborately choreographed dances. Music, however, is important and in Mr and Mrs Iyer the score includes aspects of Indian music that act as counterpoint to the theme.
The way in which this film works is perhaps best illustrated by the scenes in the bus:
Meenakshi . . . accepts water from Raja, a fellow passenger, and drinks with the bottle held at a distance from the mouth. She shudders in disgust when she sees him sipping from the same bottle. Upon learning that Raja is a Muslim, her first reaction is “Oh God, I drank his water!” With this simple, single metaphor Sen conveys character, situation, centuries of conflicts, taboos.
(The Hindu ibid)
The director of Mr & Mrs Iyer is an iconic figure for Bengali culture. She began as a young actress in a Satyajit Ray film, Three Daughters (Teen Kanya) (1961), which featured three short stories adapted from the work of Rabindranath Tagore, Bengal’s Nobel laureate for literature in 1913. Aparna played a tomboyish girl with great success.
Later she also worked with Ismail Merchant and Shashi Kapoor, who produced her 1981 directorial debut 36 Chowringhee Lane with Jennifer Kendal playing a middle-aged Anglo-Indian woman ‘left behind’ after the Raj. Aparna Sen has continued to act and to direct, often working with one of the leading actresses of ‘Indian New Cinema’, Shabana Azmi, on films about women’s lives in India. Mr & Mrs Iyer is her seventh feature, but the first since 36 Chowringhee Lane to gain wider international recognition. She is a leading figure in Bengali culture and her other activities have included editing a women’s magazine. Married to a professor who teaches in the US, Aparna Sen spends time each year in Mexico and is clearly alive to the same kinds of ‘globalisation’ issues that inform other Indian women filmmakers such as Deepa Mehta (Fire) and Mira Nair (Monsoon Wedding) who have both returned to make films in India after training in North America.
“Aparna Sen is not just a name in Bengali cinema, she is an idol to all modern women – who feel her to be a woman of substance.”
<www.bengalonthenet.com> 08/06/2001 (no longer available)
Notes compiled by Roy Stafford 9/1/04 (revised 29/8/07)