Tag Archives: Indian Parallel Cinema

36 Chowringhee Lane (India 1981)

Aparna Sen

Aparna Sen

Another trip to the bargain bin to consider a 2006 DVD release of a film from 1981 on a discount label. I chose to watch this because I so enjoyed the writer-director Aparna Sen’s Mr & Mrs Iyer. The film is one of three titles issued as a kind of Shashi Kapoor trilogy on the Prism Leisure/Odyssey Quest label. The star from India’s acting dynasty does not appear in this one, but he produced it and his wife Jennifer Kendal took the lead role. Kapoor gives an interesting short interview on the DVD.

’36 Chowringhee Lane’ is an address in Calcutta in the late 1970s – the home of an ageing Anglo-Indian schoolteacher, Miss Violet Stoneham. She lives alone with her cat, Sir Toby and she teaches Shakespeare to classes of younger girls who pay little attention. Her niece writes to her from abroad and her brother is gradually declining in a nursing home. One day this lonely woman meets one of her ex-students, Nandita and her boyfriend, Samaresh. They realise that her flat, empty during the day when she is at school, would make a perfect love-nest and they persuade her that Samaresh is an aspiring writer who can’t work at home. We fear for Violet, but she seems happy with the arrangement, especially when the couple take her out around the city in gratitude. Where will it all end . . . ?

I thought this was a wonderful film, beautifully made with an extraordinary performance by Jennifer Kendal (playing older than her years). It’s a very sad film, human and affecting. It’s staggering to think that this was the first writing and directing role for Aparna Sen. She was by this time a highly skilled actor and much must have rubbed off from the work of her directors. Her film is in many ways quite old-fashioned with shots and sequences which might have come from Satyajit Ray and other Indian masters, but also a surrealist sequence in black and white which is straight from attempts at modernism in European cinema. The sense of ‘pastness’ also comes from the muted and muddied colours (the DVD was presumably produced from a rather battered 35mm master). But it also comes from the sense of decay and desolation which permeates the images of Calcutta as experienced by Miss Stoneham.

The film is part of the long series of films exploring the end of the raj – or rather the slow decline of the British presence in India in the thirty years following independence. The Kendal family of actors were themselves a central part of Indian theatre from the 1930s through to the 1960s and this film is rather strangely announced as being ‘presented by Merchant Ivory’, the production partnership that made many such films around this time. The decline of British ideas is played out in many ways, but perhaps most obviously in the school, where a new Indian principal promotes a young Indian graduate to take over Miss Stoneham’s Shakespeare classes and whose overall approach drives another of the Anglo-Indian teachers to emigrate to Canada.

The difficult position of the Anglo-Indians is a central discourse in the film. I’ve seen some references to Anglo-Indians as simply British people living in India, but the term properly refers to mixed race families who under the raj were given access to professional jobs in the railways, customs etc., which Indians found difficult to enter before 1947. After independence the Anglo-Indians were caught between two national cultures, neither of which wanted to claim them. Jennifer Kendal uses an accent and general way of speaking that corresponds to an Anglo-Indian type. Her eventual fate is as much connected to racial identity as it is to age and spinsterhood.

In the DVD interview, Shashi Kapoor remarks that though the film did reasonably well in the UK and was praised by some critics in India it wasn’t seen by the mass audience. I think this is a shame as it deals with an important aspect of Indian social history (as well as being an excellent film). There are some Indian reviews that are worth pursuing including http://parallelcinema.blogspot.com/2005/07/36-chowringhee-lane-1981.html

Definitions of parallel cinema are hard to come by. I think this film qualifies as its roots are in the classical art film tradition of Bengal. As befits the Anglo-Indian milieu (English as a first language), the language of the film is predominantly English with snatches of Bengali and Hindi.

Mr & Mrs Iyer (India 2002)

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)

Aparna Sen
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.”
Ramkamal Mukherjee
<www.bengalonthenet.com> 08/06/2001 (no longer available)

Notes compiled by Roy Stafford 9/1/04 (revised 29/8/07)

The Journey (Sancharram, India/US 2004)

Shruiti Menon as Delilah and Suhasini V. Nair as Kiran in Sancharram

In preparation for a Saturday School on Indian Cinema, I came across this film from Kerala in South India, directed by Ligy J. Pullappally. It is partly derived from a real life incident in Kerala when two young women students at university fell in love but were sent back to their parents. The next day, one of the women committed suicide. Recognising elements in the news story that had been in her earlier short film, Ligy Pullappally set out to write a feature-length script which would offer a more positive narrative for lesbian relationships in India involving young women expected to marry according to family customs.

The Journey follows a higher profile film, Fire (1996), directed by the Canadian-based Indian director Deepa Mehta. This film featured major stars of Indian ‘parallel cinema’, including the central couple, Shabana Azmi and Nandita Das, and received a significant international release as well as raising controversy in India for what were seen in some quarters as attacks on the institution of marriage (the two women are sisters-in-law). By contrast, The Journey is a low budget feature with relatively little international distribution. I rented the film via the Guardian‘s rental service ‘Sofa Cinema‘ and discovered that it is distributed on DVD in the UK by Millivres Multimedia, a company specialising in gay and lesbian films.

Like Deepa Mehta, Ligy Pullappally was born in India but then moved to North America (Chicago) where she eventually became a ‘public interest lawyer’. She used some prize money to allow her to develop her interest in filmmaking and returned to Kerala to make The Journey –– which received support from the the state’s film commission. Technically, The Journey is an example of ‘diaspora filmmaking’. Gurinder Chadha with Bride and Prejudice and Mira Nair with a string of films (including The Namesake to be screened on this course) are further examples. Trained in the West, these women have each offered different perspectives on Indian culture and on concepts of Indian Cinema.

Although Ligy Pullappally is relatively inexperienced as a filmmaker, The Journey bears comparison with other films made in Kerala as ‘independent’ or ‘art’ films. There is a popular film industry in Kerala making comedies and action films in the regional language Malayalam, but the art cinema of Kerala also has a strong reputation in India — and in the case of director Adoor Gopalakrishnan, around the world. Kerala has the highest education achievement levels in India and a relatively good record on social equality — as well as vying with Bengal in the North East as a cultural centre. This makes the story of The Journey more poignant. Kerala is also unusual in India in having three distinct religious communities co-existing peacefully (on the whole). In the film, one young woman is a Hindu and the other a Christian — but both feel the power of tradition.

The Journey is a very simple story, but it is told with conviction and the setting (in the hills of Northern Kerala) and the characters are well presented. We may well look at an extract from the film on the course. If you want to know more, there is a useful ‘official website‘.