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As ‘The Rapist’ By Aparna Sen Releases Internationally, I Take A Look At Her Top 5 Path-Breaking Feminist Films From 36 Chowringhee Lane To Sati!

'The Rapist' by National award-winning actor/director Aparna Sen premieres this week at Busan International Film Fest. It got me thinking about these 5 path-breaking feminist films! 

‘The Rapist’ by National award-winning actor/director Aparna Sen premieres this week at Busan International Film Fest. It got me thinking about these 5 path-breaking feminist films!  

The Busan International Film Festival (BIFF), acknowledged as the largest film festival in Asia is scheduled to be held from October 6 to October 15. Aparna Sen directed ‘The Rapist’ is set for its world premiere at the fest this week.

‘The Rapist’ has Konkona Sen and Arjun Rampal in the main roles and delineates the journey of three protagonists and how their lives intersect in the context of a single crime. Like Sen’s other acclaimed films this one too has a multi-layered plot and rather than just about the crime is also about the human stories of the survivors and perpetrators.

‘I certainly am a feminist but in my cinema, I don’t talk about any ‘isms’’

Aparna Sen, the daughter of the legendary film critic, Chidananda Dasgupta, and associated with cinematic geniuses like Satyajit Ray and Mrinal Sen is a master when it comes to cinema closest to real life and one that rests largely on intense performances.

Her feminist lens is polyvocal to say the least, and charts the various intersections of the identity of the cliché “Indian woman.” Unlike mainstream Hindi or even Bengali cinema, her characters especially women protagonists inform and express her diverse and inclusive feminist lens.

Describing her craft in an interview to The Hindu in 2019 Sen said, “No person is apolitical. The very act of voting is a political act. But I don’t make a film as a platform for my politics. My real interest is the psychology of the individual. The individual herself is part of the system, part of many converging political ideologies. When I make a film about a woman, it is possible that my feminist politics surfaces somewhere but it is not with the intention of propagating feminism. I certainly am a feminist but, in my cinema, I don’t talk about any ‘isms’. I deal only with individuals; even if an ‘ism’ surfaces, it is not underlined.”

Here is a list of five breaking women-oriented films directed by Aparna Sen:

36 CHOWRINGHEE LANE, 1981 – (Aparna Sen makes her directorial debut in 1981)

This was Aparna Sen’s directorial debut in 1981 when she was already an established actress in Bengali Cinema.

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36 Chowringhee Lane broke new ground, focussing on a single woman, an aged Anglo-Indian teacher Violet Stoneham played by Jennifer Kendal.

Violet’s interactions with a young couple–an ex-student and her partner– and the loneliness of it all is painted in myriad hues. The film sensitively captures a lone woman’s alienation, emotional needs, and how her hopes get thwarted. ‘Single women’ still find little representation in Indian cinema. Sensitive portrayals like this one are few and far between.

36 Chowringhee Lane got the Golden Eagle – Best Feature Film Award at 1982 Cinemanila International Film Fest (Philippines). The Best Actress Award at the Evening Standard British Film Awards was conferred on Jennifer Kendal for her portrayal of Violet.

PAROMA, 1984 – (labelled ‘ahead of its time’)

Paroma, the titular role played by Rakhee, was labelled as “ahead of its time” in the 80s by many. It focuses on the identity of a regular Indian housewife who has erased her “self” for the various roles she plays in the lives of people around her.

The film deals with sexuality and feminism explained in an everyday way using the character of a “housewife next-door.” What are her desires? Who is she if she is set free?

Her affair with a younger man on one hand allows her to find her own voice and confront the patriarchal Bengali household she is a part of. On the other hand, it also pushes her to the verge of a nervous breakdown.

Aparna Sen herself has reckoned the film to be her most feminist one on several occasions.

SATI,1989 – (Shabana Azmi plays a woman with disability who gets married to a tree)

The title clearly indicates that one dominant theme here would be widowhood. But Aparna Sen brings another margin into play here – disability.

The main character Uma, played by Shabana Azmi can’t speak and that is also symbolic of her lack of voice and agency in a system where she is a dependent widow.

In order to avert a prediction on her horoscope, she is married to a tree to be saved from untimely widowhood. Her disability and poverty make her a “burden” even for her extended family by birth.

In evocative scenes like one in which the girl is hugging her tree husband, Sen depicts her character’s vast emotional expanse and the need for physical affection in just one brushstroke.

Later she, pregnant from a lover, dies in a stormy night being crushed by the huge tree, supposedly her tree-husband. Sen highlights the double marginalization of a woman with a disability and creates a new idiom for the Indian subaltern to speak.

MR AND MRS IYER, 2002 – (takes up the issue of communal riots)

Primarily in English with a generous sprinkling of Bengali and Tamil, ‘Mr And Mrs Iyer’ was diverse and path-breaking in every possible way.

Meenakshi Iyer played by Konkona Sen Sharma plays a conservative Tam-Bram housewife, traveling alone with her infant son on a bus through the political turmoil in a North-eastern hill state.

In the film, “Mr. Iyer” is a stranger Raja Chaudhary, played by Rahul Bose. He is a Bengali Muslim wildlife photographer, her co-passenger in the journey. Mrs. Iyer saves the life of her Muslim friend from the rioting mob and oversteps several emotional boundaries and biases doing so.

In this political film, Sen takes up the issue of communal riots and yet doesn’t fail to portray the complexity of human interactions via these two characters brought together through coincidence.

‘Mr And Mrs Iyer’ premiered at the Locarno International Film Festival in Switzerland and was showcased at other prominent film festivals. It won several national and international awards.

15 PARK AVENUE, 2005 – (showcases mental illness with truth & sensitivity)

In 15 Park Avenue, Aparna Sen touches base with the often misrepresented subject in Indian filmmaking- ‘Mental Illness’.

We view the life of a person suffering from schizophrenia through the life of  Meethi played by Konkona Sen Sharma.

Meethi is shown trapped in an imaginary world at a non-existing address and the symbolism is palpable. Also, the agony of her caregivers–her mother played by veteran actress Waheeda Rehman and her older sister Anu played by Shabana Azmi is beautifully shown. Their agony as women stuck in caregiving roles is unique and sensitive.

Through Meethi, Aparna Sen dissects the ideal “imaginary” world all Indian women by default supposedly want– happily married with husband and kids.

‘The Rapist’ is expected to once again reflect Sen’s unique perspective on women’s issues and larger human issues. This film could be another feather in Sen’s already well-adorned hat as an internationally-acclaimed Indian woman director!

Image source: YouTube

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About the Author

Pooja Priyamvada

Pooja Priyamvada is an author, columnist, translator, online content & Social Media consultant, and poet. An awarded bi-lingual blogger she is a trained psychological/mental health first aider, mindfulness & grief facilitator, emotional wellness trainer, reflective read more...

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