Why play it safe?

Why play it safe?

Relationships are as central to Aparna Sen’s eighth directorial venture as they have been to her other films since 36 Chowringhee Lane (1981), her first. But The Japanese Wife is set apart from the rest of her canon by the fairy-tale quality of its basic premise.

The love between school teacher Snehamoy Chatterjee and his Japanese wife, Miyage, who have ‘married’ through a series of letters and remain committed to each other for 15-plus years, is achingly pure. They are caught in a time warp, in a bygone era as it were, never acknowledging any other means of communication except the odd phone call, sharing all the tiny details of their life through letters written in laboured English.

“The film is almost aspirational in its craving for innocence in our troubled and violent times. There is not one negative character in the film, which reaffirms the innate goodness of human beings,” says Sen. She wanted to make the film, based on Kunal Basu’s story, the moment the writer began to narrate it to her.

We are sitting in her spacious and comfortable Kolkata apartment, with its eclectic collection of art and bric-a-brac from all over the world. An old gramophone sitting proudly in one corner of the room attracts the eye. Riveting photographs of Sen adorn the book shelves already weighed down under her favourite titles. There is a fetching portrait of daughter Konkona Sensharma as well.

Sen, just back from an editing session of her latest film, Iti Mrinalini, is happy with the response to The Japanese Wife. It has released in Mumbai, Delhi, Pune, Bangalore and Hyderabad apart from Kolkata with 25 subtitled prints and is doing reasonably well at the box office everywhere.

She is, however, bemused by some of the critiques of The Japanese Wife that have complained about the absurdity of the film’s premise. “But that is the whole ‘point’ of the film. It was why I chose the story in the first place. You know, Kurosawa had once said that the problem with critics is that they will protest they haven’t seen enough yellow when all they have been shown is blue,” she says.

This inevitably brings us to the sticky issue of finding financiers for films that are not ‘safe’. “It is always difficult to get producers for films like mine,” rues Sen. However, she adds that she was lucky with The Japanese Wife as Sanjeev Goenka of Saregama India was almost moved to tears when he heard the story and immediately agreed to finance the film that ultimately cost Rs 5 crore, a record figure for a Bengali project. “I couldn’t have got the look I needed for less,” says the director. But Sen has not always been as lucky with money. “The two NFDC films, Sati (1989) and Yugant (1995), ran into oodles of trouble because of lack of finance and other issues,” she says.

In her nine-film oeuvre as a director, Sen — the heroine of many Bengali films through the 60s, 70s and 80s — has only acted in two: Paromitar Ekdin (2000) and Iti Mrinalini, which is in its post-production stage. “I don’t much enjoy acting in my own films as I can’t see myself and it is annoying to keep going back to the monitor. Besides, directing a film is enough work,” she says.

New projects

But Iti Mrinalini is special. It is the first film in which Sen directs her daughter and herself together, with Sensharma playing her mother’s younger age.

With the story revolving around the life of a Bengali film actress of the 70s and 80s, aren’t autobiographical elements bound to creep in? “Mrinalini shares my mindset, aesthetics and love for Bengali literature, particularly poetry. And of course some of my experiences in the industry are woven into the film. Beyond that, there are no resemblances. Iti Mrinalini is not my life story,” she says.

With an obvious family resemblance, Sensharma was an automatic choice for the younger age of Sen. “She is intelligent, sensitive and a fabulous actress. Konkona doesn’t need much time to get under the skin of a character and brings a lot into it,” says Sen, who has directed her earlier in sterling performances in Mr and Mrs Iyer (2001) and 15 Park Avenue (2005).  

She also has a special word of praise for Rahul Bose who has worked in three of her films so far including The Japanese Wife. “For Snehamoy’s character, I needed a young Soumitra Chatterjee. Short of that, I could only settle for Rahul Bose who is hard working and has the ability and the willingness to transform and reinvent himself constantly,” she says. And so the suave and sophisticated Bose slips effortlessly into the slippers of the school master of a backward West Bengal village.

Having been in films for close to five decades now, Sen has seen a paradigm shift in its ways. “The look of a film is now far more important. Earlier there was a greater focus on the narrative aspect of it. But we seem to have lost the soul somewhere on the way,” she says.  But she makes it a point to watch films by Rituparno Ghosh, Shyam Benegal and Dibakar Banerjee (“I particularly liked Oye Lucky! Lucky Oye!).

Though she enjoys directing more than anything else, Sen still acts in the odd film that catches her fancy. The National Award-winning Antaheen (2009) was her last as an actress, with real-life husband Kalyan Ray playing her estranged spouse in the film. “There are offers all the time, but they don’t excite me too much. However, I have said yes to Anjan Dutt’s spoof of a passionate filmmaker not unlike me,” she laughs.

The erstwhile editor of a magazine who has also been the creative director of a television channel earlier, Sen has also recently been a judge on Bengali reality television. But filmmaking is more than a fulltime occupation. “And in between films it is either writing a script or arranging finance for the next venture,” says Sen. 

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