India, its women and cinema.
Interview with film director Aparna Sen
Maria Grazia Falà 9 June 2014

How have femal characters changed in your film production? Is there a difference between your first works and the actual situation, when women seem to have acquired deeper autonomy?

In my first film 36 Chowringhee Lane, which was made in 1981, the protagonist Miss Violet Stoneham could as easily have been a Mr. Stoneham – an elderly Anglo-Indian gentleman instead of an elderly spinster. I chose to make her a female school teacher only because I had personal experience of studying in an all-girl’s school and knew how such schools functioned. This film is less about gender than about loneliness. Miss Stoneham’s loneliness is compounded because she belongs to a minority community. However, having said that, I must also add that the stoicism with which Miss Stoneham accepts her lot at the end of the film is, to me, a very feminine strength. I imagine that an elderly gentleman in such a situation would have broken down instead of finding solace in Shakespeare the way Miss Stoneham did.

My second film Paroma was much more about gender, an account of how a woman discovers her identity. By the time I made “Yugant” (What the Sea Said, 1995), I had progressed to making the woman less a victim who has to fight for her rights and more a woman of the world who was slowly being corrupted by success. In a later film 15 Park Avenue, Anu – the much older half sister of the psychotic Meethi – is a professor who is also the primary care-giver of her schizophrenic sister. Anu typifies the modern urban Indian woman who is burdened with work and familial responsibilities. As a result she is stressed, filled with guilt and anxiety, prone to losing her temper, and is both aggressive and gentle in turns.

“36, Chowringhee Lane” deals with an old Anglo-Indian unmarried woman whose dull life is suddenly overturned by a young Indian couple. They take advantage of her using her house as their meeting place and, once married, they abandon the woman to her previous and monotonous life. What is the image of Anglo-Indian middle class which, after India has gained independence, has lost many of its social privileges?

One of the questions that I had asked myself while making this film was – what is the real tragedy of the Anglo Indian in post-independence India? The answer that had presented itself to me was: the departure of the British. For this reason I had introduced a scene between Violet Stoneham and her brother Eddie at the old-age home where Eddie resided. He suffers from dementia and believes that King George is still the ruler in the British Raj of colonised India. His sister gently explains the real situation to him saying, “There is no King anymore Eddie dear. The Raj is over. India has been independent now for over 30 years.” This film was, of course, made over 30 years ago! When it was made in 1981, the Anglo Indians were looked down upon by the local population. The irony is that the British treated the Anglo Indians as second class citizens because they were not of pure British blood, while the Indians looked down upon them for being sycophants of the British and for thinking of England as “home.” The Bengali middle class did not mind their children marrying into British families, but found the idea of marrying into Anglo Indian families quite abhorrent. In 36 Chowringhee Lane, Miss Stoneham’s niece Rosemary has a “cultured” Bengali boy-friend who ditches her because she is Anglo Indian.

The situation is somewhat different now. Most of the next generation of Anglo Indians have migrated to either Australia or Canada or New Zealand, just like Rosemary did in the film. Those that did not go away, have gradually been absorbed into the mainstream and are no longer marginalized. Being of Anglo Indian descent is no longer an issue in present-day India.

In “Paroma” (1985) a beautiful middle-class Indian woman, who has lost her youth, has a relationship with a photographer. After her husband discovers her affair she tries to commit suicide, then she acquires a new conscience. What was the woman you described in the 1980s like?

There were many different kinds of women that co-existed in the 80-s. There were women like Paroma who were financially dependent on their husbands and whose lives were defined by their familial roles of mother, wife, daughter-in-law, sister-in-law or aunt-in-law. If anything happened to jeopardize her primary relationship with her husband, all her other relationships were jeopardized in turn. Yet there were others like Paroma’s friend Sheila, far fewer in number, who lived life on their own terms.

The character of Paroma was inspired by a real-life person, a girl who had studied in school with me. She had been an excellent student, academically brilliant, a keen sports person, a good actress who always took part in the school plays and was what is known as an all-rounder. She did very well at college and stood first in the university when she completed her masters in history. Then she was given away in marriage as was the custom in the conservative Bengali family that she came from. She had a reasonably happy married life and became the mother of two lovely children. I met her again at her son’s first birthday party, which was a big affair. We had all been invited, her classmates from school and college. She greeted us warmly and we lapsed into giggles as we talked of our pranks during lessons at school. Then an elderly relative from her husband’s side of the family arrived, with daughter-in-law in tow. Our friend greeted the elderly woman respectfully, touching her feet in customary greeting. She was then introduced to the daughter-in-law who, in turn, touched her feet. Our friend touched the younger girl’s chin in a gesture of blessing and affection. When they left, she turned back to us and became once again our classmate, laughing and joking with us. This left me wondering as to who she really was under the various social and familial roles she was constantly playing out. Yet some of her other friends, I among them, were financially independent and pursuing careers of their choice. I think she and I were the bases of the characters Paroma and Sheila in the film.

“Paromitar ek din” (House of Memories, 2000) shows a special relation between a mother-in-law with her former daughter-in-law, who is the divorced wife of her son. Is the friendships relating the two women more important than the familiar bondage? How can this be considered a novelty in  the cultural Indian scene?

I would not call it a novelty, but it is not very common either. At least, it was not very common in 2000 when Paromitar Ek Din was made. It was expected by the family that a mother would remain loyal to her son and therefore go against her divorced daughter-in-law, particularly if the girl were to remarry. But I have noticed that a kind of sisterhood often grows between women who live in close proximity despite differences in age, a sisterhood that endures despite changing situations in life. I know of many instances where mother and daughter-in-law have bonded and continued to remain in touch even after the daughter-in-law has been divorced from the son. However, this is rare in situations where the daughter-in-law has married again, because it is often difficult for a mother-in-law to accept the new husband who has taken the place of her son. The daughter-in-law would also probably have a new set of in-laws in such a circumstance, or even a new set of children, and it would be difficult for an ex mother-in-law from a conventional family to interact with them. It would also go against the traditional belief that a woman may marry only once in her life.

In “Mr. and Mrs. Iyer” (2002) a young hindu woman with a child travelling on a coach pretends to be the wife of a muslim photographer and, by doing so, she saves his life when a group of fanatical Hindu try to lynch him. Again, at the end of the story everything goes back to normal as the young woman cannot find the courage to establish a relationship with her newly met companion. From this point of view, what is the role of the woman confronted with intercommunal fights?

I can’t say that there is any specifically assigned role. A woman from an orthodox Hindu family like Meenakshi’s would probably stay away from the Muslim man and concentrate on just saving herself and her baby. But, in our story, Meenakshi’s humanity comes to the fore. She cannot sit by silently and watch her Muslim co-passenger, who had been so helpful to her during the journey, be butchered by the Hindu extremists. This strength of character is what makes her worthy of being the protagonist of a film. One must also remember that she is still very young and very green – only twenty-two years of age – and she has probably not seen any violence before this. All her conditioning since childhood about cast and community urges her to revile the man that she has just discovered to be a Muslim. But her innate goodness as a human being wins over this conditioning and makes her save him. I think it is very difficult to say what the role of a woman would or should be in such a situation. It would depend totally on her and what she feels her priorities are. There is no hard and fast rule as such.

What about your latest film “Goynar baksho” (the Jewellery Box, 2013) in which three generations of women are connected by a jewellery box?

Goynar Baksho is a story told as a comedy in a light-hearted fashion; but, underneath that light-heartedness, is actually the story of woman’s deprivation in a male dominated society. It is also the story of the changing social status of women, which is seen vis-à-vis their changing attitude towards a box of jewelry that is passed down from one generation to the next.

In Goynar Baksho, the first generation woman is Rasmoni, a child widow who had been deprived in every way all her life. Ever since she became a widow at twelve, she was not allowed to eat meat or fish; she was not allowed to wear anything except the traditional widow’s garment of a borderless white sari; she was not allowed sex or the company of any man aside from those of her father and brothers. All she had was her box of jewellery that she had received as her dowry, none of which she was allowed to wear, and she guarded this box with her life. It was her only wealth and her only strength. She was intelligent enough to realize that without her box of jewellery she was financially helpless and could be thrown out of her brothers’ home at will. But nothing had succeeded in vanquishing Rasmoni’s spirit and her will to live, and she reigned supreme in her brothers’ household.

The second generation is Somlata, the nervous and stuttering young bride from a poor home who has been given in marriage to Rasmoni’s nephew. But, under her apparent frailty, Somlata has a core of steel. Rasmoni obviously recognizes this because, even though she bullies the young bride mercilessly, it is to her that Rasmoni’s ghost entrusts the precious box after she dies. She threatens the young girl with dire consequences if she breathes a word about this to her relatives who are waiting to get their hands on her box. Somlata hides the box, but dips into it to pawn some of the jewellery in order to raise capital to start a sari shop and thereby save her husband’s family from financial ruin. She also has the good sense to name the shop after Rasmoni, thus allaying the older woman’s initial anger at having her precious jewellery pawned. Rasmoni’s ghost starts living vicariously through Somlata and enjoys the exprerience of being an enterpreneur. Somlata, for her part, functions very much within the patriarchial system, but negotiates a space for herself all the same by being gentle and understated, rather than aggressive.

The third generation is Somlata’s daughter Chaitali who is the darling of the family. She is modern, educated and self-willed, and enjoys the freedom that her great aunt Rasmoni never did. She is not interested in jewellery and returns the box to her mother who had given it to her on her eighteenth birthday. Finally, Chaitali gives away the jewellery for a cause – to help the impoverished freedom fighters during Bangladesh’s war of freedom.

Thus, it is through the woman’s changing attitude to jewellery and wealth that Goynar Baksho examines her social evolution and also celebrates her unbreakable spirit.

Episodes of rape and assault are dramatically increasing in today’s India; is that true or is it simply that women are more ready to denounce?

Rape was always there – rape of poor subjects by rich landlords; rape of lower caste women by upper caste men; rape of local women by British Indigo planters; rape within the family where uncles would rape nieces and fathers in-law would rape daughters-in-law; marital rape. All of this was rampant. It was always the weak raped by the strong, the helpless raped by the powerful; and it was always the victim who was blamed and cast out by society. Rape within the family was always hushed up. Sometimes, if a woman became pregnant as a result of rape, she would be forced to go to a quack to have the fetus aborted, and often die in the process. Sometimes, if the pregnancy was quite advanced, the woman would even be poisoned in order to hush up the scandal. Women never came forward to denounce their rapists because they knew it would be useless and it would be they who would be held responsible anyway. Often they would not speak up for fear of breaking up the family. Today, the situation has changed radically. There are strong laws in workplaces where sexual abuse is taken very seriously and strong action is taken against the perpetrators. Women are much more ready to come forward and denounce their rapists today; in rare cases a woman may even take advantage of the laws that are tilted in her favour and denounce a man wrongfully.

One of the reasons that rape continues in spite of strong anti-rape laws is because justice is not sure and swift. Rich men used to get away because of their powerful connections, but since the “Nirbhaya” rape case in Delhi last December, all that has changed. Fast track courts have been put in place to ensure swift and sure justice. Just a few weeks ago, the editor of a newspaper, a powerful and well-connected man, was charged with sexual abuse and arrested. In spite of all these measures, rape is reported somewhere or the other in India every single day! The police often do not accept FIR-s (first instance reporting), the attitude and mindset of the police being very much in accordance with the old patriarchal values where a woman is considered chattel. The tendency to blame the victim is still there in some measure, but there is a process of change underway.

Some months ago a young girl was raped and then burnt alive because she had dared to denounce her assailants…

This sort of thing is often done by thugs who have political backing and feel that they can get away with doing whatever they want. It is the same mindset as that of the rich landlords who felt they could have any woman they fancied, except that it is now the politically strong rather than landlords. There is a tendency to threaten the victim and her family not to open their mouths to denounce the rapist. If they don’t listen, stronger measures are taken such as killing or burning the victim or her family members. Men like this cannot come to terms with the emergence of the new, financially independent woman and want to punish her by humiliating her. They feel that they have the right to have any woman they want; and if the woman objects or fights back, she has to be punished. This sort of thing is rarely done by a sole rapist; it is usually perpetrated by a gang who feel safe because of their numbers and their political backing.