‘I can’t make simple love stories any more’: Aparna Sen

Kavita Chowdhury | Updated on February 21, 2020

Voice-o-meter: Aparna Sen wrote her latest film Ghawre Bairey Aaj after journalist-activist Gauri Lankesh was gunned down in 2017   -  THE HINDU/SHIV KUMAR PUSHPAKAR

Director-activist Aparna Sen on being trolled on social media, a violent, divisive world and her hopes on her films being a document of the times

The lights are on her, the mic is in her hand, and there is no stopping Aparna Sen. “Tell me, do we demand accountability from our government,” she asks the packed auditorium at a panel discussion on the role of the citizen at the Kolkata Book Fair. “Yes,” the crowd roars.

The director-cum-activist is busy. She is about to leave for Mumbai to start work on her new film. But before that, she feels that — as a citizen — she has to make her voice heard on matters of import.

“Unless we citizens speak out, unless we are vigilant, democracy cannot fully function. When they (citizens) don’t agree with a decision of the government they must make their voices heard,” she tells BLink on the sidelines of the recently concluded fair, where she took part in two sessions on the current socio-political situation in the country.

Over the last several years, Sen has been a part of active civil society platforms. She was among those who marched against police firing in Nandigram in 2007 when the Left Front ruled West Bengal, and has been critical of both the Mamata Banerjee government in the state and the Bharatiya Janata Party-led regime at the Centre. She led a group of people — the “Infamous 49”, she calls it — who wrote an open letter to Prime Minister Narendra Modi against incidents of lynching. Along with some others, she set up a group called “Citizen Speak India”.

“A lot of us were worried that the secular fabric of the country was under threat and it was time that citizens begin to speak out. Hence we called ourselves Citizen Speak India,” she says.

The director of such award-winning films as 36 Chowringhee Lane, however, does not wish to be aligned with any political party. “My politics is entirely issue based. I don’t trust any political party because they have to perforce work towards their vote banks. They have to manipulate, so it’s important that the citizen remain vigilant,” she says.

The film-maker-cum-activist, who recently marched against the Centre’s Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA), rues the absence of debate and discussion. “The voices of moderation, of balance, of sanity are being silenced; these are all fascist tendencies,” says Sen.

Sometimes, she says, she is depressed by the “brazenness of the current regime and its Hindutva agenda”. She refers to recent developments such as a man firing at CAA protesters in Delhi. “I sometimes go into depression; I get so upset... They are trying to sabotage a spontaneous people’s movement.”

Not surprisingly, the 74-year-old Kolkata resident has to often deal with vicious comments on social media. “I’m very heavily trolled,” she sighs, and then adds, “but one learns to ignore such things”.

Sen has also been using celluloid to express her concerns. Her latest release — the 2019 Bengali film Ghawre Bairey Aaj (The Home and the World Today) — was uncannily prescient in its portrayal of Right Wing forces seeking to smother democratic voices. She points out that her 2002 film Mr. and Mrs. Iyer was set against the backdrop of communal violence. And on the last date of shooting, on February 28, 2002, the Godhra train incident occurred, triggering anti-Muslim riots in Gujarat. “Rahul Bose (the lead actor in the film) remarked that this film was eerily clairvoyant,” she recalls.

She wrote Ghawre Bairey Aaj after journalist-activist Gauri Lankesh was gunned down in Bengaluru in 2017. “I was devastated. I dedicated the film to her.” In the film Nikhilesh (based on Lankesh) is a journalist who is slain for his progressive beliefs and his opposition to Hindutva forces.

Sen points out that the novel the film is based on — Rabindranath Tagore’s Ghare Baire, first adapted to the screen by film-maker Satyajit Ray in 1984 — is an “intensely” political book set in the aftermath of the partition of Bengal on communal lines (1905).

Her films, too, she adds, are political. Though her debut feature 36 Chowringhee Lane (1981) was about a retired Anglo-Indian schoolteacher, “it was political in the sense that it was a film about the marginalised which could be because of the age, the community”. She points out that Paroma (1984) was hailed as a portrayal of feminist politics, while her 1995 film Yugant looked at people being affected by the distant Gulf war and its impact on the environment.

She is unwilling to reveal much about her new Hindi film, for which she is scheduled to start shooting soon. All that she is ready to disclose is that the film is about rape. “I’m trying to examine how much of society is responsible for producing rapists. It’s about the victim’s trauma, the circumstances,” she says.

Sen, who made her début as an actor with Ray’s 1961 film Teen Kanya, gets introspective when asked if her subsequent films would be as political and outspoken as her Tagore adaptation. “I don’t think I have many film-making years left... It’s a very strenuous occupation and I haven’t been that well lately. While I think love is a beautiful emotion, I can’t make simple love stories any more. In the time that I have, I would like to make films about things that move and bother me. I hope they (the films) will survive as a document of the times,” she says.

The film-maker confesses, “I can’t make films like 36 Chowringhee Lane anymore. That was a more innocent world, the times have changed. It’s become a violent, divisive, terrifying world. Now one has to respond to the present reality.”

Kavita Chowdhury is a Kolkata-based journalist who writes on development, politics, culture and gender

Published on February 20, 2020

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