Bengali actor and director Aparna Sen is rarely out of the headlines, and her latest film is likely to ensure that she stays in the news.
Ghawre Bairey Aaj offers a contemporary take on Satyajit Ray’s 1984 film Ghare Baire, which was an adaptation of Rabindranath Tagore’s novel about the clash of cultures and ideologies. Sen’s movie includes debates on the rise of Right-wing politics and ultra-nationalism, the assassination of Gauri Lankesh in 2017, mob lynchings and malnutrition among the tribal population. Sen has also referenced Tagore’s novel Gora, which looks at the interplay between politics and religion. The November 15 release includes Jisshu Sengupta, Anirban Bhattacharya and Tuhina Das in the cast, and is being touted as Sen’s most political film yet.
Sen has been an actor since the mid-1950s. She turned director with 36 Chowringhee Lane in 1982, and her credits include Paroma (1984), 15 Park Avenue (2005) and Sonata (2017). Ghare Baire Aaj continues the theme of religious intolerance in Sen’s National Film Award-winning Mr. and Mrs. Iyer (2002). Arshinagar (2015) was an inter-faith romance inspired by Romeo and Juliet.
Sen continues to appear in films, including the April release Basu Poribaar. The 73-year-old filmmaker was also the head of the committee that picked Zoya Akhtar’s Gully Boy to represent India in the foreign language Oscar category. Sen explained the rationale behind the selection of Gully Boy, her outspokenness over issues pertaining to nationalism and tolerance, and the need for artists to maintain their independence. Here are edited excerpts from the interview.
What makes ‘Ghawre Bairey Aaj’ one of your most political films yet?
I have been making films about my own humanist and feminist politics and also my politics against communalism for a long time – Mr. & Mrs. Iyer, after that Arshinagar. But this is the first time I am dealing with Right-wing politics, and I have actually tried to give the rightist arguments as well.
The darkest character in the film is Sandipan, a Right-wing professor of history who talks about how it is important to put yourself in the shoes of your enemy.
A lot of Sandip was taken from Gora, which believes that in order to be able to serve the people, you have to understand them with all their frailties.
Many of your characters seem to speak in your voice. Is that intentional?
I have a lot of questions about nationalism, actually. To start with, people, particularly the nationalists, talk about India as being one people – one language, one party, one religion, one everything unifying it. But India is a multicultural, multi-ethnic, multi-religious, multi-lingual collective of people that is not like any other nation.
Nationalism is never a natural choice for your characters. It is imposed and seeded early on impressionable minds.
People do not usually have a problem with each other unless you try to impose something on them and call that nationalism. I think it is wrong. I think Jawaharlal Nehru, much maligned as he is, understood this diversity of India.
Unfortunately, democracy has a tendency to homogenise people. In this homogenisation, maybe we get a lot of scientific achievements and progress, but that does not always equate with a scientific mindset. If people like Dinanath Batra say that Gandhari’s children were test-tube babies, it is not a scientific mindset at all.
Similarly, the moment you ask a question, you are an anti-national. I do believe that is not my India. It is true that Pakistan and China are always on the prowl and the borders have to be defended. But perhaps the best way to defend the borders is to make the border security forces stronger rather than imposing one kind of cultural identity on everybody? Why should we accept it?
Your film also dwells on the rupture between the progressive and secular values of the elite, which you represent, and the majoritarian ideology of the masses.
The elite brought about this idea of a diverse, secular India. Rabindranath, who was very much part of the elite, was also inclusive. He valued humanism over nationalism, over even patriotism. The founding fathers, like BR Ambedkar, called Hinduism a chamber of horrors for everyone except the upper castes. To see Hinduism as secular and all-embracing is both right and wrong. Because it can be that but it can also be this in practice.
One can blame the elite, and say that all this time, people who didn’t have an English education or belonged to the urban non-elite felt that they were at a disadvantage and in some way inferior. Somehow, the majoritarian government today has succeeded in giving a voice to that large majority, which is a good thing. Except that a large majority of people have to be guided towards what is true.
Now, if everybody says that whatever the majority feels is true, the majority can do anything. Somebody needs to guide, otherwise there would be no need of professors or intellectuals, no need for debate, no need for questioning.
What is happening today is that questioning and protests are considered anti-national. Going against any one party does not mean going against the country. How is it anti-national?
The phrase ‘urban Naxals’ appears a lot in the film, and has been applied to you as well.
I was called an “urban Naxal” during a loud TV debate after 48 of us wrote an open letter to the Prime Minister. Those who keep calling everybody “urban Naxals” at the drop of a hat either do not know what it means or speak without thinking.
The Adivasis, Dalits, and people who live on the fringes have been marginalised to the extent that they have become expendable. You can easily build roads for bullet trains and mining projects without the least concern for what is going to happen to these people or the environment. The moment you start questioning them, as an individual or a non-governmental organisation, the funding is immediately stopped. So this is one way of getting everybody to adhere to the same ideology, and that is wrong.
State patronage is a double-edged sword – governments change and so do ruling ideologies. What happens to the artist who needs to survive?
I have been lucky. I have always been able to find producers who believed in my work. I also had a small but dedicated audience. I may have had to work with modest budgets and cut back on production values, but most of my films were also commercially successful.
I was given a Padma Shri and several national awards, but I never lobbied for them. I have never accepted or asked for anything of any government anywhere. I have earned everything with my hard work as an actor and filmmaker. Which is why I never had the need to fear a power.
The only thing I am afraid of is the Central Board of Film Certification interfering with my storytelling. I am against any sort of cutting unless it is an incitement to violence. But so far, that has not happened. They usually end up saying, we liked the film so much we are not going to cut any of it, we are going to give it an A certificate. That often happens and that is fair.
But filmmakers often feel it is safer to remain silent than antagonise the ruling powers. Would you agree?
No, no, no. You don’t dance to the tune of the rulers. Rulers can change and once you become their puppet, you will always be their puppet. Luckily, I invested whatever little I had wisely. My husband is there, my parents are gone and my daughters are all grown up, so my husband and I can live comfortably, if not in luxury.
How did acting influence your filmmaking?
I value my work as an actor because it taught me so much about filmmaking. Two things my acting career gave me: an identity, a certain celebrity status, so that when I wanted to talk to producers, they would hear me out.
Secondly, I got the opportunity to watch the masters and lesser directors at work. I learned what to do and what not to do. I got more exposure to the actual process of filmmaking than most assistants or film students do in a lifetime.
Also, I was a very curious person. I would sit and talk to cinematographers and ask about lighting and other technical aspects. I learned very early on about the concept of working jointly with production designers and cameramen.
Another thing about filmmaking is that you have to soak in life like a sponge. You can’t live a cloistered existence, and this, in fact, was my big failing. Because I became a star, there were places I couldn’t go to or explore. So I have had to limit my films to what I have seen, because I didn’t want to seem untruthful.
How did you deal with expectations from your audiences and yourself?
Because of so much exposure nowadays, the audience is getting more and more used to the changing language of cinema, which is a good thing. We filmmakers have to think about whether the language of cinema that we speak in is too classical.
When I made Arshinagar, because it was Shakespeare, I wrote my dialogue in verse and used hand-painted backgrounds and props. This was an experiment. Maybe it was too much ahead of its time, and people did not accept it.
As far as my acting career was concerned, it was never something that I took very seriously beyond a way to earn a living and bring up my two daughters alone. You have to consider the films that were made in those times. It was not the kind of cinema I had been brought up on. But because I was a committed professional, I always gave my best.
What has changed between, say, ‘36 Chowringhee Lane’, ‘Mr. & Mrs. Iyer’ and ‘Ghare Baire Aaj’ in terms of your vision?
I see the lack of education, of scientific inquiry being legitimised. Earlier, there was still a spirit of inquiry, which is totally gone now.
The other thing that has changed is me. I was much less politically aware earlier, even though I was brought up in a family with Left leanings and mentored by people like Utpal Dutt, who were strong leftists. But then I went to Russia in 1989 and discovered what Communism in practice amounted to. I was so shocked that I wrote an article in The Telegraph about it. I found that it just didn’t function.
Also, the way Communism was practised for 34 years in West Bengal was a shocker. We all wanted the Congress government with its killings of Naxals to end. We welcomed the change, and it was fine for a while. Then it started to get morally bereft.
My work as an editor of magazines also made me more and more politically aware. I think 60% of my editorials since the demolition of the Babri Masjid in 1992 have been about communal harmony and the caste system.
The majoritarianism will not allow you to question why Rama, for instance, abandoned his pregnant wife. But I do recognise that Rama and Sita are very much part of the daily lives of our country folk. There is this lovely song by Shobha Gurtu in which a woman whose lover has gone complains to Rama. This is what Sandip argues for in my film – that Rama is very much part of our daily lives.
But there should also be space for agnosticism, atheism, Vaishnavism, Shaktaism, Adwaitavad, Islam, everything you know. We can accommodate them all, and we have for a long time. So why are we now trying to change all that?
You headed the committee that chose ‘Gully Boy’ as India’s entry in the foreign language Oscar category. What about the film appealed to you?
Our job was to find a film that was of excellent artistic merit and at the same time something that was a fit for the Academy.
Gully Boy is an extremely well-made film in all departments. The photography was brilliant, the sound was excellent, the acting was marvellous, the production design was wonderful, the colour palette was very good, the music was excellent, the dialogue was extremely well-written. The women characters were very strong and impactful. So it was comparable to the best in terms of its technical quality. That is very, very important.
Politically it was about the two Indias. I thought the haves and have-nots were contrasted poignantly without being sentimental. It sends out a very good political message.