Director Aparna Sen’s new film, The Japanese Wife, is her third bilingual feature. The earlier two, her debut 36 Chowringhee Lane (1981), and Mr and Mrs Iyer (2002), were widely appreciated. In almost all her films, Sen has looked at the condition of women in contemporary Bengali and Indian society. Starting out as an actor in Satyajit Ray’s Teen Kanya in 1961, Sen says she has compromised in her acting career. But she has consistently stayed true to her role behind the camera. With her ninth film ready for release, she talked to Lounge about her bad experiences in the Hindi film industry, her daughter’s acting skills and multitasking. Edited excerpts:
How did you decide to make a film based on Kunal Basu’s short story?
While collaborating on another screenplay, Kunal narrated The Japanese Wife. I was convinced. The story’s absurdity was charming—an improbable relationship between a village schoolteacher (Rahul Bose) living deep inside the Sundarbans in Bengal and a Japanese lady (Chigusa Takaku) in a small town in Japan. They are pen pals for years and marry through letters. In marriage there is complete integrity without meeting. The story’s fairy-tale quality charmed me.
Director’s cut: A still from The Japanese Wife
Your films romanticize loss. Pen friends, as well as the long-distance relationship, seems to fit this pattern.
I’m an incorrigible romantic. I don’t just romanticize loss but deal with it in some depth.
Your films largely stick to a linear narrative without major twists. Aren’t you giving away the story?
Most of us make films with a linear narrative, otherwise you won’t get funding. My films aren’t unnecessarily abstruse. I’m not giving away the story because it is delicately etched. The challenge was to make a film reminiscent of Japanese painting with its minimalism.
This is your third consecutive film with Rahul Bose after ‘Mr and Mrs Iyer’ and ‘15 Park Avenue’. Is this akin to the film-maker-actor relationships such as Kurosawa-Mifune…Satyajit Ray-Soumitra Chatterjee?
Rahul trusts me enough to allow himself to be moulded. Can you imagine Rahul, the south Bombay, metrosexual guy who plays rugby, as an arithmetic teacher in the Sundarbans? Rahul also gives inputs. He will suggest something about the end and the end will be what his suggestion triggered.
Your daughter Konkona Sen Sharma has acted in your recent films such as ‘Mr and Mrs Iyer’, ‘15 Park Avenue’ and the forthcoming ‘Iti Mrinalini’.
I’ll cast Konkona when she suits the character. In The Japanese Wife, Raima (Sen) fits perfectly. Konkona is extremely talented. In 15 Park Avenue, she got the character’s sur entirely. I hardly directed her. Her character was based on a close relative and Konkona was deeply empathetic. She’s a very honest actor; vanity doesn’t play a part, unlike (with) most actors.
Is that why you’ve shied away from using Bollywood A-listers?
It’s easier to get funding with Bollywood stars, but I have had bad experiences. I don’t have the patience to wait for unanswered phone calls, text messages, emails. It’s annoying and humiliating. Shabana Azmi, though, is a star but an actor first. She believes in my cinema. But I’ve made a conscious choice, like Rituparno (Ghosh) and Goutam Ghose.
Aparna Sen. Prodip Guha/Hindustan Times
Does that explain your making only 10 films in nearly three decades since ‘36 Chowringhee Lane’?
Things have not fallen into place. Also, for a woman, to work and bring up two daughters, look after ailing parents and manage the home is difficult. I did theatre for the money. Those are creatively wasted years. I compromised as an actor, but not when directing.
While playing the adulterous mother in ‘Pikoo’, did you have a disagreement with the director, Satyajit Ray?
We didn’t see eye to eye. Ray said “feel you have betrayed the son”. I felt I had betrayed the father. But I did what he said.
You found the film judgemental?
Yes, but he’s been judgemental in Ghare Baire and his later films. As a film-maker he had that right. I respected him as a father figure to be able to question him. The earlier Ray was very Chekhovian, but became judgemental probably from what life taught him. I feel Ray initially was a product of the dreams of a newly independent nation. Gradually he became cynical. We’ve found him angry and despairing, like in Jana Aranya. I think he felt it’s his right to condemn. And it’s absolutely his right.
Does your father, the noted film critic Chidananda Dasgupta, comment on your films?
I think he likes 36 Chowringhee Lane and Paroma. But he’s avoided critiquing. Baba wasn’t one who praised or condemned. He found sociological and philosophical constructs. He suggested things at the scripting stage in Yugant or 15 Park Avenue, which I used but not directly. I’ve never directly used anybody’s suggestions.
What after ‘The Japanese Wife’ and ‘Iti Mrinalini’?
Goynar Baksho, hopefully. It’s based on somebody else’s book (Bengali novelist Shirshendu Mukhopadhyay). I’ve been hoping to make it for eight years.
The Japanese Wife releases in theatres on 9 April.
Write to firstname.lastname@example.org