What turns a man into a rapist? : director Aparna Sen on her latest film

In 1960, New Zealand photographer Brian Brake was working on a series of photos about the monsoon and the people affected by it. He captured Aparna Sen, then just 14, on the terrace of her house with her eyes closed, apparently enjoying the rain on her face. The water actually came from a garden hose. But when Brake’s series ran in Life Magazine the following year, this photo made the cover. The footage catapulted Brake to worldwide fame. As for Sen, the image was only the first step to stardom. During a career that would span six decades, she would make 74 films as an actress and 16 as a director.

Aparna Sen, 76, has just received the Icon Award at the London Indian Film Festival for her contribution to cinema. His last movie, the rapista complex look at the impact of rape on the perpetrator, survivor and her husband, has won awards and accolades on the Indian and international festival circuits.

Sen is the daughter of renowned film scholar Chidananda Dasgupta and designer Supriya Dasgupta, who founded the Calcutta Film Society in 1947. She made her debut in Satyajit Ray’s Teen Kanya (1961) while still in school. “I wasn’t allowed to watch mainstream cinema until later in life,” she recalls. “My friends used to watch Suchitra Sen-Uttam Kumar stars and describe them in detail. I had not seen a single Bengali film until then. Of course my parents took me to see Ray’s Pather Panchali (1955) and wept copiously. My taste was formed by these kinds of films. My parents were appalled when I decided to do mainstream film, but if I waited for Ray or Mrinal Sen to kick me off, it wouldn’t really be a career.

After two decades of starring in Bengali cinema and a handful of forgettable Hindi films, Sen was pushed into acting. “During the filming of Imman Dharam (1977), I was waiting for another star, or for the light to come on or something, and I thought, “I don’t want to do this all my life — acting in movies, I don’t don’t think so’. I knew I could write. I started writing what turned out to be 36 Chowringhee Lane (nineteen eighty one). »

Even for a star, it was not easy to find a producer for an English film about a lonely, elderly British-Indian woman, inspired by some of her own school teachers. “I was ready to go door to door. I met this guy who was in charge of spending 20th Century Fox funds in India. When I told the story, he said, ‘What are you trying to sell here? Violence? Sex?’ I said “Thank you very much” and ran from there. It was the story of a little old woman. I was terrified of being asked to do sex or violence. Eventually, Shashi Kapoor produced the film. His wife, Jennifer Kendal, played the teacher, Violet Stoneham. It remains one of his most watched and admired films.

In the early 1980s, Sen, along with Sai Paranjpye, Vijaya Mehta and Prema Karanth found themselves in a new group of filmmakers. The industry, she says, expected them to make low-budget films about women’s issues. “It’s so stupid for women to make movies about women,” Sen says. “36…could have been a movie about a man, except I didn’t know anything about boys’ schools.


If Sen struggles to fit in the lockers, so does his movies. Sati (1989) is based on a story by Kamal Kumar Majumdar of a mute orphan married to a tree because her horoscope suggests her husband is going to die. Mr and Mrs Iyer (2002) is about a Tamil Brahmin woman who rescues a Muslim from communal violence; The Japanese woman (2010) is about friendship by pen between a Bengali man and a Japanese woman. “A lot of them talk about loneliness, but they go through different paths.”

One of the main reasons for these diverse themes could be Sen’s stint as editor of the bi-monthly Bengali women’s magazine, Sananda from 1986 to 2005, “It couldn’t just be cooking and fashion. Women are not separate from humanity; we are also interested in sports and politics and what is happening around us. So I did reports on pay for housework, on Medha Patkar and the Narmada dam, the problems of the zari workers. I was aware of the news. »

As a filmmaker, she transformed short stories, facts, headlines, even tales from Shakespeare and Tagore, into, ultimately, sensitive stories about humanity. Actress Shabana Azmi, who has worked with her on four films, says her biggest regret is letting Sen down in her portrayal of the orphan, Uma, in Sati. “I had thought of Uma as a bull and Aparna had imagined Uma as a fox!” Azmi said. “She was very patient with me and went so far as to let me have my way and then have her own way. She even showed me the rushes. I knew she was right, but I just couldn’t do it. Fortunately, in later films like Picnic, 15 Park Avenue and Sonata it worked well. »

Sen says his most recent film, the rapist, is the most objective of all. “I didn’t take sides,” she said. “I had this question in mind: when does a man become a rapist?” Even here, its focus on humanity eclipses conventional solutions. “There are more questions than answers,” Sen says.

She hasn’t finished yet. Sen’s wish list includes a film about painter Amrita Sher-Gil, in which she would like to play Alia Bhatt; and Mahabharata episodes, in English, Game of Thrones style. “I’m very surprised to still be alive,” Sen said. “Just kidding! When I told my husband I think I should quit, he asked me why. Clint Eastwood is still making movies at 92. I want to die with my boots on.


Aparna Sen’s career as a director covers 16 films, from its groundbreaking debut 36 Chowringhee Lane (1981) at the rapistwhich has been touring festivals since its release last year.

Sen also played in more than 70 films. she was offered Ankur (1974), which went to Shabana Azmi and launched her career. “I’m glad I didn’t,” Sen said. “I wouldn’t have been as good as Shabana.”

Are Shabana Azmi and Konkona Sen Sharma her alter egos in the films she makes with them? “Not exactly. But they have a lot of trust, faith and respect for me. Likewise, it’s easy to work with someone who believes in your work.

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