Quotes of the Day

Monday, Nov. 04, 2002

Open quoteMeenakshi Iyer was heading home to her husband when a Hindu gang boarded her bus, baying for Muslim blood. As a Hindu, Iyer was safe. But she knew the man beside her, Raja Chowdhury, would be killed if they discovered he was a Muslim. "I'm Mrs. Iyer," she told the mob, "and this is Mr. Iyer, my husband," she lied, introducing Chowdhury. And that was it. The gang moved on, questioning other passengers, forcing men they doubted to prove they weren't circumcised.

In her new movie Mr. and Mrs. Iyer, Indian writer-director Aparna Sen weaves a love story set against the backdrop of communal violence, the monkey that never leaves India's back. Iyer (played by Konkona Sensharma, Sen's daughter) and Chowdhury (Rahul Bose) seem to have nothing in common. She's an orthodox Hindu from South India, he's a liberal Muslim from West Bengal; she's married with a child, he's a single photographer. But their overnight bus journey through the hills of West Bengal draws them together. As violence erupts, a curfew is declared and they take shelter together—along with Iyer's son—in an abandoned bungalow in the forest. Amid this mayhem, they fall in love.

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When Sen, 57, began writing the script, all she knew was that she wanted to shoot a love story. She had no idea in which context. But in the aftermath of 9/11, she focused the story increasingly on religious hatred—a subject that became all the more timely when riots broke out in Gujarat in March 2002 and one's faith became a litmus test to decide who lives and who dies. Though the inspiration was macabre, Sen doesn't fill the frames of this delicate work with blood and gore, explaining that she wanted, above all, "to make a very simple film about a man and a woman who fall in love despite religious differences." As she puts it, "Nothing brings out the poignancy of love more than when it's pitted against the ruthlessness of war." Sen has clearly struck a chord: the movie won a Junior Jury prize for best director at the Locarno International Film Festival in Switzerland, and the script earned her a Netpac Jury prize for "courage in raising an issue of relevance in a work of cinematic density."

Most Indian movies are commercial staples churned out by Bollywood. But Sen's more rarefied sensibilities were formed in Calcutta where she grew up in an environment that hailed intellectual moviemaking. Her father, the director Chidananda Dasgupta, was best friends with legendary filmmaker Satyajit Ray, and Sen was soon drawn into their world. At 11, she played the part of a little boy in a play written by Ray's father, and she decided then to become an actress: "I'd never enjoyed anything as much." She has since acted in more than 60 films, including Ray's Teen Kanya (1961) and The Middleman (1976), and Merchant Ivory productions such as Bombay Talkie (1970) and Hullabaloo over Georgie and Bonnie's Pictures (1978).

In 1981, Sen made the crossover to writing and directing with 36 Chowringhee Lane, a film about marginalized Anglo Indians in India, which won the country's National Awards for best direction and best cinematography. Sen's subsequent movies have tackled a range of similarly weighty and political topics, including sati, the practice of widow sacrifice. As a result, she is often regarded as a feminist filmmaker, and she wears the tag uneasily. "I believe feminism is a part of humanism, and I am a humanist," she says.

In Mr. and Mrs. Iyer, Sen's humanism emerges in the empathetic way she explores an array of starkly different characters. In the extensive scenes on the bus, there is an old Muslim couple, a pair of newlyweds, a mother with her handicapped son, college kids on their summer break, a Jew and two Sikhs, who together represent a kind of mini-India. Sen uses the reactions of each character to the violence unfolding around them as a mirror that reflects the clashing attitudes Indians hold toward one another. Her attention to detail is one of her great strengths, and the film skillfully captures the characters' idiosyncrasies. In the end—like India itself—they pull through together, despite their differences. Yet Sen, who is Hindu, remains haunted by the real-world horrors she sees in today's India. "Scenes of communal hatred are not usually allowed in the movies," she says. "If you do portray it, then you are required to balance it out. And that's the sad part. In reality, it is not balanced. In the Bombay riots and in the Gujarat riots, it was all a pogrom against the Muslims."Close quote

  • Sara Rajan/Calcutta
  • In Aparna Sen's new film, a Hindu and a Muslim come together in an India sundered by religious strife
| Source: In Aparna Sen's new film, a Hindu and a Muslim come together in an India sundered by religious strife