36 Chowringhee Lane, revisited: Aparna Sen's ever-relevant tale that merged life, death, and Shakespeare
36 Chowringhee Lane, Aparna Sen's directorial debut, could well seem sepia-toned as far as its overarching sentiment of nostalgia for the past is concerned, however, when it comes to presenting human sensibilities, emotions and vulnerabilities, the film is technicolour
The chirping of birds, honking cars, the noise of rushed footsteps of the young and the dragging feet of the aged on a busy Calcutta street, the ring of the morning bell in school, the siren from a factory, the silence of the graves – the humdrum of life passing by – are the sounds that form the opening medley to Aparna Sen’s directorial debut 36 Chowringhee Lane. The phonetic aesthetics of the 1981 film lend, perhaps, a musical mobility to the otherwise stagnant existence of our Anglo-Indian protagonist in a newly independent India – Violet Stoneham (Jennifer Kendal).
Typically, Miss Stoneham’s routine can be summed up by a few activities that include teaching William Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night to rather indifferent senior students in school; feeding milk to Sir Toby, her cat; writing to Rosemary (Soni Razdan), her niece, who has migrated to Australia after marriage; visiting the cemetery to remember her loved ones; and bringing chocolate biscuits and Archie comics to her ailing brother Eddie (Geoffrey Kendal) in an old home every Thursday. Occasionally, she buys 200 grams of prawns from the fish market, only after ogling at the succulent, giant lobsters for more than a few seconds. She rarely indulges herself. Accustomed to this drill, Miss Stoneham is a general factotum.
Nearly four decades have passed since the release of the film in August 1981. It could well seem sepia-toned as far as its overarching sentiment of nostalgia for the past is concerned, however, when it comes to presenting human sensibilities, emotions and vulnerabilities, 36 Chowringhee Lane is technicolour.
Finding new friends on Christmas Day
Something out-of-tune happens in her rather rhythmic, morbid world when Miss Stoneham meets one of her old students Nandita Roy (Debashree Roy) on Christmas Day. A lady now, the young and vivacious Nandita is an antithesis to the old and withering Miss Stoneham. This chance encounter transforms Miss Stoneham’s life. Nandita’s boyfriend Samaresh Moitra (Dhritiman Chatterjee) is a writer, a “James Joyce in the making” by his own admission, and quite a charmer. Miss Stoneham invites the couple for a cup of coffee at her humble apartment on Chowringhee Road.
In an interesting essay titled ‘English Shakespeares in Indian Cinema: 36 Chowringhee Lane and The Last Lear’, Rosa M Garcia-Periago suggests, the title of the film was not an arbitrary choice: ‘Curiously enough, Chowringhee Road — the street where Miss Violet Stoneham’s apartment is located — was one of the favorite places of residence for the English diaspora, strongly suggesting the selection of the title was far from random. Apart from placing an emphasis on the site for the majority of dwellings of the British Empire, the name “Chowringhee” itself also gestures towards the Shakespearean presence in British India.’
The glee on Miss Stoneham’s face at the prospect of having guests over after an unending spell of loneliness is unmistakable. Her pursed lips, the perennial frown on her forehead, her pensive eyes, trembling hands – every marker of her age vanishes with the arrival of these love birds. Samaresh is befuddled and impressed at the same time to find a gramophone in Miss Stoneham’s living room. “Your place is like an antique shop,” he exclaims. Possibly, what is antique and vintage to a young and upcoming writer are the last material remnants of the British Raj that an ageing Anglo-Indian woman derives her identity from in a post-colonial India, which she has embraced as her homeland. Later in the film, we see Miss Stoneham giving away the gramophone to the couple as their wedding present.
After 15 years, Nandita notices that nothing has changed in Miss Stoneham’s cramped apartment. She has fond memories of her tuition classes with her teacher here. Miss Stoneham doesn’t tell Nandita that she has now been relegated to taking grammar classes for primary students and no longer teaches Shakespeare. For a fleeting moment, Miss Stoneham, who has never let her age get in the way of her psychological well-being and security, appears hesitant in front of her once-upon-a-time student. Miss Stoneham is unaware of the couple’s ulterior motives. For her, their presence is a breath of fresh air. Her routine has been tweaked. She doesn’t return to an empty home with a pile of homework and Sir Toby waiting for her.
Now, she makes merry with a bottle of sherry with her new young ‘Indian’ friends, guffaws outside the Victoria Memorial while tucking in phuchkaas and has tea, lovingly served to her by her student in the evenings. As they sing ‘Auld Lang Syne’ and ‘Puranoshei Diner Kotha’, all tunes merge and echo in her small living room. All walls and barriers are pulled down. Miss Stoneham doesn’t feel alienated – the English and the Indian can coexist and that too in harmony, thinks she. But in embracing the new, she begins to neglect the old, albeit unintentionally. She has forgotten her mandatory Thursday visits to her brother in the old home. Also, she is not as quick in her replies to her niece’s letters as she was.
Living in death, dying while being alive
The British Raj is over. India has been independent for 30 years, says Miss Stoneham to her brother who tells her she should not befriend ‘Indian’ kids. One of the most striking scenes in the film is when we see young Violet (Sanjna Kapoor) looking for her lover Davy (blink-and-miss appearance by Karan Kapoor) in a forest, when she comes across a door on the other side of which unfolds a dream and a nightmare, simultaneously. A funeral and a wedding ceremony overlap with each other. The wedding vows and the words of the prayer for the departed soul all mix up in a knot. Poignant and powerful, the scene appears to be a dream within a nightmare, or vice versa. Life and death merge and collapse. The synchronicity of living and dying assumes a stark resonance. Miss Stoneham is probably stuck or trapped somewhere in between, in the middle of life and death, dust and breath. She is walking through a subway, alive, yet buried.
Losing friends on Christmas Day
After marriage, Nandita and Samaresh are preoccupied in their own world. They have a life of their own and don’t have the time to humour an old lady anymore. And, like all good things must come to an end, Miss Stoneham too must return to her solitude, her own company. They even tell her off and cook up an excuse when Miss Stoneham calls them home for Christmas. But as promised, she wants to bake them her famous Christmas cake. Her intention to surprise the newly-weds with her freshly baked cake turns into a rude shock when she realises that she has been tricked. She is no longer wanted by her young Indian friends.
Not only do Nandita and Samaresh snatch away her solitude with a short-lived illusion, they also rob her of her gramophone – the last remnant of music in her life. Miss Stoneham comes back with her cake, not because she is hurt by her student’s lie, but because they don’t deserve her Christmas cake anymore. Samaresh, while gifting one of his books to Miss Stoneham, had written – To my first patron. Her unconditional love for them has been reduced to ‘patronage’ that has now been rendered purposeless. One of the heart-wrenching segments in the film is the conclusion when we see Miss Stoneham, walking down the street of Calcutta on a dark night, reciting the lines from Shakespeare’s King Lear (Act IV, Scene VII). Her only audience? A stray dog. Like the King, did she trust the wrong people, after all?
Pray, do not mock me.
I am a very foolish fond old man,
Fourscore and upward, not an hour more nor less.
And to deal plainly
I fear I am not in my perfect mind.
Methinks I should know you, and know this man.
Life comes full circle. We go back to Miss Stoneham’s Shakespeare class in the opening scene of the film. And, the lines from Act I, Scene I of Twelfth Night haunt still: ‘’Tis not so sweet now as it was before’.