Indian films that sparked the critic in me: Aparna Sen’s 36 Chowringhee Lane is the ultimate portrait of rejection in old age
36 Chowringhee Lane broke new ground with its open depiction of sex on an otherwise prudish Indian film landscape.
(Editor’s Note: This is Part 9 of a series by film critic and consulting editor, Anna M.M. Vetticad)
For most chroniclers of India’s cinematic history, Aparna Sen’s 36 Chowringhee Lane is a rare portrait of the Anglo-Indian community as seen through the life of its protagonist. They are right – it is. Yet for me, the Anglo-Indian here is essentially a metaphor for the unwanted and the unadjusted, and this 1981 film has always predominantly been a portrait of rejection in old age, dignity in loneliness, a failure to move with changing times, youthful disdain for the elderly and cruel deception.
Sen was a star of Bengali cinema when she turned to writing and direction with 36 Chowringhee Lane, opting to make it in English with some Bengali dialogues. The film was produced by Shashi Kapoor whose repertoire as an actor ranged from English theatre to Hindi and international cinema. And it starred the British actor Jennifer Kendal (also Kapoor’s wife) who was born in England but lived most of her life in India.
Perhaps the team’s multi-cultural, trans-national sensibilities contributed to the film’s empathy for its lead character, a member of a social group that were misfits across countries back then. Or perhaps the sensitivity came entirely from the woman at the helm. Either way, in the 39 years since 36 Chowringhee Lane, Sen has won critical acclaim, audience applause and awards – including multiple National Awards – for several of her works, but she has not so far surpassed the near-perfection of this quiet little film set in a by-lane of Kolkata in post-Independence India.
In an interview to Telegraph earlier this year, Sen said this of the muted look that art director Bansi Chandragupta – best known for his association with Satyajit Ray – gave 36 Chowringhee Lane: “I wanted it to resemble a rose that had been kept pressed between the pages of a book for a long time.” Both in the context of its visuals and the person whose story it tells, there can be no better description of this cultural gem.
36 Chowringhee Lane is an autumnal biopic of the fictional Miss Violet Stoneham (Kendal) who spends her days teaching William Shakespeare to high-school students, visiting a home for the aged housing her brother Eddie (Geoffrey Kendal, the actor’s father in real life), attending church and chatting with her pet cat. Her niece Rosemary (Soni Razdan) marries a man she is not in love with because she fears an old age like her Aunty Violet’s or Uncle Eddie’s – the prospect of an empty house or an institution intimidating her far more than a potentially loveless marriage.
Rosemary, who has great affection for her aunt, shifts to Australia and persistently exhorts Miss Stoneham to join her. It seems like a natural move since so many of Miss Stoneham’s Anglo-Indian colleagues and friends have emigrated. Not everyone who has moved is comfortable abroad though, and Miss Stoneham does not see the logic in starting a new life in a strange land.
Miss Stoneham’s concern for Rosemary when she marries without love is as notable as her resolve to stay on in India although she is possibly worried about her future. In a world that even today takes a condescending view of single life, where the definitive English literary representations of spinsterhood popular in India remain Charles Dickens’ decaying and embittered Miss Havisham and Helen Fielding’s purportedly cool but actually desperate, male-obsessed Bridget Jones, here is one of the pathbreaking facets of 36 Chowringhee Lane: Sen does not patronisingly portray Miss Stoneham as a pitiable creature – instead, she is shown as having clarity of thought about her choices and no regrets; she nurses a heartache for her dead fiancé, but is not miserable, neurotic, frustrated or any of the stereotypes that narrow minds associate with unmarried women in real life.
Her somewhat uneventful routine, dull though it may seem to an outsider, has an equilibrium that rests on decisions she has made – an equilibrium that is disrupted by a chance meeting with her former student Nandita Roy (Debashree Roy) and Nandita’s boyfriend Samaresh Moitra (Dhritiman Chatterjee), an aspiring writer. Till then, if a viewer assumes Miss Stoneham is bored or unhappy, it is possibly because of their own discomfort with solitude and not because of anything she says or does.
All this changes though following the unexpected injection of energy in her life with the arrival of the two youngsters. Miss Stoneham invites them over for tea. Samaresh is disinterested but on seeing her spacious flat, senses an opportunity: in a city that frowns upon pre-marital sexual encounters, here is a chance for some privacy. So far they have had to make do with making out in the backseats of taxis that are proving to be expensive for the unemployed Samaresh.
So he charms Miss Stoneham, and gets Nandita to convince the lady to let him work on his upcoming book in her house while she is away at school. Miss Stoneham agrees, and the arrangement proves convenient for everyone concerned: Samaresh and Nandita get to freely have sex during the day, and in the afternoons, Miss Stoneham gets their company.
What is remarkable here is the extent of the pretence and the lengths to which Nandita and Samaresh go to please Miss Stoneham and keep her in the dark: Nandita lies that she drops Samaresh at the flat and then leaves, they have tea and snacks waiting for her on her return, they even take her for lively outings to street food stalls.
Once Samaresh gets a job and they get married though, the couple discard Miss Stoneham like yesterday’s garbage. What follows is one of the most heart-breaking episodes of rejection ever seen on the Indian screen.
I was a pre-teen when I first watched most of the films I have covered so far in this series on Indian films that sparked the critic in me. When I saw 36 Chowringhee Lane though, I was a teenager with a greater understanding of my specific reasons for being drawn to a film. In this case, I was deeply moved by Sen’s poignant, understated storytelling, and struck by several additional points that remain relevant even today.
For one, 36 Chowringhee Lane broke new ground with its open depiction of sex on an otherwise prudish Indian film landscape, that too without awkward actor movements and camera angles screaming their intent to camouflage more than reveal. The assured handling of those scenes belied Sen’s inexperience as a director and reflected an open-mindedness that was evident in this 1998 interview published on Rediff:
Q: 36…was a landmark in the way that it depicted sexuality, that too premarital sex, head-on on screen. Was it hard to persuade Debasree Roy to play that role?
A: No, no. I told her right in the beginning that there would be those scenes. She was a little uncomfortable, but it was OK. She was very young then. I feel scenes of sexual intimacy are ruined if the director is embarrassed. I wasn’t embarrassed. There was nothing in it that I thought was obscene.
Clearly, Roy and Dhritiman Chatterjee’s acting skills and faith in Sen were as crucial as the director’s attitude, since she did not always get this element right with other stars. In fact, in Parama (Bengali, 1985), Sen’s courage in depicting the reality of a stay-at-home wife in a tepid marriage rediscovering herself through an extra-marital affair was somewhat diluted in effect by the stiff acting and coy shooting of scenes of physical intimacy between the titular heroine (Rakhee Gulzar) and her boyfriend.
Nandita and Samaresh’s unapologetic love-making versus Miss Stoneham’s prim act of removing her undergarments from the bathroom when the couple come to spend the day offer a sharp contrast to the stereotypical depictions of Hindus and Christians in those days in another Indian film industry, Bollywood. At the time, Hindi cinema had long treated sex as a dirty thing that unmarried Hindu heroines never indulged in; exceptions who did were inevitably saddled with unwanted pregnancies and years of separation from their offspring. Sexually suggestive dances, sexual activity and promiscuity, according to Hindi filmdom until the 1990s, were the preserve of Christian women supporting characters. As a child growing up in the 1980s in north India, where my exposure to Indian cinemas other than Hindi a.k.a. Bollywood was limited, 36 Chowringhee Lane’s lack of stereotyping in this respect came as a refreshing surprise.
Much has already been written about Vanraj Bhatia’s music for the film, Ashok Mehta’s cinematography in cold white, gray and black tones barring the burst of warmth and colour in Nandita and Samaresh’s marital home, Kendal’s brilliant naturalism and Kapoor’s well-justified anguish when she lost the National Award for Best Actress that year to the far less deserving Rekha for Umrao Jaan. I would like to focus therefore on the theme of duplicity and on Sen’s feminism.
As I write this piece I realise that back when I first watched 36 Chowringhee Lane, it did not strike me that I had not till then seen an Indian film made by a woman. Not every woman is sensitive to women’s concerns, Sen certainly is; feminism in cinema does not perforce mean a depiction of women overtly asserting their rights in the face of discrimination and opprobrium: it could also mean simply letting women be, or going against the tide by choosing to tell the stories of unconventional, strong women ranging from Miss Stoneham in 1981 to Paromita (Rituparna Sengupta) and her mother-in-law (played by Sen herself) in Paromitar Ek Din (Bengali, 2000), Meenakshi Iyer in Mr and Mrs Iyer (English, 2002) and Pishima in Goynar Baksho (Bengali, 2013).
36 Chowringhee Lane is not a film that most people would identify as feminist, yet what else is Miss Stoneham’s sense of completeness in herself, her uncommon equation with her niece that goes contrary to the popular perception of women forever working against each other, the fact that she chose not to marry after her fiancé’s premature death instead of taking a conformist route like that niece, or even the normalisation of Nandita’s sexual choices, Miss Stoneham’s lack of judgement when she realises what Nandita and Samaresh are doing in her apartment, and Sen’s penchant for such characters as a writer?
Sen even takes a gentler view of Nandita than Samaresh in their scheme. While Nandita must share the blame for the deceit perpetrated on Miss Stoneham, she is not the prime mover in the couple’s actions: she hesitates when he wants to use Miss Stoneham at first, and later questions the needless move to dispense with her, but each time plays along in the face of his assertiveness (which again contradicts the popular discourse that projects women as tending to lead weak-willed husbands astray).
Sen’s films of the past decade have occasionally been disappointing in this regard, whether with the unthinking romanticisation of the shaven-headed, attired-in-white Hindu widow as a symbol of devotion in The Japanese Wife (English, Bengali and Japanese, 2010) or the shallowness of Sonata (English, 2017) that echoes superficial interpretations of feminism among anti-feminists in India.
Nothing though can subtract from the legacy of 36 Chowringhee Lane, one of the finest Indian films of all time that rightfully won National Awards for Best Director and Best Bengali Feature Film.
Through the prism of the Anglo-Indian experience in the post-Raj era, the film spotlights society’s rejects, largely without passing judgement on either the Indians or Anglo-Indians in the story. Many film analysts hold that Miss Stoneham was demoted in her school and Shakespeare lessons handed over to her Indian colleague as an assertion of the overall Indian take-over of the coloniser’s language, but it is just as true that Miss Stoneham – darling though she is – has not made an effort to evolve as a teacher and keep the students engaged. Most societies have a low tolerance level for under-performance by senior citizens.
Even Nandita and Samaresh’s treatment of Miss Stoneham has nothing to do with her Anglo-Indian identity.
King Lear – a tale of opportunistic youth taking advantage of the elderly – is most often cited as the play that mirrors Miss Stoneham’s tryst with Nandita and Samaresh, especially since she quotes Lear in the last scene. But Lear’s daughters succeeded in taking him for a ride because he was foolish and conceited enough to be pleased by flattery; Miss Stoneham is neither – she is merely innocent to the point of being naïve.
Writings on 36 Chowringhee Lane have focused less on Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night; or, What You Will that Miss Stoneham repeatedly cites and from which she draws the name of her cat, Sir Toby Belch. In the play, Sir Toby takes advantage of wealthy, gullible individuals, his vitality and sense of fun mask considerable meanness and he participates in a nasty con against an unsuspecting character.
Samaresh is Sir Toby in 20th century Kolkata, and Sen’s 36 Chowringhee Lane is an aching saga of isolation in a society that ruthlessly casts off the elderly once they are past their perceived use-by date.