Good literature certainly does have an impact on the way you look at life: Aparna Sen

By Resham Sengar | Updated: Jul 17, 2013, 11:51 AM IST

For Aparna Sen, whose pedigree boasts of renowned film intellectuals and who began working under the tutelage of Satyajit Ray, film making was quite an obvious career path and becoming an accomplished actress, an apt choice. All these years of dabbling in the art of film making have come along well for her. And the number of prestigious awards and accolades that she has been bestowed with speak louder than words of her talent. The beauty with the brains, who will be attending a literature festival duly named `Mountain Echoes 2013` by Siyahi, spoke to Resham Sengar of about the people who have moulded her into the person she is now, her love for literature and her stint in Hindi films.

You were born to a film critic and film maker Chidananda Dasgupta. Did that influence the kind of movies you acted in and directed, in any way?

My father was not simply a film critic; he was a renowned film scholar and the co-founder of the Calcutta Film Society along with the late Satyajit Ray. Of course, this had a profound effect on my life. I was a film society kid, brought up on a diet of the best of world cinema. My childhood fare of cinema consisted of films by Eisenstein, Kurosawa, Bergman and the likes. Naturally this experience formed my taste in cinema. Even so, it could not influence my choice of the films in which I acted - mainly because there was so little to choose from. Whenever I was offered a role by Satyajit Ray or Mrinal Sen or some other master, I accepted with alacrity. But this was very few and far between. In order to have a successful career as a film actor, I had to accept films that for me had not much cinematic value. However, when I chose to direct my own films, my childhood experience of good cinema certainly influenced the subjects that I chose as much as the way in which I chose to depict those subjects.

How was your experience of working with the legendary Satyajit Ray? Can you share some of your memories of working with him?

I did not work in many films with Ray. There was, of course, my debut film `Samapti` in which I acted at the age of 15 when still in school. At that time Ray, whom I called `Manik Kaka` treated me as a newcomer, which of course I was. He showed me exactly what to do in every shot. If one just followed his instructions and delivered one`s lines exactly like he did, one ended up acting well! The only time that I actually got to act on my own, was a scene in which Soumitra Chatterjee has come to inspect his potential bride. I was supposed to stand outside the window, pet squirrel in hand, and watch the proceedings until my squirrel escaped into the room through the window, whereupon I would have to rush into the room after it. The problem was that the squirrel just wouldn`t escape from my hand! Since I couldn`t bear to have a shot rejected on my account, I pretended to put it down on the window sill as if to show it to my friend, the bride`s younger brother, who was sitting inside. Then, as if I had, suddenly realised that it had escaped, I rushed in to get it. We all thought the shot would have to be re-taken, but Manik Kaka, who was operating the camera himself, removed his eye from the eye-piece and said laughing, "I like it!" I have never felt happier! The only shot in the film where I had acted totally on my own had been approved by the maestro!The only other film in which I had a major role was Pikoo. Here I found the director`s attitude to me had undergone a sea-change! This time he treated me as an experienced professional and left me strictly alone. But, of course, he would explain the motivation of my character to me and also read out the lines once. He was such a fine actor himself, that one reading was enough for me to know exactly what was required of me.

What was the turning point of your career in films?

Directing my first film ‘36 Chowringhee Lane’. Until then, I had been getting terribly frustrated and feeling creatively stifled working in commercial projects for the most part. Suddenly a great window opened up as it were, and it seemed as I could breathe again. And it certainly helped that the film won the Golden Eagle for Best Film at the Manilla International Film Festival besides Best Direction and Best Cinematography at the National Awards. I became nationally and internationally known as a director almost overnight!

How was it like working in Hindi films? Would you take up any acting project in Hindi films in future?

Didn`t enjoy that experience at all! The main reason was that I had acted in all the wrong kind of films. There was not great range of roles available then, like there is today. Today the dividing line between mainstream and art films has blurred quite a bit. All kinds of new subjects and different narrative styles are being attempted. So, yes, if I do get an offer for a good role by a good director in a Hindi film, I would certainly consider it.

How being a literature student has affected your movie making style?

I don`t know about movie-making style, but great and good literature certainly does have an impact on the way you look at life. This is true of other art forms as well, like painting, music, dance and theatre. Just as one`s life experiences shape one`s view of life, so does art in its various forms. And of course, literature gives one a sense of how to structure a narrative and an insight into characterisation. One also gets to learn about different kinds of people and different life styles through literature. As it is not always possible to get direct first-hand experience of everything, literature is invaluable as a secondary source.

Please name some of your favourite authors both classic and contemporary.

Certainly Bankim Chandra, Rabindranath Tagore, Tarashankar Bandyopadhyay, Manik Bandyopadhyay, Bibutibhushan Bandyopadhyay, Sharadindu Bandyopadhyay and Narendranath Mitra among classics in Bengali literature. Among contemporary Bengali authors, my favourites are Mahashweta Devi and Shirshendu Mukhopadhyay.

Among world literature classics, I love the Russian novelists Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky. Dickens and Hardy are also great favourites of mine. I find the Yiddish novelist Isaac Baschevis Singer`s `The Family Moscat’ quite wonderful as I did Naguib Mahfouz`s Cairo Trilogy. I adore Gabriel Garcia Marquez and enjoy the novels of Isabelle Allende. I also love the writing of JM Coetzee. His `Life & Times of Michael K` is one of the best books that I`ve ever read! Among the more contemporary writers, I have enjoyed some of the writings of Vikram Seth, Arundhati Roy, Mohsin Hamid & Milan Kundera.

How do you feel having bagged so many National awards?

Naturally, one feels good when one wins a National Award. After all, it is the highest recognition of your work by your own country. Even though I do not feel that awards, national or otherwise, can be the last word about a film, still a National Award goes a long way in establishing a filmmaker.