The Portrayal of Gender from a Woman Filmmaker

An Aparna Sen Analysis

“Why should you not give to women their right to win their fortune”? - Rabindranath Tagore

The first Indian woman to produce, script and direct a film was Fatma Begum, mother of three early cine-actresses - Zubeida, Sultana, Shezadi, the film was “Bulbule Parastan” in 1926. More than any other aspect of filmmaking, acting, singing and dancing which were initially taboos, became women’s domain in cinema. Once the society began accepting them on the wide screen, a virtual deluge started, a film without a woman is inconceivable. Women have been more at ease in making middle and off beat, rather than popular, commercial cinema. Notable among women offbeat filmmakers are Aparna Sen in Kolkata, Sai Paranjpe, Vijay Mehta, Kalpana Lajmi and Deepa Mehta in Mumbai, Prema Karanth in Bangalore.

They were attracted to feminist themes but also dealt with other issues and subjects as well.

Aparna Sen’s reputation as a filmmaker matched, if not surpassed, her fame as a major actress in Bengali cinema after Suchitra Sen whose ineffable beauty like that of Hollywood’s Greta Garbo bemused an entire generation. Daughter of Chidananda Dasgupta, the noted film writer of Bengal, Aparna first appeared to instant popular acclaim in a tomboy’s role in Satyajit Ray’s ‘Samapti’ included in ‘Teen Kanya’ (1961). Her first film to be directed was in English, 36 Chowringhee Lane (1981), unforgettable for (Shashi Kapoor’s wife) Jennifer Kapoor’s rendering of a solitary Anglo-Indian teacher who lives in a back lane of Chowringhee in Central Kolkata. She cheers up after giving shelter to a boy and a girl in love – her former pupils – who eventually leave her to more intense loneliness after her retirement from the college. She won the President’s Gold Medal for Best Director and it was adjudged the Best English Film” of the year. It also received the Grand Prix at Manila Film Festival.

She caused more sensation with her second feature, ‘Paroma’ in 1984, an avowedly feminist film, set in a large aristocratic family of Kolkata. A married woman, approaching middle age is a kingpin, she caters to everybody’s whims, fancies and needs and carries out numerous other chores dutifully. A young photographer visits the family and while taking her photos, seduces her, taking advantage of her emotional void. Companionship leads to secret sexual indulgence which gets known and causes a scandal. The photographer flees, leaving her to the family’s animosity and hatred. She tries to commit suicide in the bathroom but is prevented in time. A fall there calls for an emergency brain surgery, shaving off hair on her head. A psychiatrist advises her to shed the sense of guilt. She takes up a job to be independent. Only her adolescent daughter gives her company and the two women, critical of male chauvinism, try to be self-reliant. Paroma shocked the Bengali middle class and accusations of introducing permissiveness raged in Kolkata Press for some time.

Two other significant films by her – ‘Sati’ (1989) and Paromitar Ek Din (1999) also made it to the Indian Panorama. ‘Sati’ is a pathetic story of a mute girl, married to a tree and dying with it. Set in the early 19th century, before the British-Indian government banned Sati – the Hindu practice of burning widows on the pyre of their dead husbands – an illiterate deaf and dumb orphan girl is brought up in her uncle’s family in a village. An astrologer predicts that whosoever she is married to will die. She is married to a banyan tree in childhood on a schoolteacher’s suggestion that after it died as per prediction, she could be married to a man. She treats it as a husband, showers affection on it and keeps her things in its nooks and corners, in sunshine and shower, it gives her shelter underneath. The teacher takes advantage of her situation and one day, when she escorts him to his solitary hut, rapes and impregnates her. When it gets known, her uncle’s family turns against her. They give her a potion to abort the foetus and keep her in a cowshed. When the family is asleep, a storm blows away the cowshed and terrified, she takes refuse on the tree which is shattered by a lightning, also killing her. Thus she becomes a different kind of ‘Sati’.

‘Yuganta’ got released in 1996 with a single theme of growing alienation of married couples in the pursuit of money and power. Deepak (Anjan Dutta) and Anasuya (Rupa Ganguly) are an estranged couple, now leading separate lives in Cuttack and Bombay. They meet again after 18 months of separation at a small fishing village where they had once honeymooned. Though driven apart by their careers, Deepak and Anasuya realize that their feelings for each other have not changed, and slowly they struggle for reconciliation.
Her next film Paromitar Ek Din is about a young educated woman who being unable to adjust to her incompatible husband, gets a divorce but retains good relation with an understanding and sympathetic mother-in-law. A spastic son that she begot dies, making the bond with her husband even more fragile. She gets a job in an advertising firm, falls in love with a start filmmaker and eventually marries him. She keeps in touch with the family whose problems multiply. Her friendship with mother-in-law survives all tragedies and on her death bed, she finds place in being looked after by her former daughter-in-law. The film is too morbid but contains one of the best performers by Mrs Sen in the role of the ageing mother-in-law.

Mr & Mrs Iyer followed next in 2003 featuring her daughter Konkana. It is about a young Tamil wife’s unspoken amour for a Muslim Press Photographer in the backdrop of Hindu-Muslim riots raging on a part of their bus route from a hill station to a railway station where they take train for Kolkata. There being no male escort for the wife and her baby, the Muslim youth is requested to look after her up to Kolkata. Hindu fanatics board the bus and force the Muslim passengers to alight after examining all of them naked. When they come to the Muslim youth, the Tamil woman says that he is her husband, Mr. Iyer. Then the armed fanatics spare him but kill the other Muslim travelers. Because of raging riots, the bus stops at a place before evening. Police and forest officers escort the couple and keep them in a bungalow where they sleep separately. Next day, they travel to a railway station, from there availing an express train, they reach Kolkata safely and go their ways, exchanging wistful glances.

In 2005, she made another successful film 15 Park Avenue. It centers around the relationship between a girl, Meethi (Konkona Sen Sharma) suffering from schizophrenia and her sister Anjali (Shabana Azmi). Meethi hails from an upper middle class family, fraught with a complex relationship structure. She is the child through the second marriage of her mother and this is not explored much in details.

Anu, her elder sister, is a Professor of Physics at University who is shown to be intellectual and practical, however, the paradox of her character becomes obvious when she decides to forsake her personal life for her ailing younger sister. This shows her in a different light. According to Anu who tells her doctor Kunal Barva (Dhritiman Chatterjee) that Meethi developed this mental disorder after a traumatic gang rape by political goons during Meethi’s work assignment. She often lapses into incoherent delusions about a happy family and children which have been her erstwhile dreams, while in reality, her fiancé Jojo (Rahul Bose) backs out from the relationship, clutching on to these straws, she desperately looks for her home – 15 Park Avenue – where she feels she will be at peace.

The Japanese wife released in 2008 revolves around the story of a young village school teacher (Rahul Bose) marrying his Japanese pen friend (Chigusa Takaku) over letters and remaining true and loyal to her throughout his life, while actually never meeting her at all.

Snehmoy (Rahul Bose) and Miyage (Chigusa Takaku) are pen friends who exchange wedding vows through letters. Fifteen years pass but they never met a single time. Yet the bond of marriage is strong between them. This unusual relationship comes under a cloud when a young widow, Sandhya (Raima Sen), comes to stay with Snehmoy along with her eight year old son (Rudranil Ghosh). Snehmoy and the little boy bond and the arithmetic teacher discovers the joy of palpable bonds and fatherhood. There develops an inexplicable thread of understanding with Sandhya too.

Films Made By Aparna Sen at a glance:

36 Chowringhee Lane (1981)
Paroma (1984)
Sati (1989)
Yugant (1995)
Paromitar EK Din (2000)
Mr & Mrs Iyer (2002)
15 Park Avenue (2005)
The Japanese Wife (2008)

Chowringhee Lane: The story of a woman’s loneliness and self-resilience

The film portrays the lonely personal life of an English teacher, Violet Stoneham, the character of whom is played by Jennifer Kendal. It is a woman dominated film because out of its three main characters, two are women. Violet’s only obsession and joy is teaching Shakespeare despite the lack of interest from the students. The psycho-analytic study of Violet is the focal point of this film and her life of alienation from the people of the society. On the other hand, the two persons in love with each other, who are on the verge of marriage, reflect the universal law of the necessity of two opposite sexes and the equal role in a society. The film in the form of the main character highlights the pros and cons of the upper class educated individuals. Though the young couple, Samaresh and Nandita, play a second fiddle to Violet, notwithstanding, their well-times opportunism to steer clear of Violet who loved and befriended them points out a very basic clandestine human nature of mean mindedness.

Paroma: A Married Woman’s Unconventional Attempt Against Formidable Patriarchy.

In Paroma, Aparna Sen experimented with such a theme that is very rarely seen in the film of 80’s and 90’s. In this film the character Paroma, played by Rakhee Gulzar put the women community on a new pedestal. A 40 year old married woman’s surreptitious desire to look glamorous and a penchant for extramarital affair gets a major setback at the hand of her family members. But the film is a bold attempt in establishing woman’s rights and freedom in the society against the patriarchal family system. It also shows how women irrespective of her status in the family had to brook a mental and physical humiliation due to her least deviation from subordination and conventional pattern ingrained in the society by the male from the past. At the family rejection to accept her, Paroma tried to commit suicide to flee from the male dictated social norms and had to shave off hair of her head for a brain surgery which symbolically insinuates the atonement of her sinful affair and finally she got mental support of her daughter and they remain self-reliant.

Communal Riot: A Cancer to the Nation – The Iyer Realism

Mr & Mrs Iyer deals with a theme that is very much sensitive to the people of India – Communal Riots. Any feeling and sentiment against a particular religion or community is enough to launch a thousand ships. The film has been set in the backdrop of Hindu-Muslim riot that triggered violence and massacre among the people of both religious communities. Notwithstanding, love has been a guiding force and divine inspiration in most of the films made by Aparna Sen. It is love that provides mental solace and brings together the other characters in the form of mother, husband, daughter, stranger to each other conspicuously. A young Tamil woman’s unspoken amour for a Muslim youth who is miraculously saved by the woman from the Hindu fanatics is also very touching. Though violence and bloodshed gripped the entire film, yet the broadmindedness and presence of mind of the woman for the youth is the moral lesson that the audience must have discovered after watching the film.

Deep rooted superstition Against Women in Sati

‘Sati’ is a film which has a historical reality in India. Made in the year 1989 when the cruel social-practice of ‘Sati’ was still reported in various parts of the country. It was set in the early 19th century before the British-Indian government banned it – the Hindu practice of burning widows on the pyre of their dead husbands. The film has shown very blatantly how a superstition had been converted into a social custom at a time in the past. It was abolished due to the unflagging effort of social reformer, Raja Rammohan Roy. A deaf and mute girl’s marrying a banyan tree at the suggestion of her teacher and her faithful devotion to it has a symbolic significance. Being raped and impregnated by her teacher not only shows how women are vulnerable to the male but also snatches her life after the rejection of her family to accept her. The cruelty to woman even by the family members by giving her a potion for abortion has not escaped from the critical and investigative eyes of the director.

Platonic Love: Its Advantage & Agony in The Japanese Wife

In ‘The Japanese Wife’, Aparna Sen explores love with a different concept to bring back the myth of what is known as ‘Platonic or Spiritual love’. Here the love of a school teacher to his Japanese pen friend and later marrying her over letters is something the modern audience may consider out of sorts. Sen here advocates very categorically in favor of the mystery of love that can be achieved and maintained through hearty communications. But this unusual relationship comes under a cloud and melts away when the teacher comes into contact with a young widow, Sandhya along with her 8 year old son. In this context, his former platonic love for his Japanese friend and sweetheart gets defeated to the newly found person of attachment in the company of the widow. He also gets the feelings of fatherhood and a strong bond of relationship in the company of the little boy. This film is the epitome of true and pure love and relationship among human beings that make the film a realistic and worthy to watch.

The Treatment on the Theme of Love, Relationship & Womanhood

Almost all the films of Aparna Sen portray love as a focal theme. Be it ‘Paroma’, ‘Sati’ or ‘Paromitar Ek Din’, the treatment of love – both physical and spiritual has put the films on the citadel of success and pinnacle of glory. Love between husband and wife, between mother and daughter, between two unknown individuals has been beautifully highlighted through dialogue and dramatization of the characters.

The theme of relationship among various characters also is an another admiring aspect of the films. ‘The Japanese Wife’ for instance, is such a film that glorifies spiritual love giving rise to a very good social relationship between two individuals never met each other before.

Irrespective of the themes, every film of Aparna Sen focuses on women issues and how the male-dominated society treats and perceives them. Being a feminist herself, Sen was invariably vocal on women’s freedom and their equality in the eyes of the society. Her films are also the burning document, depicting women’s predicament and unbearable suffering from the superstitious and narrow-minded people of the society.


Filmmaking in Bengal has a long illustrious history since the time of Oscar winning director Satyajit Ray who revolutionized the film making in India and put the Bengali to the pedestal of global cinema. Since then, the cinema grew into maturity in the hands of some outstanding filmmakers that include – Mrinal Sen, Tiwik Ghatak, Tapan Sinha, Buddhadeb Dasgupta, Gautam Ghosh, Rituparno Ghosh etc. But among them Aparna Sen became the lone woman from Bengal to tread the laborious path of filmmaking after her successful acting career in a large number of Bengali movies.

As a filmmaker of what is known as ‘Offbeat Cinema’, she picked up the subject of the films very judiciously that earned her success in the very first film ‘36 Chowringhee Lane’ in 1981. Sen explored some social phenomena in her films which are more than reality and have proper justification and credibility. Her films move the psyche of the audience and touch their conscience since they delineate the naked reality and some dreadful social customs perpetuated by the male. Her films would be a constant source of inspiration for the budding filmmakers of the present and future generation as well.


More by :  Moloy Bhattacharya

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Views: 3599      Comments: 2

Comment Thanks a lot, Anuradha Bhattacharya madam for your precious feedback......

Moloy Bhattacharya
31-Jul-2014 13:08 PM

Comment A good analysis.

Anuradha Bhattacharyya
30-Jul-2014 12:44 PM

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