After beginning her career with directors like Satyajit Ray and Mrinal Sen, Aparna Sen has over 60 Bengali and Hindi films, and around 16 directorial ventures, to her credit. In conversation with Sagorika Dasgupta, the veteran actor, writer and filmmaker speaks about her upcoming film Chatuskone, and the changing face of the Bengali film industry
What attracted you to this film?
Well, one of the things that really attracted me to the film was the fact that I was going to play a director. I have portrayed several characters in my life but I have never ‘acted’ as a director. So I thought it would be interesting to actually live my off-screen persona on screen. I wanted to see if I could pull off the role and things did turn out quite well. Also, I liked the fact that it was a story about these four directors who are asked to make a film each on the common theme of death and then the sudden twist in the tale. I liked that element very much.
Since you play a director in the film, how much of the real you did you bring to your character?
My personal history and the personal history of the character Trina is very different. The director Srijit (Mukherjee) wanted me to play the character the way I am in real life, to a certain extent. He asked me to wear the clothes I wear in real life, the kind of sarees I wear, the way I dress… And he asked me to behave more like a diva than I actually am! (Laughs)
Srijit worked as an assistant director on one of your films, Iti Mrinalini, and he has directed you in this film. What was that like?
I didn’t look at it that way. I am very disciplined. I took in his inputs and behaved like an actor and the way he wanted me to since he was directing the film. Srijit was very easy to work with, so there were no differences of opinion. We agreed on pretty much most things.
How much has he learnt from you and how do you assess him as a director?
I wouldn’t want to comment on how much he has learnt. But he knows his craft well. As a director, you learn the finer details of your craft in your first film and he has directed so many films, which were all good. The mark of a good director is whether you can visualise what you have on paper and translate that on screen. And I think he can do that quite well. Even though the kind of films he makes is very different from the films I make, he usually has some sort of twist in the tale. And he sticks to that. He is also very consistent with his style.
Chatuskone has already released in Bengal on September 26. What was the response like there?
I believe it’s been good. I haven’t been to cinemas, except for one, for the premiere, but a premiere is definitely where you can gauge the audience reaction at large. I definitely want to go to more cinemas and find out how much the audience likes the film. But the overall response, according to the reviews and the producers, has been really good. There are a lot of cinemas which are still playing the film to house-full shows, even in the second week after its release. There have been packed shows so the film is doing quite well by all accounts.
The film is set to release across India on October 31. What kind of potential does a film like this have in markets that are non-Bengali?
To be honest, I really don’t know. I mean, so far I don’t think we have had much success with Bengali films that have released in Hindi markets, even with some of the best directors like Satyajit Ray. Even his Hindi releases didn’t do as well as he had expected them to do. But if these films do well, especially films like Chatuskone, I will be happy!
Since you are a director yourself, do you make films for the Bengal-centric audience?
I really don’t think like that. Often, my stories have really deep Bengali roots but when I make my films, I make them for an ideal audience, maybe an audience which comprises people like me, who share similar tastes with me. And that hasn’t failed me. But I haven’t found Bengali films doing wildly well when released all-India. They could maybe do much better business if they were dubbed in Hindi, just like some Hollywood films which release in India and are dubbed in Hindi as well as regional languages.
Do you take into consideration the commercial aspect of a film when you are directing?
Not really! I haven’t really thought much about how much a film will earn commercially. I think more about the idea that my film would convey to my audience and I don’t underestimate my audience. Over the years, I have realised that I have a niche audience for my films, and they are very loyal. And this is not just in Bengal, but nationally too. I have also made three English films which have received huge acceptance from the national audience and therefore my audience may be small but they are very loyal to me.
How much do you think the Bengali audience has evolved over the years?
There was a time when remakes were quite a popular trend, but I have been against remaking films. Not just other films, I wouldn’t even like the idea of remaking my own films. Remakes imply a lack of fresh ideas, which is why people resort to adapting a tried-and-tested idea. But the Bengali audience has definitely evolved in terms of accepting contemporary ideas in films. The audience has begun to understand a more contemporary cinema language. Srijit’s films, for instance, have new concepts and his films have a lot of gimmicks and in-jokes from the industry and things like that. But the people, especially the city audiences, have evolved enough to understand all that.
How much has the industry changed since your debut in 1961 with Ray’s Teen Kanya?
A distinct change that I have seen is that the audience doesn’t like the kind stories which were narrated through films before. While earlier, the audience would like stories about the Indian middle class, they are now looking for something new. They like the element of surprise and unusual stories. But the biggest change has come about in marketing strategies being used to promote films. People are spending ridiculous sums of money on marketing. Also, the business model has changed so much. I remember when I had directed my second film Paroma. It played at three cinemas simultaneously for more than five weeks and mostly to packed houses, yet we didn’t remove the film and it went on to run much longer. But, now, if a film manages even 100 days or 50, it calls for a huge celebration. I don’t know if these films really make the money they invested in them, such a limited time. I think multiplexes have brought about that change.
Another thing is that for some Bangla films, like Chirodini Tumi Je Amar, which did really well in cities, districts and villages, huge budgets were pumped into production and they also had the muscle to shoot abroad. But they get a lot of rebates from foreign film commissions. Producers also use their budgets judiciously since they don’t take their own equipment and crew for shooting at foreign locales. They save on all the transit costs by hiring local manpower and using equipment locally available. Also, they don’t shoot the entire film abroad; they just shoot the songs and will only shoot during the day to save the cost of lighting. So this is a cost-effective method.
Why aren’t more filmmakers adapting this method of filmmaking?
This is a very commercial way to make films. It doesn’t suit all kinds of stories. Not all stories will allow you to go abroad and showcase new locales. The audience gets to enjoy and experience new destinations through this method and not all Bangla films allow that set-up. After a point, even the average audience gets bored of these songs and the same kind of stories. They want something new in terms of stories.
You have worked with great directors like Satayjit Ray and Mrinal Sen.
How enriching has their association been for you?
That has been a beautiful aspect of my life. Working with Satyajit Ray, you learn a lot about filmmaking, handling the unit, camera angles and what not. He was very particular about detailing and that is something I have inculcated from him. My production design has always been like his. In fact, Srijit commented on that some time ago. And like you were asking what Srijit has learnt from me… one of the things he has learnt from me is production design. I learnt to look at the finer aspects of things because film is a very visual medium and attention to detail adds great value to your film. Also attention to scripting is another thing I learnt from Ray. Having a strong script is like having a firm foundation for your film.
Quite contrary to Ray, Mrinal Sen’s style of working was spontaneous. It was usually quite spontaneous on the sets. But that is something you can’t learn from someone. You have to discover your spontaneity yourself, when you are thrown into a situation like that. You have to find your own source of spontaneity.
You have worked on many films as an actress. What made you turn to direction?
I have always been interested in the films I grew up watching. But the sad part was that I was not really getting to work in the kind of films I liked. I always wanted to tell my own stories and so direction was a natural course. Now that I have tried my hand at both, I enjoy direction most and there are no two ways about that. I like to tell stories that are unusual and out of the ordinary. Like 15 Park Avenue had an ending which was very unrealistic. Also, my film The Japanese Wife. The setting of the story was so unreal… Can you imagine a man being married to a woman for 17 years who he has never met and lives in another country?
Your daughter Konkona (Sen Sharma) has also worked with you in many of your films…
She is a dream actor to work with. Besides the fact that I share a comfort level with her, her acting prowess amazes me. My next project is a film which is a compilation of the works of six Indian directors and six Pakistani directors Saari Raat – A Three Act Play along with Konkona Sen Sharma, Ritwick Chakraborty and Anjan Dutt. Working with her on the film was a real pleasure.
Which of her films are you most proud of?
I think she was brilliant in 15 Park Avenue, for which sadly she didn’t get recognised. She was absolutely brilliant. Another film of hers, which really didn’t do all that well was Laga Chunari Mein Daag. But I thought Konkona was brilliant in it. She was fabulous in Omkara. And not just that, she has been very good in her commercial films like Wake Up Sid too. Another film by Rituporno Ghosh called Sunglass, which was also made in Hindi called Taank Jhaank, I think she was really good in it.
I don’t really keep a track of all her work because she is her own person but she does consult me when she wants to. More than the mother-daughter relationship that we share, she and I are very good friends. I am really happy that she is now planning to turn to direction because she has a natural instinct for storytelling. She knows where to indulge her audience and where to draw the line and not go overboard. She doesn’t go over the top, she has a very good sense of rhythm. So I think she will be a very good director too, just like she is a good actor.