A still from the documentary
Aparna Sen, movie star, ace filmmaker, successful magazine editor and active civil society leader, has had an incredibly eventful and diverse career. A documentary chronicling her life and times was long overdue. But that certainly isn't the only reason why Suman Ghosh's Parama: A Journey with Aparna Sen, should be essential viewing.
Straddling a wide gamut - from the personal and professional to the political and public - and employing a wide range of interviews and reminiscences of notable contemporaries, Parama: A Journey with Aparna Sen throws light on an accomplished filmmaker, her significant body of work and the complexities of the times that she lives and works in.
Suman Ghosh, who cast Aparna Sen alongside Soumitra Chatterjee in Basu Poribar (2018), has produced a deft 81-minute cinematic document that encapsulates the varied facets of one of India's foremost filmmakers. The female gaze and the primacy of films that put women at their centre are inevitably mentioned, but Ghosh, taking a cue from the subject's stand on the matter, does not unduly foreground Sen's gender.
It isn't just women who bring the female gaze to cinema, several male filmmakers do it too, Aparna Sen suggests. Late in the film, she says she considers her feminism as part of her humanism. Ghosh captures the core of Sen's worldview in his illuminating portrait of a woman and a film director who thrives on engaging with the world around her on her own terms.
Parama: A Journey with Aparna Sen premiered at the International Film Festival Rotterdam 2024 as part of the Cinema Regained strand along with one of Sen's most celebrated films, Parama (1985), a feminist drama that was way, way ahead of its time.
Ghosh, who is currently particularly busy having crafted two feature films (The Scavenger of Dreams and Kabuliwala) in the past year besides being in the middle of his next film (Puratawn) starring Sharmila Tagore, interlocks several approaches in the exercise to try and grasp the entirety - and enormity - of Aparna Sen the person and the creative force.
The film provides a quick overview of Aparna Sen's career as an actor in commercial Bengali cinema in the 1970s and 1980s - she needed work because, as she says, she was unlucky with her marriages and had to look after her children and put food on the table - before plunging into her formidable work as a film director who took next to no time to establish herself.
Sen's elder daughter Kamalini Chatterjee speaks of the transformation that she would notice in her mother when she would make a film. Acting was just work for her, but when she directed a film, she was fully consumed, she says.
Ghosh, who himself conducts the interviews, uses an array of voices - filmmaker Goutam Ghose, actors Shabana Azmi, Anjan Dutt, Rituparna Sengupta, Koushik Sen and Rahul Bose, musician Debojyoti Mishra, cinematographer Soumik Haldar, film editor Rabiranjan Moitra, daughter and actor-director Konkona Sensharma, filmmaker and ex-journalist Sudeshna Roy, film scholar Samik Bandopadhyay and Sen's husband and author Kalyan Ray - to piece together a lively, layered record.
The film touches upon the thought that goes into developing characters, thinking up the music and ensuring a healthy, inclusive atmosphere on the set. It also alludes to Sen's upbringing in a syncretic atmosphere and composite culture and the crises that she encountered on the personal front, all of which impacted her evolution as a creator.
Bookended by a 36 Chowringhee Lane (1981) sequence in which Miss Violet Stoneham (Jennifer Kapoor) alights from a taxi in front of the Victoria Memorial and delivers a monologue as walks on the sidewalk, the documentary takes the veteran filmmaker to the houses in which a few of her iconic films were shot.
As memories are relived, the film looks at the processes behind Sen's craft and incorporates the voices of friends, family and professional associates, many of whom speak with refreshing candour about their engagement with and views on Sen and her work.
While there is no way Suman Ghosh could have delivered an exhaustive account of a substantial voyage in less than an hour and a half, he makes a fine fist of presenting a 360-degree picture of a filmmaker described by Shabana Azmi as one of the best in the country.
The film isn't a puff job by any stretch of the imagination. It stays focused on presenting a critical appraisal of the choices that Sen has made. Ghosh asks some pointed questions and receives commensurate answers that serve the purpose of providing a rounded view that has space for the edges when necessary.
Frankness and casual informality inform the thoughts that actors, technicians and friends share about Sen. While one actor says he does not like a bulk of the acting that she has done because it does not reflect the wit and intelligence she possesses in real life, another questions the efficacy of the workshops that the director does ahead of every film with the help of theatre personality and friend Sohag Sen (who speaks on camera about Sen's role in shaping her career).
At another point, a question is raised on Sen venturing into direct, thematically overwrought methods in her recent films. Ghawre Bairey Aaj (2019) and The Rapist (2022). While Ghosh holds that the two giants of Bengali cinema, Mrinal Sen and Satyajit Ray, also succumbed to the same shift in their later years, Shabana Azmi says that the latter-day Shyam Benegal, too, let "cause" overpower his cinema.
Konkona Sensharma, extensively interviewed for the film, theatre personality Koushik Sen and Shabana Azmi (who played the lead in 1989's Sati and then shared screen space with Sen in 2017's Sonata, both of which find mention in the film) agree that she may have sacrificed the nuances of her earlier films in favour of more unsubtle methods but, as they point out, not entirely without reason.
A few of the films find pride of place in the documentary - 36 Chowringhee Lane(1981), Sen's directorial debut, Parama, which Ghosh describes as her "most stridently feminist film", Paramitar Ek Din (2000) and Mr. and Mrs. Iyer (2002). References are also made to The Japanese Wife (2010), Iti Mrinalini (2011), Goynar Baksho (2013), Arshinagar (2015) and Sen's two latest films - Ghawre BaireyAaj (2019) and The Rapist (2022).
While one may wonder why Yugant and 15 Park Avenue, important films in Aparna Sen's oeuvre, are missing from the discussion here, what the documentary does have is enough to make it a worthwhile journey.