Aparna Sen’s (Iti Mrinalini) had its U. S. Premiere at IFFLA on Thursday, April 14th. It was well attended as expected though the star-director was not attending. It would have been good to have Aparna Sen there, as some questions are so touchy you ought to ask the director, presuming they answer such questions forthrightly in the follow-up discussions.
This is a film in Bengali language, about an ageing actress who is denied a role, even by a young director who seems to be in her inner, personal space with some intimate relationship. That failure likely triggers off a series of reminiscences in the actress and she begins to pen a letter, her last before she takes a whole bottle of pills of some kind. The film is a collection of these sub-stories of her life, in a rather classical style, without any stylistic surprises or twists. It turns out to be a typical life for an attractive actress who is making it on her own, facing debauchery, betrayal, exploitation, along with opportunities that make her shine on the screen, winning awards and accolades. She grins through it all, keeping her faith in the man who clearly has a wife and a family and has lies that seem believable to a gullible young actress. At some point in her life, under the guidance of a gentle and unusually kind author, she seems to find the light at the end of her suffering and takes charge of her own life.
Through it all, there is a tragedy in her life as she bears a child with this director but cannot bring it out in the open, for the fear of a scandal that would tarnish their careers. She dispatches this child to the family of her brother in Canada since he is childless. The young girl keeps returning to meet her mother under some guise until she figures it out herself that her real mother is the one in India. Startling secret this is and even more painful a move for anyone to give up her child for the sake of career and then keep seeing her again and again. Even when she finds out, the young Mrinalini Mitra, is remarkably stoic, almost to the point of accepting the inevitability but without any emotional quake that would jolt a real mother.
Aparna Sen’s daughter Konkana Sen Sharma is in young Mrinalini’s role. Though she has less theatrical, less camera-conscious disposition than her mother, the range of her emotional skills goes from A to C or likely D. We have seen quite a few films in our time in Indian cinema that depict the lives of actresses who’ve been abused by men and by the brutality of system that had no sensitivity to women working in the industry. This isn’t one of them.
Aparna Sen is the main interlocutor in this film, commanding the pivotal point for flashbacks to her own life story. Given that and at this stage of her career, it begs the question if this film is autobiographical. There are some references here and there, including in Screen International and if she were in the audience, it is an easy guess what question would come from the viewers. I am not familiar with her life story so little can I say about it. But there were some references to her life stories and those raised a question. In this film, elder Mrinalini says she gave up acting for many reasons, among them not getting a call from Satyajit Ray. As we see the newsreel footage of his funeral procession, her recollection is about how she gave up faith in her roles and quit acting. First, I thought could be a clever postmodern device, to claim something by denying it, lacing facts and fiction together to dislocate the viewer from his unitary, stable position. But the film has nothing else to offer along these lines. This could well be a device to distance herself from the impression/accusation that this is an autobiographical film, while much of the rest continues to be so. To that end too, it is clever. This is all about Mrinalini/Aparna Sen. Historical incidents keep coming up, including the Air India crash over the Atlantic that took many lives. There are similar clues to the Golden Temple events and others. And the central focus is about an actress who is remembering a life that was a series of tragic events. But the acts of recollection gives Mrinalini gives a reason to live; as we keep looking for any depth that is either about being a woman in the film industry or an actress that is in the midst of ruthless maneuvers or some sort of awakening that brings her life into a new light so we know more about women, about the film industry or the women/others who work in it. Instead, we get a portrayal of a life-story that isn’t very different from what we have known these lives to be, with the main protagonist providing no more insights than a series of studied close-ups of her face. This could have been a good one, if it were implemented.