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36 Chowringhee Lane

Aparna Sen

● Born on 25 October 1945 in a Calcutta family connected to the film industry. Her
father Chidananda Dasgupta was a celebrated film-historian, critic and filmmaker. He
was one of Satyajit Ray‘s close friends, and it was with Ray that Aparna Sen made her
acting debut (Teen Kanya)
● In her early youth, Sen was impressed by European cinema which strongly affected
her views on cinema.
● In 1981, Sen made her debut film as a director. The film was 36 Chowringhee Lane,
and the screenplay was also written by her. The film narrates a year in the life of an
aged Anglo-Indian school teacher who is befriended by a Bengali couple.
● Sen won the National Award for the Best Director for this film, which also won the
Grand Prix (the Golden Eagle) at the Manila International Film Festival. The film
announced her arrival as a major filmmaker, focusing especially on women‘s issues.
Sen followed up this early success with several other films, notably Parama (1984),
Sati (1989) and Yugant (1995). Her other films include Paromitar Ek Din, Mr. and
Mrs. Iyer, 15 Park Avenue, The Japanese Wife, Iti Mrinalini, Goynar Baksho and
Sonata.
● Sen has been trained in the art of realistic cinema and performance. The tradition of
Indian parallel cinema started with Satyajit Ray, Mrinal Sen, Ritwik Ghatak and has
been advanced by Shyam Benegal, Girish Kanrad, Adoor Gopalakrishnan, Ketan
Mehta, Mani Kaul, and Kumar Shahani. This tradition takes a leap with a host of very
talented women filmmakers of whom Sen is one of the most prominent.
● She is the winner of nine National Film Awards and nine international film festival
awards for her direction in films. She was awarded the Padma Shri in 1987.

● Sen is recognized not only for her direction and acting but also as a cultural and
socio-political commentator. She was the editor of Sananda, one of the most
influential women’s magazines in Bengali. Through the magazine’s forum she spoke
on issues such as communalism and sexuality rights.

● Sen’s films have always shaken the Bengali middle class out of their complacence,
not only by naturalizing sexual desires, but also by weaving their narratives around
images of war, terrorist and communal violence and concerns for environmental
degradation, subjects which are not so frequently spoken among middle class. Each
of her films constantly returns to the peripheries of society, turning the search lights
on the underprivileged.

Sati (another of Sen’s movies)


● Released in 1989, the film Sati presents a mute village girl of 19th century Bengal,
who is married to a tree to be saved from untimely widowhood, as is predicted in
her horoscope.
● Being mute, orphan Uma has been exploited by her extended family. She does all the
household chores without complains but is still considered to be a burden due to her
disability. She is unworthy of marriage—due to her disability and poverty.
● However, Sen carefully secures a space for the expression of Uma’s desire. Her silent
body expresses an urge to be loved and caressed, manifests anger at the verbal and
physical abuses of her family and shows the power to nurture and care by hugging
her tree husband or taking care of the cattle.
● When the “respected” village school master has a forced sex with her in the absence
of his wife, Uma returns to him for her sexual gratification. Uma’s pregnancy
banishes her from her family to a cowshed. She dies in a stormy night being crushed
by the huge tree, supposedly her husband.
● Uma fails to avoid her fate reserved for her by patriarchy, religion, and history but
Sen highlights her qualities that remain unaffected by her muteness. As a daughter
she serves her family, as a faithful “wife,” she does not leave her tree-husband in the
face of danger, and as a loving human being, she shares her unconditional love for
helpless creatures.
● Uma’s silence can be read as a metaphorical silencing of many helpless girls who
were burnt alive in the pyres of their deceased husbands during the nineteenth
century.
● Sen does not ignore the double marginalization a disabled woman experiences in a
society where women are already subalterns with a limited power of speech.

36 Chowringhee Lane

● 36 Chowringhee Lane has at its centre Violet Stoneham, a lonely middle-aged Anglo-
Indian school teacher.
● According to K Moti Gokulsing and Wimal Dissanayake, “Anglo-Indians...although
they adopted British ways of life, wore western clothes, ate Western food, and took
Christian names, but they were not considered fully British by the Indians or the
British
● Violet is shown as leading a lonely, uneventful existence. Her relatives and loved
ones have already left the city for greener pastures abroad. Her only companion is a
black cat Toby. She teaches Shakespeare to a bunch of indifferent, giggly students at
one of Calcutta‘s English medium schools. The only two pleasurable constants in her
life are reading the letters of her niece Rosemary and visiting her ailing brother
Eddie, in an old-age home, every Thursday.
● The narrative of the film revolves around Miss Stoneham’s encounter with Samaresh
and Nandita (her former student), a young Bengali couple, and the changes that they
bring into her life. Returning home from church on a Christmas Day, Violet runs into
Nandita (Debashree Roy), and her author-boyfriend Samaresh (Dhritiman
Chatterjee), and invites them over for coffee. They accept her invitation after some
initial hesitation. However, they quickly realize that Violet's apartment would be
convenient for their tête-à-têtes while she is away at work. When Samaresh requests
the use of Violet's apartment during school hours, saying that he would like to work
on his novel, she agrees. For some time, this arrangement works to the benefit of all.
Samaresh and Nandita get the privacy they desperately seek, and Violet has
company when she returns home from work. Over time, she grows very fond of
them, and begins to look upon them as her friends. Nandita and Samaresh
accompany her on walks and bring her dinner from restaurants; she plays old
records for their entertainment. Violet’s life is again filled with delight, and she even
forgets to pay her weekly visit to her brother.
● Meanwhile, the atmosphere in school is beginning to turn sour for Violet. A new
head of the English department is appointed, a young Indian teacher with the right
professional qualifications, but very little experience. Violet is ordered to confine her
teaching to English grammar and not teach literature. As her brother becomes
feebler, he grows more irritable. One day she returns to her apartment unexpectedly
and finds out for what purpose the young couple had been using her apartment.
Events take a turn for the worse: Eddie dies, and her last link with the Anglo-Indian
world is severed. Samaresh and Nandita get married, and move on with their lives.
Violet wants to meet them on Christmas Day, and bake them a cake. They have a
party organized at home, however, and think she would be 'a fish out of water' if
invited. So they lie about not being in town during Christmas. Violet comes over, any
way, to drop off the cake on Christmas Day, and finally sees that she has been
deceived by them.
● The final scene of the film shows Violet reciting aloud from King Lear, with her only
audience being a stray dog. She quotes from act 4, scene 7 ("Pray do not mock: / I
am a very foolish fond old man") and from act 5, scene 3 ("Come, let's away to
prison. / We two alone will sing like birds i' th' cage"). Followed by the dog, Miss.
Stoneham vanishes into the shadows of the winter night. The film concludes with a
still shot of a dark and empty street.
● As Baradwaj Rangan points out, "Like Lear, Miss Stoneham trusts the wrong people,
and like Lear, her faith in them is betrayed, and like Lear, she is enfeebled by sorrow
and self-pity".

Analysis

● The plight of a fast-depleting Anglo-Indian community in postcolonial Calcutta.


● Christmas-to-Christmas is the time frame of the film. It is also a leitmotif. It forms the
opening and near-closure of the film’s narrative space. Though the actual time-span
of the film covers one year, the narrative is telescopic, moving back and forth into
the past, back to the present and into the past again.
● Through a strategic use of light and shade, Aparna Sen makes the “unhomely”
moments in Miss Stoneham’s life more pronounced.
● The title of the film ‘36 Chowringhee Lane’ brings out Miss Stoneham‘s location in a
dark, dingy two-roomed flat in crowded central Calcutta.
● The title sequence - Violet dozing off on a rickshaw after a long day of teaching,
travelling through the narrow streets of Calcutta only to be confronted by an ‘out of
order’ sign on her lift - signals her isolation and dull existence.
● The school sequences are framed keeping the socio-cultural binaries in mind, where
the old Anglo-Indian school teacher is pushed to the margin, while the center is
occupied by Indian students and Indian teachers. Despite the medium of instruction
being English, Miss Stoneham’s European lineage and English mother-tongue hardly
get any recognition. Her students are inattentive and disrespectful, and her
colleagues indifferent and heartless. The new Principal calls for a faculty meeting and
places the young Miss. Mazumder as the departmental head for having academic
degrees, and strategically demotes Miss Stoneham from taking Shakespeare in
higher classes to teaching grammar to lower classes. Miss Stoneham responds with a
shocking look that immediately subsides to a blank, disinterested look outside the
glass window, watching the school girls play.
● Furthermore, the flashback sequences with Rosemary depict Miss Stoneham’s social
dislocation. The flashback depicts Stoneham interacting with Rosemary, who is
preparing for her upcoming marriage to a Bengali man. The next flashback shows
bitter, chain-smoking Rosemary, whose engagement has been broken because of
certain obstacles faced with her fiancé’s family. Rosemary ends up marrying another
Anglo-Indian and moving with him to Australia, telling her aunt Violet as she
abandons her. “Do you think I want to end up like you, sixty years old in a lonely old
flat and then in old people’s home?” The dismal, scary image of social exclusion
unsettles Miss Stoneham. While climbing down the stairs of the Old Age Home, she
is suddenly frightened by the sight of an old lady climbing up the stairs towards her.
As she rushes down the stairs, she looks back, only to find the old lady laughing at
her. This distorted and debilitated image of the old lady makes Miss Stoneham face
another “unhomely” moment of her life. Moreover, the staccato sound of Miss
Stoneham‟s heels on the wooden stairs of the Old Age Home makes the experience
of the “unhomely” moment more traumatic.
● Another instance of “unhomeliness” appears in a surreal sequence in which Miss
Stoneham dreams of her deceased fiancé, Davy. Violet and Davy are running through
an open field when Davy vanishes. Alarmed, Violet calls out for him. Her childhood
home then appears in the shadows. She approaches and opens the door, but the
house turns out to be simply a facade. Beyond the door lies nothing but the churning
ocean and the howling wind. Violet walks to the beach, where a funeral service is
taking place. Nandita and Samaresh are in attendance, and we hear a slow, funereal
organ version of Mendelssohn’s “Wedding March” from A Midsummer Night’s
Dream, played in a minor key. Violet is now wearing bridal attire, and we hear a
voice-over of wedding vows between Violet and Davy, who are again filmed in the
shadows. Before the vows can be completed, however, machine guns fire; young
Violet screams, and her veil is torn. All the characters vanish into darkness –
represents Miss Stoneham’s unfulfilled past.
● Images of frost, mist and darkness continue as the film reaches its climax. Miss
Stoneham visits the house of Samaresh and Nandita with a Christmas cake, though
she has already been informed by the couple that they would be out of town on
Christmas evening. Miss Stoneham merely wishes to drop the cake so as to give the
couple a pleasant surprise once they return home. However, as she walks closer to
the house, she is shocked to find the couple holding a grand Christmas party. Unseen
by Samaresh and Nandita, Miss Stoneham stands alone in the darkness of the night,
looking inside through a frosty window. It is her own records which are being played
on her own phonogram. These were her generous gifts to the newlywed couple in
the past. However, she remains standing today, forlorn and dejected, out in the cold,
misty night.
● The “unhomely” moment becomes poignant as Miss Stoneham walks away and the
camera gradually recedes, shifting its focus from the center of the window to its
periphery. At the background the phonogram plays “Silent night, holy night”.
Shocked, betrayed Miss Stoneham takes a cab. The next shot takes us to a desolate
Victoria Memorial, where Miss Stoneham steps down from the cab. The impact of
“unhomeliness” is made more intense by the stillness that infuses the place. Miss
Stoneham sits outside the Memorial and thinks aloud, reconsidering the proposal
that her niece, Rosemary has given her about moving to Australia: “I never thought I
would want to leave the land of my birth, but now…”
● The false sense of security that Miss Stoneham had associated so long with her
acceptance of Calcutta as “home” and Samaresh and Nandita as companions is
punctured as questions of roots and identity glare at her. Neither can she retreat to
her safe, private European world, nor can she contest with mainstream Bengali
community from her minority status. Her present now stands in a ruptured state.
● Nandita and Samaresh, belonging to the mainstream Bengali Hindu community in
Kolkata, emerge as insensitive, heartless people.They are more English in certain
ways than Miss Stoneham is. Samaresh quotes Shakespeare freely, writes poetry in
English and when his slim volume of poems is published, he calls it, “Calcutta: If You
Must Exile Me”. He celebrates his new job with Chinese food and wine at Miss
Stoneham’s flat. Both Samaresh and Nandita are liberal about sex, freely indulging in
love-making, outside the legal sanction of marriage, in the privacy of Miss
Stoneham’s flat. When married, they hold party on New Year’s Eve and play the
same English records on the same phonograph, which Stoneham gifted them as a
wedding present. They represent the neo English educated Bengali Hindus of the
milieu, who prioritize self-interest and materialism over human emotions, whose
mastery over the English language gives them a false sense of pride and
complacency. They seem to have little regard for Miss Stoneham’s old age and
sentiments and instead of appreciating and protecting her Anglo-Indian identity,
they do their best to usurp it, by using her domestic space, gulping her food and
wine, extracting her English records and phonograph and finally betraying her trust.
● The Anglo-Indian community, Aparna Sen seems to point out blatantly, after more
than thirty years of Indian independence, is neglected and pushed to the margin by
the dominant, mainstream community of the Kolkata population - a reverse
colonisation has taken place where the Anglo-Indians are marginalized.
● Though very reluctant to call herself a feminist, Sen’s films depict the challenges of
being a woman in a gendered and hyper-patriarchal Indian society. Her female
protagonists are “not merely products of the feminist movements in India – their
sense of agency might have been influenced by the social climate, but their
negotiation of that agency is unique to their specific circumstances”.