36 Chowringhee Lane (India 1981)

Aparna Sen

Aparna Sen

Another trip to the bargain bin to consider a 2006 DVD release of a film from 1981 on a discount label. I chose to watch this because I so enjoyed the writer-director Aparna Sen’s Mr & Mrs Iyer. The film is one of three titles issued as a kind of Shashi Kapoor trilogy on the Prism Leisure/Odyssey Quest label. The star from India’s acting dynasty does not appear in this one, but he produced it and his wife Jennifer Kendal took the lead role. Kapoor gives an interesting short interview on the DVD.

’36 Chowringhee Lane’ is an address in Calcutta in the late 1970s – the home of an ageing Anglo-Indian schoolteacher, Miss Violet Stoneham. She lives alone with her cat, Sir Toby and she teaches Shakespeare to classes of younger girls who pay little attention. Her niece writes to her from abroad and her brother is gradually declining in a nursing home. One day this lonely woman meets one of her ex-students, Nandita and her boyfriend, Samaresh. They realise that her flat, empty during the day when she is at school, would make a perfect love-nest and they persuade her that Samaresh is an aspiring writer who can’t work at home. We fear for Violet, but she seems happy with the arrangement, especially when the couple take her out around the city in gratitude. Where will it all end . . . ?

I thought this was a wonderful film, beautifully made with an extraordinary performance by Jennifer Kendal (playing older than her years). It’s a very sad film, human and affecting. It’s staggering to think that this was the first writing and directing role for Aparna Sen. She was by this time a highly skilled actor and much must have rubbed off from the work of her directors. Her film is in many ways quite old-fashioned with shots and sequences which might have come from Satyajit Ray and other Indian masters, but also a surrealist sequence in black and white which is straight from attempts at modernism in European cinema. The sense of ‘pastness’ also comes from the muted and muddied colours (the DVD was presumably produced from a rather battered 35mm master). But it also comes from the sense of decay and desolation which permeates the images of Calcutta as experienced by Miss Stoneham.

The film is part of the long series of films exploring the end of the raj – or rather the slow decline of the British presence in India in the thirty years following independence. The Kendal family of actors were themselves a central part of Indian theatre from the 1930s through to the 1960s and this film is rather strangely announced as being ‘presented by Merchant Ivory’, the production partnership that made many such films around this time. The decline of British ideas is played out in many ways, but perhaps most obviously in the school, where a new Indian principal promotes a young Indian graduate to take over Miss Stoneham’s Shakespeare classes and whose overall approach drives another of the Anglo-Indian teachers to emigrate to Canada.

The difficult position of the Anglo-Indians is a central discourse in the film. I’ve seen some references to Anglo-Indians as simply British people living in India, but the term properly refers to mixed race families who under the raj were given access to professional jobs in the railways, customs etc., which Indians found difficult to enter before 1947. After independence the Anglo-Indians were caught between two national cultures, neither of which wanted to claim them. Jennifer Kendal uses an accent and general way of speaking that corresponds to an Anglo-Indian type. Her eventual fate is as much connected to racial identity as it is to age and spinsterhood.

In the DVD interview, Shashi Kapoor remarks that though the film did reasonably well in the UK and was praised by some critics in India it wasn’t seen by the mass audience. I think this is a shame as it deals with an important aspect of Indian social history (as well as being an excellent film). There are some Indian reviews that are worth pursuing including http://parallelcinema.blogspot.com/2005/07/36-chowringhee-lane-1981.html

Definitions of parallel cinema are hard to come by. I think this film qualifies as its roots are in the classical art film tradition of Bengal. As befits the Anglo-Indian milieu (English as a first language), the language of the film is predominantly English with snatches of Bengali and Hindi.

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