Friday, September 9, 2011

Mr. and Mrs. Iyer

Mr. and Mrs. Iyer, by Aparna Sen India: 2002

for Lyne Beaudry

“Maybe all men got one big soul where every body is part of it. All faces of the same man one big self.” ( Monologue from THE THIN RED LINE by Terrence Malick.)

Mr. And Mrs. Iyer directed by Aparna Sen opens with a collage of news excerpts and different voice over. It deals with communal massacres motivated by religious fundamentalism. It opens the scars of Hindu as well as Muslim fundamentalism perpetrated by political mafias who are at loggerheads over ethnic issues. At the start of the film we confront a little red and white bus appearing coming like a beeline. A voice tells about two strangers, meeting at a bus journey.
But there is also a third opening of the film (before the film begins to tell its story). Meenakshi, a young orthodox Hindu woman from the South, is prepared by her mother for a long trip. Her hair is done by the mother and a lot of rituals are made for the daughter. The daughter being docile but she is sometimes bothered by the verbal didactic her mother. Meenakshi in a bus travels back to her husband in Calcutta with her nearly one year old son.

 A bus terminal where a lot of strangers are waiting for a travel: among others a woman with her adolescent handicapped son, an elderly man with his wife and his sister or two Sikhs. The travellers are like the spectators who are waiting together in front of an entrance of a film theatre. If this accidental group of people becomes fiction, for building up a story, some certain narrative constructions have to be invented. Meenakshi’s father is the forest caretaker of this region. Raja, a liberal open minded Muslim with a Hindu name. He is a wild life photographer (who owes Meenakshi’s father the permission to photograph in this region). He is asked by Meenakshi’s parents to help the young woman who is travelling with a baby and a lot of luggage. Finally the bus and the film begin to move at the same time. While the titles appear we see the bus driving on narrow roads through a green mountain landscape, I feel reminded of the wonderful road movie Arigato-san /Mr. Thank you, Japan by Hiroshi Shimizu.

Our gaze is drawn to slew of persons now stuck into a narrow place. In a cobweb, some situations and funny moments are created which the film begins to unfold with wit. The film captures these different people who are separated by language, age, gender and religion, a mosaic of a human life. Aparna Sen has given these people special characteristics which specify visual memory. Like in the films by Ford, Ozu or Renoir these different ages of a human life develops into a nonverbal correspondence between different age groups. We have 30 minute long bus sequence packed with visual and narrative ideas that give the film an enormous depth. We learn something about the multi-cultural facets of the sub continent India. It also partly highlights the spiritual tenets of the sub continent cinema.
In the necessary reorganization of time, Aparna Sen brings together seeming different visions of cinema. When the interior scenes in the bus appear in real time where every cut means a glance, they are interrupted by panorama shots of the moving bus. This panorama shots mean short but also longer pieces of moving times. That has to do on one hand with “the overcoming of time through space” (Truffaut on Hitchcocks The Birds). The montage in Mr. and Mrs. Iyer is at the same time poetic and analytical. I don't believe there is a real contradiction between a cinema of identification and one of reflection. Mr. and Mrs. Iyer shows how these seeming different attitudes about film making can co-exist side by side.

Aparna Sen seems to move freely in a spiritual landscape that seems to me created by more than 100 years of cinema. And how she brings together the past of narrative cinema with its present is collected in unique connections between the different (life -) times of her characters. These lead to moments which I would like to call pure poetic cinematic moments. There are among others two examples which seem to be plain at the first sight but which are for me reason enough to love this film.
In one scene Meenakshi is in trouble with her crying child. She turns her head behind her, looking for Raja who is placed some rows behind. Directly behind her seat is a young couple (can be identified obviously as Hindus because of the woman´s Bindi). This couple is flirting. We see Meenakshi how she looks at them for a few seconds. For me, this glance has the subtle idea of longing and envying of a woman who is bound in marriage at early stage with motherhood. This glance of just some seconds is intense and unforgettable and gives an idea what a single glance of Konkona Sen Sharma can evoke. She seems to look at another possibility of her life, that she hasn't lived.

The other moment is more complex and a wonderful example how Aparna Sen creates connections among her characters. The old Muslim is grumbling to his wife about the noisy young people. “Let them, it is their time for fun”, she answers. Another time he complains about the “shameless” kind how the girls are dressed. Some moments later, the girl Kushboo takes her guitar and sings a song which includes the phrase “Don't say a word.” The old man gets cheesed off, his face looking dreamy, absent-minded expression. Just a moment ago, he has talked with his wife how they first met many years ago. When his wife is arguing with him because he always takes in and out his dentures, he answers half sleeping and enchanted by the girls’ song more singing than talking: “Don't say a word.” The present youth of the singing girl and his own youth in the past come together in a magic vein like that of John Ford’s style of choice. The girl and the old man have found each for themselves a place for their own dreams, like in a darkened cinema hall.

What Mr. and Mrs. Iyer has in common with Ozu’s last masterpiece Samma no aji/An Autumn afternoon (1962) is a complexity we don't recognize at the first sight. Once I tried to track patterns in Ozus film in listing all the rooms and places in the film. In Aparna Sen’s film I could make a sketch how the persons are placed in the bus. Each of the characters has a kind of pendants which can be a mirror, a personification of another possible reality or another life time like Raja and the Indian Jew Cohen, Meenakshi with a young and old Hindu woman or Kushboo and the old Muslim. Like in Ozu’s film, past and present are connected in these images.

Suddenly the bus with its mostly sleeping passengers has to take another road, because the main road is closed. But even the other road appears soon blocked by parking trucks and buses. It is twilight, the passengers walk around and ask the driver. The old Muslim celebrates his evening prayer, his face toward the setting sun.
A Sikh mentions an assassination on a train motivated by religious fanatics which caused hundreds of deaths.
Finally, Meenakshi and Raja are awakening. (for practical reasons they sit now in the same row.)She smiles when she finds her hand on his one. The last dying sunray is reflected on their faces. And this light on the faces of Konkona Sen Sharma and Rahul Bose is beautiful like an escaping nice dream. Suddenly, there is noise, excited men are running around with cudgels in their hand through a river landscape. A police jeep appears and an officer pronounces a curfew. He won't take responsibility for people who are staying outside the buses in the darkness of the night. The religious motivated riots could be found before in small traces in the newspapers the passengers have read during the bus travel. This small traces are now an obvious danger. The people are in the middle of a region of a riot between Muslims and Hindus.

The community was during the travel not only a “little India” how Aparna Sen once said like the community in Shimizus Arigato-san was a cross over of people suffering under the Japanese economical crisis in the Thirties. The buses in both films have also an affinity to cinema. They drive through fragments of the world visible in the windows like looking at the limited frame of a screen. The bus as a cinema-like place in Mr. and Mrs. iyer was despite all cultural and religious differences a relative peaceful and civilized place. But now the community is split. Hindus and Sikhs blaming Muslims and even Meenakshi is irritated when she learns that Raja is a Muslim. Only Raja, Cohen and the teenagers are reserved with resentments and pre justice. Now all have to spend the night together in the bus. It is dark, the windows are black and the space becomes very narrow. The symbols of civilization are out of function. The cars and buses can't continue and all portable phones don't work any more and this little India, exemplary for the subcontinents civilization seems to be separated into tribal rivalries.

Fanatic Hindus enter the bus, obviously on the search for Muslims and there is no doubt in their intention to kill. Some men have to drop their pants to proof their religion. Surprisingly Cohen, the Jew, informs them about the old Muslims couple. They are deported out of the bus, first with patience, later with violence. The old couple is at first unsuspecting which contrasts to the obvious intention of the fanatics. The scene is depressing even though the violence takes place outside of the frame and in our imagination. Depressing silence.

Only Kushboo stands up, begs the men for leaving the old people in the bus. One of them beats her in the face and make her silent. When Raja stands up in indignation, Meenakshi hands him in a quick reaction the baby. There is a very moving moment with Rahul Bose which goes far beyond the context of this scene. There is an expression on his face which gives an idea like an understanding of his own powerlessness. He, whose profession is to record moments and images is condemned to be unable to act. The only thing he can do is to take the crying baby in his arms for calming it down. Meenakshi pretends that Raja is her husband which saves him from the sure death. The film is now opening a new element in its story. The characters Raja and Meenakshi do now the same what the actors Konkona Sen Sharma and Rahul Bose do; they play fictive couple.

When Cohen is asked why he had betrayed the old couple he answers weeping: ”They would have killed me. I am Jewish. I don't have a foreskin.” He, who belongs to an even smaller minority acted out of fear to death and acted against his vision of the world. Many other passengers in the bus could have reacted like him.

Identifications like in a dream

I am the old Muslim who is deported with his wife out of the bus, who is band with her banned from the community and who is killed with his wife in a hidden place.
I am the Indian jew Cohen, who gives away the old couple to the Hindu fanatics out of fear he himself could be a victim. He is also banned from the community.
I am also Meenakshi who was married too young for guaranteeing the continuation of her orthodox family and whose dreams are betrayed.
I am also Raja, the photographer, who seems to be open minded but who is unable to name his feelings, his fears and his wishes. He is married with his camera and several natural parks in India where he collects images.
Maybe I am also Santhanam, the Baby, who is neither blind for the beauty nor for the ugly sides of the world.
The child who doesn't know pre justice, who accepts people for their own sake as long they are friendly.
All this souls have spoken to me like in a dream, I always have when I see this film.
This film is heaven and hell at the same time.
All these persons are sometimes alone:
when they dream,
when they love,
when they fear,
when they die.

The dawn of the next day. While we hear a song which bases on a suffi poem from the 11th. Century, we see Cohen walking lonely through the landscape. He leaves this film likely sad as Jean Renoir did as Octave in his film La Regle du Jeu (Rules of The Game, France, 1939). This shot gives him a certain kind of dignity. We know that he himself could have been the victim. Cohen is the third tragic character in this film. This film might here point as well to the history of its making, where in India, at times, Hindu fundamentalists who often used Nazi- paroles were participating in the government.
Raja leaves the bus too. He, who wasn't unable to act records now traces of the terrible night of murdering: the dentures of the old Muslim beside the broken box and his broken specs. Beside these crystallized traces of the tragedy Raja photographs situations of people who can't continue their travel and who are doing every day actions. Raja is like a spectator. The only thing he can do, is observing and recording. That reminds of the passivity of the spectators in a cinema which is at times hard to bear.

The whole long night.
The sound of the water says,
what I am thinking.
(Gochiku, Japanese Haiku-poet)

While the curfew is still on a police officer brings Raja, Meenakshi and the child to a deserted forest house. This is again an isolated place. And this strange place which seems to be in another time and space in the middle of the riot (which concerns the whole region). Only an old care taker lives there, a man who lives in his memories of times when his late wife was still on his side. The film brings the world like it is and how we can dream it together. Out of this tension this film will take its power from now on. Raja and Meenakshi (who are considered by all as a couple) are not only strangers but they are also separated by religion and language. The English in that they are talking to each other is the compromise. But though there is a strange intensity between them like it can happen when people with or without their will make a travel together or are stuck together for a certain time.
Independent of that, almost less of gravitation above the plot or what we call a story - there are always moments which resemble the poetry of a haiku. Once we see Meenakshi with the baby in her arms. She is anxious and scared spending the night with a strange muslim in this house. In the depth of the image we see a labour elephant passing by. Santanam, the child recognizes it puts his fingers in the direction of the animal and his voice is excited in joy. Meenakshi doesn't even realize this moment. The child leads our attention to a complete other detail in the image. We can realize the world like Raja, Meenakshi or the stressed police officer. But we can realize it as well like the child who sees something beautiful and which is fun for him.

There is an argument between Meenakshi and Raja and later the reconciliation. .As varied the confusion of different languages and accents are, the feelings and tensions between Meenakshi and Raja are mostly told in images. Raja, the discrete photographer takes images of situations, persons and things which touch him like for example when he takes pictures of Meenakshi and her child. The wonderful light of cinematographer Gautam Ghose visualize an idea of an emotion in his face. Rahul Bose reminds me in the young Henry Fonda in some films by John Ford, an actor´s type who is moving exactly because of his discreet kind. And Konkona Sen Sharma’s Meenakshi is one of the most moving female characters I saw in a film after a long time. She is praised for her unique ability to adapt, in a short time, different inflections and accents with the almost playful zest as evident (the American-English accent) in Shonali Bose’s Amu. But here the magic of her performance can be found especially in her mimicry of the real and the temporal that fills her character with an unusual uncanny soulfulness.

Again in the city close to them where people can buy some necessities as long as the curfew is withdrawn for a few hours. We get into a shot with Meenakshi and Raja sitting in a tea shop. The young girls from the bus travel are joining them. They are curious to learn the “love story” of this couple. Meenakshi and Raja are telling the (fictive) story of her first encounter. Raja invents more and more a detailed story of “honeymoon” in a temple in Kerala. Though we know (like Meenakshi and Raja) this tale is pure fiction, it will nevertheless evoke emotions and longings and here is a moment in the film I would choose if I had to describe this film in one scene: Raja is telling about never really experienced full moon nights in Kerala. “ “We didn't need oil lamps, did we, Meenakshi?” says he and looks at Meenakshi. She is totally absent-minded, like in a day dream. You must have seen her face and her glance back to Raja to understand that I stopped breathing. This silence of Konkona Sen Sharma mirrors one of the most beautiful moments of the film. What is cinema? Aparna Sen’s film answers this question in a few seconds with one single shot of Konkona Sen Sharma.

Then is introduced a sharp cut which lets us for awakening. The police officer brings them back to the forest house. The road is blocked by the religious fanatics and they have to take another way. They pass through a village which is burnt down. Before we see the village, we see the terror reflected in the passengers’s faces. This time a village is destroyed by the Muslim fanatics. A totally traumatized child cries and it seems to be the only sign of life in this village. Back in the forest house, Raja tries to write down the experiences of the last days. We hear Meenakshi singing a beautiful lullaby for her child. Later after the child has fallen asleep, both are talking on the veranda. It is getting dark and the world has turned again in this kind of twilight light. Raja and Meenakshi become closer. Despite the reality there remains something like a vision of love. Through Raja’s camera lens they observe the animals in the forest. The kind how Raja lets Meenakshi look through his camera has a unique tenderness. Suddenly and for the last time another invasion of terror breaks into the quietness. A group of fanatics chase a man in the forest. Meenakshi and Raja lock themselves in the house and watch this dreadful hunting through the tele-lens of Raja’s camera how the hunted man will be killed. We don't see the murder but the reaction in the faces of Raja and Meenakshi confirms their fear. Meenakshi is extremely shocked. He helps her, lays her softly on the bed, covers her with a blanket and sits down in front of the bed.

She wakes up in the night calling her husband’s name. It will remain her secret if she means the real name of her husband or the fictive name of Raja.
Then, they are driving in a truck of a military convoy (the police officer organized this ride for them) on the way to the railway station where they will finish their long interrupted travel to Calcutta. They enter a shabby railway compartment. Here one finds the dark colour of Meenakshi’s sari as a strange harmony with Raja’s clothes. He is asked by her about places he has travelled to, wants to participate in a life which she is never allowed to live. And with a facile curiosity she asks him if he had travelled alone to that or if he will travel alone to the next place. For one moment they are becoming close, with a physical touch making it look almost kissing each other until they are disturbed by a passenger who walks through the narrow isle. Again a sharp cut is used which skips the last hours of this night. Meenakshi plays with her child. He has just woken up and smiles. She drinks from the water bottle in the kind of orthodox Hindus (who never touch the bottle with her lips and let the water drop into their mouths). He smiles again and when she asked why he smiles he turns his head shyly to the window. When the train has a longer stop, Raja leaves the train for buying coffee. Irrational but nevertheless moving is Meenakshi’s almost whispered sentence to her baby:” He has left us and is gone, Baby.” Raja returns, puts the coffee cups on a little table, takes Santhanam silent in his arms and sits down. In a strange physical confidence she leans her head on his shoulder.

And then again a cut - this time the most heartbreaking of the whole film. The train arrives Calcutta central station. Meenakshi’s husband is waiting for them. Meenakshi’s husband thanks Raja who is introduced by her as a Muslim. Raja says goodbye in a very laconic way, while Manni, Meenakshi’s husband calls his father over mobile. Both parts integrate each other. Suddenly Raja stops and takes the film out of his camera and returns to Meenakshi. “For you”, he says and gives her (who saved his life twice) the undeveloped film.
That is the only gift he can make to her.
Then he says: “Goodbye Meenakshi”, emphasizing the pronunciation of the double e. She, almost with tears in her eyes says: “Goodbye, Mr. Iyer”.
How Raja moves toward the people who are waiting for him and whom we can't recognize in the blurred background he seems to walk from one reality into another one. I am the one who parts and the one who stays back at the same time.
And I feel like Raja or Meenakshi who probably don't know how and whom they should tell about their encounter, their voyage or about all the things they have experienced intimately on human level. Without turning back his eyes Raja goes towards a group of men who are expecting him. Then once again Meenakshi’s face who looks at him while he parts. The frame freezes. While the credits run, we see once again fragments of the moment when Raja took pictures of Meenakshi and her child. This moving images turn always into a freezing one. The images become more and more blurred.
Now there is nothing we can recognize any more.

There are films on which I could write like on voyages, encounters or own experiences despite the fact that I deal with a cinematic tale which takes us temporarily away into an invented identity. After seeing the film several times, we will follow a trace and it takes some time until we can express some comprehensive, universal thoughts and feelings about such a film. The film is still in my system; it stays with me like a dream.  

Rüdiger Tomczak (shomingeki No. 18, October 2006, english translation, published also in FIVE INDIAN DIRECTORS (Pradip Biswas and Rüdiger Tomczak, Kolkata, October 2009)

See also a text on Aparna Sens The Japanese Wife.
German version  of the text on Mr. and Mrs. Iyer (differs slightly from the english version).


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