Monday, October 6, 2014

Notes on 15 Park Avenue by Aparna Sen, India: 2005

Made between two of her finest films Mr. And Mrs. Iyer and The Japanese Wife, 15 Park Avenue points to some of the central themes in the work by Aparna Sen: The perception of reality. It begins as a drama of a schizophrenic young woman from a  middle class family, her relationships with her ex fiance, her sister. Traumatized after an assignment as a photo journalist where she was raped, she is considered as a nursing case. Even though I have read in an interview that Aparna Sen was inspired by a case of schizophrenia among relatives, the films turns soon into a surreal heavy dreamlike film. As the divided identity is a very old theme in the history of cinema – from early German cinema to Hitchcock and mystic or horror thrillers means it is a very popular subject in art house as well like in genre cinema, the film offers different interpretations and an end which is as mystic like Antonionis Blow Up, or to mention the much more recent mystic thriller Shutter Island by Martin Scorsese.
On the surface, 15 Park Avenue is a drama of a mental sick woman who is caught more and more in her delusions until she finally disappears from our and the other character´s perception of reality. The tracks offered by the story does not at all gives us answers but it evokes more and more questions as the film proceeds.
Mithis elder sister Anu (Shabana Azmi) is professor for physics, much involved in quantum theories, theories which itself ask our perception of the physical reality in a very radical way. In a very crucial dialogue scene between Azmi and Mithis psychiatrist (Dhrittiman Chatterjee) in a restaurant when he explains her with a little vase from a neighbour table how subjective the perception of reality can be. Mithi (Konkona Sen Sharma) who still lives in her delusions with her ex fiance and her “5 children” asks once her sister ( who tries from time to time bring Mithi back to reality) what she (Anu) would think if Mithi had said her career as a physicist is pure imagination.
Relatively early in the film Aparna Sen works with disturbing montages and transitions. One of the most remarkable seems at the beginning like a conventional parallel montage suggesting the simultaneity of Anu giving a lecture about quantum mechanics and Mithi (mis-) (treated by a kind of shaman at home.
But the soundtracks of Anus lecture and Mithis “treatment begin to mix and the rhythmic exchange of the scenes with Mithi and Anu have nothing to do anymore with a parallel montage, this moment looks like two moments taking place at the same time but are wedged into each other,  a montage which does n´t arrange but which is close in this moment to lead to chaos. For this moment there is a small idea about this at least for our human perception scaring chaos of the invisible processes of the matter we can´t sense.
The universe in Aparna Sens films was never as instable as in 15 Park Avenue.

Konkona Sen Sharma whose acting career was quite young in 2005 gives here sometimes a more expressionistic or Kurosawa-like performance quite different to her eloquent and sensible Mrs. Iyer, the rather chaplinesque Titli in Rituparno Ghosh´s Titli or the nearly minimalistic and very Noh-like performance in Shonali Boses´s Amu. 15 Park Avenue itself is a film with very different approaches of acting. The “rationalistic” chracters by Azmi and Chatterjee are in contrast with Sen Sharmas but also with Rahul Boses (as Mithis ex fiance) nearly somnambulistic performance.
The montage of the film now really begins to jump between locations. Mithis family make a short trip to Bhutan and from one moment to the other we are suddenly in Bhutan without very much prepared, a logic which looks very dreamlike.
There is another ghostly scene. Joydeep , Mithis ex fiance is as well in Bhutan with his wife and his children. To his own surprise he discovers Mithi, follows her to her bungalow and talks with her elder sister. Mithi does not recognize him. We see Rahul Bose when he sits down on a bank covering with a hand his face in shock and suddenly he is back sitting on another bank in his own hotel. This is one of the must radical jump cuts. We are strangely irritated in our spatial orientation between the Bhutan locations. If Mithi is a lost soul, we are finally too.

One of the cruelst moment even though filmed very subtle is the raping scene of Mithi. I remember a scene of mental violence in Yugant between Anjan Dutt and Rupa Ganguly. The scene in 15 Park Avenue deals with physical violence. Not much has to be shown. We know what will happen with Mithi. But the moment when one of the rapist destroys Mithis cassette recorder and smashes her photo camera against the wall is as shocking and nearly unbearable as the famous murder sequence in Hitchcock´s Psycho. We do not have to see like they rupture her dress, because of this camera which is smashed against the wall. As a camera in a film is very often a topos of the invisible image making apparatus with which Cinema is made and this film finally is made by a woman, this moment seems to me one of the most nightmarish scenes in Aparna Sens films.

The most striking narrative parts which tell us about Mithi are from second hand sources, Anu´s report about Mithis story told to the psychiatrist and Joydeeps memories and the story he finally tells to his wife. Every story which is told about Mithi is as well interpreted according to their own perceptions of reality. The finale of the film is that Mithi finally escapes from what we call the normal perception of reality. She literally disappears from one dimension to another one where no one can follow her.And the bitter irony is when Mithi finally finds her way back “home”, we the audience have lost it.

After having seen 15 Park Avenue again after a long while, I realized how important it is to see her films in the context of her work as a director again and again. 
Even though it is not much more than a superlative, I have my reasons anyway to consider Aparna Sen one of the most inventive narrative filmmaker in contemporary cinema.

Rüdiger Tomczak

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