THE ROSE THAT BLOSSOMS AMID A SEA OF MILLIONS : on 36 CHOWRINGEE LANE (1981)

This is another contribution on my part for THE TREASURE TROVE OF INDIAN CINEMA series that I began writing on since last month.

I watched this film finally after a period of procrastination day before yesterday (19th July, 2019) and immediately penned down my thoughts, eventually framing this article in full by the pure experience of that first view.

So here are my thoughts on 36 CHOWRINGEE LANE.

***

Good souls leave their deprivations behind for service to others, opening up their hearths and hearts to even passing strangers. Shouldn’t they be canonized as living examples of the Godliness we have in us? Alas, they are relegated to the background a little too often.

In this tale, VIOLET STONEHAM drips with the giggles, pensive looks, hope, love and loneliness of every great, selfless personality we remember even after our own drab lifetimes inform us of our self interests and eroding values. Aparna Sen’s 36 CHOWRINGEE LANE, named after the residential address in Calcutta in which the protagonist lives , is a quintessential character study. It preserves the instincts and impulses of social connections with more conviction than any tome on relationships ever can.

**

Harbouring a great pain in her heart, as reflected in the dream sequence by the sea , Ms. Stoneham endears as an excellent anchor and self sufficient vessel of empathy for others. This trait of selflessness is offset by her diminishing value owing to advancing years and perhaps this world is always a little too forgetful of those who care for others and go out of their way to do so. As a teacher and an individual, occupant of a tiny flat, member of a miniscule but all pervading Anglo Indian community especially regards its presence in educational institutions , her journey of pure intents concludes with a walk with a stray dog by her side and a Shakespearean monologue. After all, her only real companion always has been her cat TOBY. He understands her solicitous heart more than anybody else, mere mortals and all. The poignancy of it all is heartbreaking.

**

The great Jennifer Kendal lifts up her lifelong training in Bard’s plays with this monologue from KING LEAR , reflecting Violet’s whole life’s worth of inviolable perseverance . This is an essential, assimilative Indian cinematic work, directed by Aparna Sen in a naturalistic style, as if she had adapted it from a novel. This is her original screenplay and it is a matter of national pride since this work has endured down the years.

As I have been privy to the late Ms. Kendal’s work in SHAKESPEAREWALLAH, BOMBAY TALKIE, JUNOON, GHARE BAIRE and HEAT AND DUST, to me this is, undoubtedly, her signature role, as she plays a woman who is willing to give the keys to her flat to her pupil Nandita and her paramour Somoresh ( DEBASHREE ROY and DHRITIMAN CHATTERJEE respectively ) and bake her distinctive Christmas cake for them. Her innocence, construed as naivete by detached minds , remains with her in her twilight years.

Her introspective stillness in moments is beautifully captured here in the form of letters, voice overs, pithy flashbacks with her niece ( the wonderful SONI RAZDAN), the piano notes in Vanraj Bhatia’s exquisite background score, cinematography by Ashok Mehta and the impeccable art direction by Bansi Chandragupta, a Satyajit Ray favourite to whom this film is dedicated to( he passed away before its release)

Great cinema always condenses the silences and sounds of the everyday in a realistic mold, creating identifiable cues for audiences who take every natural rhythm of life from the recreation. This one does that, generating empathy with each sequence.

Violet doesn’t need to be rescued or even seek validation from the world around her. She needs to be happy, though she is content with what she has achieved by dint of professional integrity and respect from peers and pupils, and she needs to be acknowledged rather than being taken advantage of.

DHRITIMAN CHATTERJEE and DEBASHREE ROY anchor this balanced portrait with all too human flaws even though the core is one of innate goodness, as younger prefects who light up Ms. Stoneham’s life. Their self- centredness around a mutual bonding, that alienates Violet as much as raises her spirits, is striking. On the other hand, Jennifer’s real life father, the impressive Geoffrey, plays her brother while her daughter Sanjana and son Karan make important appearances. In a preceding post on SHAKESPEAREWALLAH, I had written about the Kendal family’s contributions to Indian art and to discover these stalwarts together so soon, in another landmark, is a treat.

I will contend that you haven’t experienced life in all its hues if you haven’t watched 36 CHOWRINGEE LANE once. It will humble even the hardest hearts by its sensitivity.

**

Old age brings with it a void the young sentience shrugs off. Some prepare for the journey ahead since they had nobody by their side and make peace with being their own pillars of strength from the earlier, preceding parts. Some take the bitter pills and alienate themselves further. There are few like Ms. Stoneham who have reserves of goodwill and a good night’s sleep because they evince no complaints from what life has in store for them and a profound work ethic spurs them on. They survive and prevail. The melancholy is at their / her core. Yet all they have is a smile to share with others. It’s a gift to this world.

In a world of exhibitionism that makes cronies and foot soldiers of most of humanity, people like VIOLET STONEHAM must be paid heed to. It will be a loss if they disappeared into mists of anonymity. So look back and seek out all the good souls you knew and conveniently abandoned when the high road to success or even plain ambitions consumed you.

36 CHOWRINGEE LANE creates that humbling effect on us.

*****

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