Aparna Sen, a versatile Bengali lead actress, in her directorial debut attempts to give us a glimpse into the lives of Anglo-Indians, post-independence through the life of an elderly single woman. It is an emotionally disturbing saga that subtly brings out the nuances of being an Anglo-Indian in India. Rather than going into the historical aspects, she concentrates on the human and emotional facets which transcend the frontiers and makes Violet (the protagonist) a human being searching for a purpose in life; thus turning this movie into a ‘universal story’ of loneliness and old age.
Cast and Crew
Writer & Director – Aparna Sen
Producer – Shashi Kapoor
Music Composer – Vanraj Bhatia
Cinematographer – Ashok Mehta
Editor – Bhanudas Divakar
Cast – Jennifer Kendal (Miss. Violet Stoneham), Dhritiman Chatterjee (Samaresh Moitra), Debashree Roy (Nandita Roy), Geoffrey Kendal (Eddie Stoneham), Soni Razdan (Rosemary Stoneham), Sanjana Kapoor (Young Violet), Davie (Karan Kapoor), Dina Ardeshir (Mrs. Wendy McGowen) and others.
The story is set in the 1970s Calcutta, when the memories of the British Raj were gradually fading away. Miss. Violet (Jennifer Kendal) an elderly spinster and a teacher, resides at 36 Chowringhee Lane. With her niece (Soni Razdan) wedded off and her brother (Geoffrey Kendal) sent to a nursing home for the elderly, Sir Toby Belch, her black cat is her only companion in her lonely existence. She spends her evenings talking to Sir Toby or reciting to it passages from Shakespeare’s plays, a subject she teaches at school.
One day as Violet walks out of her church, she runs into Nandita (Debashree Roy) an old student of hers, and her boyfriend Samaresh (Dhritiman Chaterjee) and invites them home for coffee. The young couple reluctantly agrees.
While the three of them share a cup of coffee, conversation, memories and laughter, Samaresh gets convinced that 36 Chowringee Lane is the perfect place for him and his girlfriend to indulge in their raunchy rendezvous. Samaresh coaxes Nandita to convince Miss Stoneham to offer the place to him, on the pretext of him wanting a private, quiet spot to get some writing done. Miss Stoneham happily obliges. Thus begins a new phase in Miss Stoneham’s life where Sir Toby is no longer her lone companion. She now has a human to communicate with as well.
As time goes by she gets so caught up with her new found company that she even forgets the scheduled visits to the nursing home to see her ailing brother.
Just when Violet is getting comfortable with the newfound company, on one stormy night, she reaches home and catches Nandita and Samaresh kissing. Truth of their intentions is revealed to her and she is shaken up. Soon, the couple gets married, amidst much pomp and show. What happens to the relationship of the trio hereafter forms the climax of the movie.
Jennifer Kendal delivers a brilliant performance. She goes through numerous moods in the film and you pine and grieve with her. You feel her pain, loneliness, grief and apathy and root for her all along. That in itself is an achievement, and says a lot about her character. She effortlessly lets her life’s harsh realities unfold on screen.
Soni Razdan delivers well, as Violet’s niece who is scared to be alone with a cat in her old age and hence agrees to get into a love-less marriage. Geoffrey Kendal as her brother stuck in the time-warp of the ‘Raj’ show us the reality of being an Anglo-Indian through his authentic performance.
Dhritaman Chatterjee and Debashree Roy as the selfish young couple using 36 Chowringhee Lane for their sorties play their part with realism and deliver commendable performances. Sanjana Kapoor as young Violet and Karan Kapoor as Violet’s lover did an adequate job to support the script.
However, this is completely an Aparna Sen, Ashok Mehta and Jennifer Kendal movie. Aparna Sen wrote and directed the story with attention to details, Ashok Mehta rendered stellar camera work and Jennifer Kendal made the character’s reality come alive on screen with her acting prowess. I must say, they made a great team and their effort shows in every scene.
Why you must watch it
36 Chowringhee Lane was way ahead of its time, both because of the content and the questions it raised. The society back then was not ready to talk about premarital sex (sadly, neither is it today) or about the loneliness of an elderly woman (be it an Anglo-Indian or any other woman). When the theme of a movie doesn’t comply with the established patriarchal norms, it is no surprise that a movie doesn’t receive commercial success in India. However, there are plenty of plus points to the movie, things that young artists and directors could maybe learn from.
Aparna Sen defies the existing norms by making a film entirely in English, which potentially reduced the numbers of her audience as English speakers were few and far between back then. It is definitely a bold move for a debut director, especially a woman trying to venture into predominantly a man’s arena.
I must congratulate Aparna Sen on her judgment with close-ups and long shots. The scene where Violet comes home to witness the young couple kissing, there is a close-up of Jennifer where we only see her facial expression and pain in her eyes. It was done with exquisite attention and Jennifer doesn’t disappoint either as we can practically feel her pain. The story moves back and forth effortlessly and we witness the back story, be it Violet’s conversation with her niece and her marriage, or Violet’s lost love (that comes through in a dream) and leave a lasting impact.
Finally, foreshadowing and symbolism all along the movie enthralls the viewers.
Ketan Mehta as the cinematographer uses brilliantly, the light and shade to bring out the emotions of the characters with his unmatched camera work. Majority of the credit to the scene mentioned above goes to Ketan Mehta. Although the movie is slow and quiet, there is never a dull moment in the film and he needs to be applauded for his contribution.
Jennifer Kendal doesn’t let you down in any scene, be it her lighter moments of laughter and conversation with the young couple, or her emotional interaction with her ailing brother or her conversations with Sir Toby; she delivers like a veteran.
The climax is poignant and heartbreaking. The lines Violet recites from King Lear reflect her state of mind as he too indulged in the idiocy of believing…
“Pray, do not mock me;
I am a very foolish fond old man,
Fourscore and upward, not an hour more or less,
And, to deal plainly,
I fear I am not in my perfect mind…”
Or a conversation with her niece Rosemary
Violet: I could talk to Mrs. Agley of course, if there is an opening in the school?
Rosemary: No!… You think I want to come back to an old, lonely room when I am 60? You think I want to pick up homework for company in the evening? You think I want to land up in an old age home like Uncle Eddie? That’s where you’ll end up in 10 years from now… Make no mistake.
I won’t say any more for I may spoil it for the viewers.
Do watch the movie!
– By Ushasri, for IWI*
All the opinions stated herein are of the reviewer and Incredible Women of India does not conform to the same.
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