By Suhel Johar

Magic Lantern

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It proved a double whammy for the mother-daughter duo, Aparna and Konkona Sen, the toast of the Bengali film industry. It was Aparna's second National Award for Best Director (the first was for '36 Chowringhee Lane' in 1981) while for dusky Konkona, it was her first National Award for Best Actress. And, both won it for 'Mr & Mrs Iyer'.

Aparna has proved yet again that Indian cinema isn't all about women peeping prettily out from behind saris, Vaseline on the lens and male stars in eyeliner exploding into song at the slightest provocation.

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Aparna, 58, has taken the accolade in her stride as gracefully as she acted in scores of memorable Bengali films, and thereafter effortlessly assumed the director's baton. Konkona, 24, says, "I am numbed and shaken by the honor bestowed on me. It is particularly satisfying since I had worked very hard for this film," she says while on a visit to Mumbai with her mother who's here in connection with her next film, which will be her maiden directorial venture in Hindi.

"I have been deeply worried about secular and democratic values, about the rise of fundamentalism in India," she says. "When I realised I wanted to make a love story, I decided I would set it against a backdrop of hatred. That's where love is most poignant. A lot of famous love stories have been set against war."

That was how 'Mr & Mrs Iyer', started germinating in the mind of Aparna. "It is an understated love story played against a backdrop of violence. Hindu mother Meenakshi Iyer is riding a bus with her nine-month-old son and, as she is traveling without a companion, wildlife photographer Raja Chowdhary is given the responsibility of looking after her.

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"The people on the bus assume that the pair are a couple. When the bus is stopped by violent Hindu extremists on the hunt for Muslims, the Muslim Raja fears for his safety. To save his life, Meenakshi carries on the pretence that Raja is her Hindu husband. An attraction begins between this odd couple forced into a bizarre yet moving situation. I think that the strongest part about this film is the subtlety and the little nuances it projected," says Aparna.

Aparna Sen, who is also an actress, has directed seven films. The first of these, the English-language '36 Chowringhee Lane', won for her the Grand Prix at the Manila International Film Festival besides her first National Award.

If it had not been for mom's prodding to accept the role of an educated and intelligent Tamilian housewife, Konkona might have missed it. "I told mummy to take somebody else for the role because I thought I could never get the right Tamil accent," she recalled. Aparna summarily packed her off for a week's 'study tour' to Chennai, to imbibe the Tamilian ways: how they speak English, the way they dress, behave and their attitude to life. "I felt that the role of Mrs Iyer needed Konkona more than she needed the role," said Aparna. Ultimately, the film portraying intense relationships in the background of fundamentalist violence with doses of secularism thrown in captured the hearts of the nation, and the National Awards jury.

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Making 'Mr & Mrs Iyer' in English did not in any way restrict the number and class of audiences. "It is a love story of a Bengali boy and a Tamilian girl, what other language can they communicate in?" asked Aparna. "Moreover, there's no movie that caters to a pan-Indian audience. The times have changed; the language is the least of the barriers. 'Mr & Mrs Iyer' ran for three months in all the metros, what more can one ask for?"

In fact, she says 'Mr & Mrs Iyer's marketing campaign was mainly by word of mouth. "It began in a very small way, because not a great deal was spent on the marketing, but it grabbed the attention of the audience."

The biggest contributing factor in Konkona's great performance in just her third movie was her mother's faith in her abilities. "I think Konkona is a director's dream -- she is delightfully easy to direct," said Aparna. "Though we often took each other for granted, argued and quarreled, we both knew how deeply we felt for each other, and finally it was work that mattered."

Konkona, never formally trained in acting, began with a boy's role in her mother's movie when she was just four. In her second year in St. Stephen's College, Delhi, she clinched her first adult role in Subroto Sen's 'Ek Je Ache Kanya'; her second was Rituparno Ghosh's 'Titli', which won several awards including the Mumbai Academy of the Moving Image award.

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While attention is focused on her daughter, audiences complain they do not see enough of Aparna Sen since she comes out with a movie after a long gap of three to four years. "I give a lot of time to my family. Plus, I edit a women's magazine (Sananda, of the ABP Group and the highest circulated women's magazine in Bengali). On top of that I write scripts. I cannot concentrate on too many things at a time. I think I have a very small brain," she said.

But, very soon, the two winning talents will be available for the Hindi audience. Konkona is acting in three Hindi movies; offbeat but not arty, while Aparna will be directing 'Gulel' for Pritish Nandy Communications.

While mom readies for her maiden Hindi venture--she cannot stand the word Bollywood-Konkona will polish up her Hindi accent, continue to watch movies, read English literature and gorge on Kashmiri Biryani, while planning her next vacation to her favorite spots, the Canary Isles or Mussoorie.


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