The teahouse scene from Aparna Sen´s Mr. And Mrs. Iyer
Although for some people cinema means something superficial and glamorous, it is something else. I think it is the mirror of the
world. (Jeanne Moreau)
Two methods to approach a deeper understanding of film stayed with me for a long time. The first is represented well in a short TV feature by German film critic Helmut Färber called Three minutes from a film by Ozu. Färber focusses on one scene from Ozu´s Banshun (Late Spring, 1949), the bicycle scene. Färber made from every shot a still and reflects about the rhythm of the film and how this single scene is connected with the whole film. Further he calls it a sample of the emtire architecture of this film. The second method is a series of lectures of the communal cinema Dortmund/Germany and the Adult academy of the same town by Mr. Ernst Schreckenberg on “Dramaturgy of film”). He used video excerpts of certain films gave very subtle but precise hints but also let speak the images for themselves. Schreckenberg approached different things, first he introduced people to what he called the “dramaturgy of cross-linkings in films” but also a deeper understanding of cinema without spoiling the pleasure of watching films. It was in the late 1980s and it was already a foreseeing how much could be approached with audiovisual essays on films.
I once wrote on Aparna Sen´s masterpiece Mr. And Mrs. Iyer, that her approach is analytic and poetic at the same time. The film is sublime story telling, excellent cinematography but it always reminds us at the same time that we see a film. In other words I do not know what is the greater pleasure to be absorbed by the film or to talk and analyze endless single moments. It might be a commonplace but it is always true that great masters like Hitchcock, for example (Schreckenberg spent once a whole afternoon lecture with a systematic viewing of Vertigo): one can enjoy his films as great suspense thrillers. But as we take a closer look, we see what Hitchcock distinguishes from 90 percent of other thrillers.(1)
Mr. and Mrs. Iyer is among the films made in the last 20 years a true feast for looking at it´s “cross-linking dramaturgy”. The film is as well a Road Movie, this sub genre that touches not only different genres of cinema but which is in it´s nature quite a natural analogy to cinema itself. It is a journey full of experiences and especially the bus scene offers in the mighty front shield offers an accurate analogy to the screen where a framed piece of the world is presented.
The teahouse-scene takes place in the last third of the film and lasts about four and a half minutes. The journey of the young orthodox married Hindu woman Meenakshi and the Muslim Raja is close to it´s end. They have met as strangers but when Hindu fanatics (on the hunt for Muslims) attacked their bus, Meenakshi introduces Raja as her husband to safe his life. From that moment on they pretend to be a married couple. At first, it is important for the narration of the film but later also interesting in the interactions between this “fictive” couple whom pretends a life they never lived but also with the spectator that is at the same time a spectator of performed fiction but at the same time being aware that it is performed. In the whole film there between scenes of riots fear and trouble some small moments of peace where the protagonists have time to deal with each other and themselves. This tea house scene is one of them. It is during the hours of an afternoon when the curfew caused by the riots is lifted. Raja and Meenakshi are sitting with her child in a tea house. This tea house has several windows which separate the room from the outside but at the same time we look like through different screens to it. Raja and Meenakshi are talking to a group of young girls they met during the bus travel. They invite them for joining the tea time with them. The girls are very curious about this “love story” between a man and a woman almost too young to be married. The girls are excited to learn about the “couple´s” story. Most of them sit on the table right in front of Meenakshi and Raja. On the contrary to us the girls have no idea about the real relation between this “couple”. It is a scene literally flooded by light. How the protagonists are arranged evoke as well a very primal image about the joy of listening stories which probably began at the first campfires in the history of mankind and which is still present in modern cinematic story telling. This scene is as well a feast for the eye. You can look over the shoulder of the characters and through the windows where life (outside the film´s plot) seems to go it´s own way.
We know as well that the film is already close to it´s end. That makes this wonderful moment even more fleeting. With every part of their “marriage story” the couple is telling, the girls are getting more excited and want to know more. The camera is moving softly and sometimes this harmony is disrupted by hard cuts. We see different point of views. In one of these shots we see the back of the heads of some of these girls. They look to Raja and Meenakshi like to a big screen and they seem sitting much to close to it. The romance which is evoked by the girl´s imagination and the couple´s fictive stories reveal Raja/Rahul Bose and Meenakshi /Konkona Sensharma often as a projection. After a 180 degree cut we see the girls from the other side, including their excited faces. It is not only like Meenakshi/Sensharma and Raja /Bose are looking to their “audience” and the engrossed expression in their faces. There is a kind of chemistry between the prosaic presentation of real people who perform fiction and the real things in the image frames and the imagination evoked in the girls and even in us against our knowledge. The scenes separate the story teller from the audience but than it connects them again as two possibilities of cinema. There is choreography of glances of the visible persons, the point of view of the film and our own perspective.
German film director Rudolf Thome once said that “each fiction film is a documentary on actors” Literally we see them performing, their physical presence is part of “cinema as a documentary on visible things” (Godard). There is always both in this scene, we see actors working highly concentrated like musicians during a concert. But there is as well what their acting evokes. There is a strange equality of the perception of reality and the need of being enchanted by a film.
Raja begins to spin a tale of romantic full moon nights during their “honeymoon” in the South of India while Meenakshi is sinking into silence. And again we can also look through the window behind Raja, where life is going on. Even though, he seems to exaggerate, he hits a central nerve of this film. We learned enough about Meenakshi´s very prosy marriage life. This moment reveals the uncanny yearning for a life she will never be able to live. One single sentence by Raja/Bose causes a strong chain reactions of emotions, some can be named, others not. “We did not need oil lamps, Meenakshi, did we?” The absent-minded look Meenakshi/Sensharma and how she tries to find her way back to reality. Her face is now visible in a close up, her certain place in this room is blurred, isolates her from the rest and her face is sensible as a projection. This shot is very indicative for the fascinating paradox of this film. It is one of the most mesmerizing shot but at the same time it suspends the cinematic illusion the three-dimensionality of space. The whole scene leads to this moment of pure cinema. It is not only a masterful composed chamber scene not only the most Ozuesque I have seen in an Indian film but as well one of the deepest meditation on cinema in all its facets. The scene ends or is dissolved with laughter. The Meenakshi´s one year old child has eaten all the sugar from the pot. Even Meenakshi laughs.
There are – much other great scenes in this film worth a deeper look. The reason I finally chose the teahouse scene is because it is one of the scene which reveals the denseness of her visual storytelling but at the same time an inspiring playfulness evident in so much films by great directors in their full maturity. In this film it happens as well with the help of Goutam Ghose´s (a great director himself) many layered photography. But it is not her art alone which excited me so much over the years. There is also a deep understanding of cinema in her films up to the strange state of the trance like condition of watching a film including the immersion into a fictive world and to emerge from it. According to the late French philosopher Gilles Deleuze, Aparna Sen is one of these “filmmakers who are as well philosophers who do not think in terms and definitions but in images and sounds”.
the text was first published in Filmfuff, India in June 2018
(1) Indeed a film like Vertigo is not just the summing up of Hitchcock´s obsessions (especially his strange erotic obsession for a certain type of woman) but it can be seen as a sharp self reflective meditation about the exploiting view of cinema, including his own work. I see today Vertigo with even a greater pleasure than before.