Literature festivals rarely open with a new film... But when they do, it adds yet another element to the discussion about what literature really comprises of. Is literature only books, or does it encompass the visual medium as well?And if a film is based on a literary text, does it qualify for inclusion wherever literature is taught?
Film director Aparna Sen says that it has been her long-time dream to treat cinema as text. That it must be read and studied, just as books are, even in schools... and why not! After all, learning can come through any medium. Given our fascination for cinema, it would probably be a better, more enticing means of imparting knowledge... and also offer a lot of pleasure.
And so we had a fabulous surprise awaiting many of us authors at the Apeejay Kolkata Literature Festival when it was inaugurated with the premiere of the latest Aparna Sen film this week.
The film was Saari Raat, adapted from a play of the same name written by the legendary playwright Badal Sircar. Tightly plotted and set in a single room, the play has been beautifully put together for the screen, and one understands Aparna's sentiments because the film she has created is akin to visual poetry. The original play was written over a frenzied week by Sircar, in 1963.
And yet, more than 50 years later, it still feels relevant. Perhaps the reality of human relationships is that they are rarely outdated - and some man-woman relationships are so intertwined that it is impossible to unravel, even though we believe that today women are at least free to achieve their independent goals.
Perhaps there are many such pieces of theatre which have withstood the test of time, but it takes a director like Aparna to construct a powerful, unforgettable narrative.
Saari Raat is about one tormented night when a couple, married for seven years, walks into an unknown, very dilapidated house to escape being drenched by torrential rain. What they imagine is a cluttered, abandoned building, turns out to be inhabited by an elderly, though very perceptive, man.
As they converse with him, the couple is increasingly discomfited by their own inability to confront the weaknesses in their relationship. The elderly man is like a therapist skilfully guiding them towards articulating their discontent.
As in much of the literature of Bengal of the 1960s, the woman is shown as sensitive and accommodating - yet longing for an ephemeral pleasure, while her husband is stoically pragmatic and cannot comprehend her restlessness.
The elderly stranger, on the other hand, is aware of the woman's desire, and empathises with her. Experiencing the seemingly endless night in a claustrophobic room, the couple realises that neither of them will be the same, ever again.
The play is not without parallel, as we have seen others in which couples confront their demons. The difference in this film/play, however, is that Aparna's direction is extremely intense, and without a single false note. The basic theme remains contemporary as the fragility of marriage is highlighted.
Thus we can only only thank the indefatigable Shailaja Kejriwal, the film's producer, who has also been the force behind the India-Pakistan channel, Zindagi. What could be better for us than to see more such cinema, as we work towards setting up a partition museum in Amritsar, dedicated to hope and peace?