As a distinguished presence in Bengali cinema, Aparna Sen has few equals. This renowned filmmaker and actress has established a brilliant filmography, standing both in front of the camera (Bombay Talkie, Teen Kanya) and behind the camera (36 Chowringhee Lane). With her latest work, Mr & Mrs Iyer, Sen again waves her magic wand, this time forcing ordinary characters to confront the truly horrific in a spellbinding psychological study of fear, reconciliation, and the elusive search for some place the heart can call home.
A routine bus journey from the remote hilly terrain of northern Bengal to Calcutta brings together a passenger manifesto that slices through a fascinating array of Indian socio-economic strata. While Sen’s story focuses on Meenakshi Iyer (Sensharma), a young orthodox Hindu mother, and Raja (Bose), a wildlife photographer and a non-practicing Muslim forced by circumstance to providing traveling companionship to Meenakshi, the rest of the passengers also add to a flotilla of three-dimensional caricatures that would give The Canterbury Tales a run for the money.
The tiring and already heavily symbolic bus journey is interrupted violently when a bloodthirsty fundamentalist Hindu mob attacks the bus. The attackers begin to forcibly strip some male passengers to “verify” their religious affiliation. To save Raja a fate of public humiliation or much worse, Meenakshi impulsively proclaims Raja as her Hindu husband, saving Raja’s life, and setting in motion a hurricane of complications for the rest of their journey.
A story of disparate strangers can easily fall apart in the hands of less able filmmakers, but Sen’s visionary narrative luxuriates in deliberating at every turn, taking just enough time to let each scene sink in completely before moving on to the next. This is especially true about Sen’s handling of the two most pivotal scenes in the film. One, the bitterly felt betrayal of a Muslim by a Jew, and the other, a train station moment when a farewell gift is given to a loved one, are both show-stopping moments.
Rainbow’s DVD transfer is also exemplary. A solidly grounded and vibrant six-track recording turns ordinary nighttime jungle sounds into a congregation of hushed whispers. The English subtitles, meanwhile—which are essential for viewing Iyer unless one is fluent in Hindi, Tamil, Bengali, and English—are embedded throughout the two-hour film, and not just when non-English is spoken.
Iyer’s success is also enhanced by the hand-in-glove complementary presence of Bose and Sensharma. Sensharma, Sen’s 21-year old real life daughter, is already a sensation in Bengal. For this role, she learned Tamil and how to ‘act’ south Indian, and immerses herself and completely disappears into Meenakshi. Bose, meanwhile, convincingly forces himself to become detached in response to the riding tide of absurdities surrounding them.
Another huge factor in Iyer’s favor is tabla genius Zakir Hussain’s soundtrack that enlists both Hussain’s own vocals as well as fancy sarod work by Sultan Khan. The six tracks supremely support a score that also boasts poetry from both Sufi master Jalaluddin Rumi and 10th-century Indian poet-mystic Devara Dasimaya. Don’t miss getting your hands on either the musical score or the film.