40 Years Later, ’36, Chowringhee Lane’ Remains a Humbling and Honest Look at Humanity

MUBI

Good souls leave their deprivations behind for service to others, opening their hearths and hearts even to passing strangers. Shouldn’t they be canonized as living examples of the Godliness we have in us? Alas, they are relegated to the background a little too often.

In this tale, Violet Stoneham drips with the giggles, pensive looks, hope, love, and loneliness of every great, selfless personality we remember even after our own drab lifetimes inform us of our self-interests and eroding values. Aparna Sen’s 36, Chowringhee Lane, named after the residential address in Calcutta in which the protagonist lives, is a quintessential character study. It preserves the instincts and impulses of social connections with more conviction than any tome on relationships ever can.

Harboring a great pain in her heart, as reflected in the dream sequence by the sea, Ms. Stoneham is endearing as an excellent anchor and self-sufficient vessel of empathy for others. This trait of selflessness is offset by her diminishing value owing to her advancing years —perhaps this world is always a little too forgetful of those who care for others or go out of their way to do so. As a teacher and an individual, occupant of a tiny flat, and member of a miniscule but all-pervading Anglo-Indian community that especially regards its presence in educational institutions nationally, her journey of pure intents concludes with a walk with a stray dog by her side and a Shakespearean monologue. After all, her only real companion has always been her cat, Toby. He understands her solicitous heart more than anybody else; the poignancy of it all is heartbreaking.

Once Violet was engaged to her sweetheart and had a prosperous life when her father was an officer on the railways. But all that is in the past. She lives in the present and chooses to lead an austere existence without any undue expectations or glorious idyll. So, she’s a pragmatist but with none of the cranks or stiff characteristics we normally expect from such an outline. The richness of details imbues 36, Chowringhee Lane with a sensitivity all its own.

The great Jennifer Kendal lifts her lifelong training in Bard’s plays with this monologue from King Lear, reflecting Violet’s whole life’s worth of inviolable perseverance. This is an essential, assimilative Indian cinematic work, directed by Aparna Sen in a naturalistic style, as if she had adapted it from a novel. This is her original screenplay, and it is a matter of national pride since this work has endured over the years.

This is, undoubtedly, Jennifer Kendal’s signature role, playing a woman who is willing to give the keys to her flat to her pupil Nandita and her paramour Somoresh (Debashree Roy and Dhritiman Chatterjee, respectively) and bake her distinctive Christmas cake for them. Her innocence, construed as naivete by detached minds, remains with her in her twilight years.

Her introspective stillness in moments is beautifully captured here in the form of letters, voice overs, pithy flashbacks with her niece (the wonderful Soni Razdan), the piano notes in Vanraj Bhatia’s exquisite background score, cinematography by Ashok Mehta and the impeccable art direction by Bansi Chandragupta, a Satyajit Ray favourite to whom this film is dedicated to (he passed away before its release).

Great cinema always condenses the silences and sounds of the everyday in a realistic mold, creating identifiable cues for audiences who take every natural rhythm of life from the recreation. This film does that, generating empathy with each sequence.

Violet doesn’t need to be rescued or even seek validation from the world around her. She needs to be happy, though she is content with what she has achieved by dint of professional integrity and respect from peers and pupils, and she needs to be acknowledged rather than being taken advantage of. She is also individually strong in her beliefs and continues to stay in her beloved Calcutta even as others leave for England and Canada. She reasons that leaving a place you have lived in all your life is just not a remedy.

Dhritman Chatterjee and Debashree Roy anchor this balanced portrait with all too human flaws even though the core is one of innate goodness, as younger prefects who light up Ms. Stoneham’s life. Just behold that scene where she is overcome with emotion as Nandita welcomes her home with a tray filled with tea and snacks. It’s the first time somebody else has made such a thoughtful gesture. Their self- centredness around a mutual bonding, that alienates Violet as much as raises her spirits, is striking. On the other hand, Jennifer’s real-life father, the impressive Geoffrey, plays her brother while her daughter Sanjana and son Karan make important appearances.

In a post on Shakespearewallah (1965) on my blog in 2019, I had written about the Kendal family’s contributions to Indian art as founders of Shakespeareana, a troupe that traveled the length and breadth of India to masterfully stage the Bard’s plays. They continued to live in their homeland even after the subcontinent’s independence in 1947. Hence to discover these stalwarts together so soon, in another landmark, is a treat.

Old age brings with it a void the young sentience shrugs off. Some prepare for the journey ahead since they had nobody by their side and make peace with being their own pillars of strength from the earlier, preceding parts. Some take the bitter pills and alienate themselves further. There are few like Ms. Stoneham who have reserves of goodwill and a good night’s sleep because they evince no complaints from what life has in store for them and a profound work ethic spurs them on. They survive and prevail. It goes without saying that melancholy is at their core. Yet all they have is a smile to share with others. It’s a gift to this world.

In a world of exhibitionism that makes cronies and foot soldiers of most of humanity, people like Violet Stoneham must be paid heed to. It will be a loss if they disappeared into mists of anonymity. So, look back and seek out all the good souls you knew and conveniently abandoned when the high road to success or even plain ambitions consumed you. 36, Chowringhee Lane creates that humbling effect on us.

by Prithvijeet Sinha

Prithvijeet Sinha is from Lucknow, India. He is a post graduate in MPhil from the University of Lucknow, having launched his writing career by self-publishing on the worldwide community Wattpad since 2015 and on his WordPress blog An Aawadh Boy’s Panorama besides having his works published in several varied publications as Cafe Dissensus, The Medley, Screen Queens, Borderless Journal, Aspiring Writers Society, Lothlorien Poetry Journal, Chamber Magazine, Live Wire, Rhetorica Quarterly, Dreich Magazine, Ekphrastic Review and in the children’s anthology ‘Nursery Rhymes and Children’s Poems from Around the World’ (AuthorsPress, Feb 2021)

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