“When the journalists came to photograph you this morning, I said to myself, ‘Wow! I didn’t realize my mother is so beautiful!’” Sarojini Gupta, a dancer, has just been bestowed with a prestigious State Arts honor, and her 26-year-old daughter Mithu, a doctor, tears up.
Resonant of Ingmar Bergman’s Autumn Sonata, Rituparno Ghosh’s 1994 film Unishe April (19th April) is the story of a regular daughter and her successful mother that is told compellingly and immersively, and without a hint of mansplaining. Within the contexts of Bengali cinema and larger Indian cinema, Sarojini (Aparna Sen) is barely the ideal mother, wife or widow. Not only does she not wear white (the colour of mourning for Hindu widows), but she is also a dancer — dressed in exquisite saris, her forehead glowing with a big red bindi and always unabashed in her celebration of life. It was nothing short of radical in 1994 (Ghosh spent two years looking for a distributor) to have the female lead of one’s film be an absentee mother who does not quite participate in rearing a child.
Bengalis don’t agree on much, but every one of them will testify that Bengali cinema, after Satyajit Ray’s death in 1992, regressed into a slump of mediocre to absolutely terrible films. In the post-Ray Bengali cinema scenario, Ghosh made a tiny squeak of brilliance with the seldom-seen Hirer Angti (Diamond Ring, 1992). It took him four years of running from pillar to post to find a distributor for Unishe April, and to finally create a niche within Bengali cinema that would again engage the intellectual middle class and drive them to theaters; Ghosh continued doing so until his untimely death in 2013.
In Unishe April, the story unfolds on 19th April, exactly 18 years after the sudden death of Mithu’s father, Dr. Manish Sen. Having spent her childhood being surrounded by her father and nanny, Bela, Mithu is left devastated. When a flashback rolls back to the day of her father’s death, little Mithu clings to Bela in a house full of relatives. She asks, “Will they not go home?” Eighteen years later, Mithu is home in Calcutta for her holidays and sits on her bed trying to read a book. The sound of her mother’s students dancing to music in the living room makes it impossible for her to concentrate. It’s 19th April again, and Sarojini Gupta has been awarded a State honor for her contribution to dance. Bela enters Mithu’s room, and she asks her again, “Will they not go home?”
To understand Ghosh’s cinema, it is important to understand the director’s gradual but persevering separation from gender binaries and roles. The man who directed Unishe April — and made appearances in loose t-shirts and jeans — gradually became the person who flaunted flamboyant, coloured turbans with bright kurta and ultimately appeared in skirts, heavily decked up in make-up and long earrings. Ghosh never came “out” as gay, but he was also never really “in”; he just was. In his “effeminate” swish of hand, his “unmanly” voice and forever un-minced straight talk, he was always a disruption within the straight jacketed and moralistic Bengali society. It is only natural then that Ghosh made his official debut with a film like Unishe April that disrupted the notions of motherhood and, as an extension, womanhood — both within Indian society and cinema.
The upper middle class Bengali aesthetic, that went on to become one of Ghosh’s biggest trademarks, makes its presence felt first in Unishe April. The rooms are large and airy while sunlight pours in through huge windows; the curtains match the bedsheet, the furniture is all classic wooden, the color blocking is meticulous and the walls are adorned with black and white portraits of Sarojini in a myriad of dance poses. The only picture of Manish rests on top of Mithu’s bed, and she religiously places a garland of jasmines around it on the 19th. In the excitement of her award, Sarojini forgets her husband’s death anniversary and sees it as a day of celebration. In a mad rush of joy, she wants to order chinese food and book tickets to see her dance teacher.
There is an obvious generation gap that Ghosh beautifully portrays: “Mithu, do you like this Sari? Should I get you one like this?” Sarojini asks. “No, thanks,” Mithu says. Sarojini is confused and doesn’t quite understand why her daughter keeps saying “thanks” as a formality to every little thing. Aditi doesn’t quite know what else to say to her mother’s whimsical bursts of affection. Through their strained and stunted conversations, forever interrupted by the telephone or the buzzer or sudden guests, the distance in the relationship is so evident that it becomes claustrophobic and uncomfortable for the viewer. Ghosh masterfully draws it out until he can no longer stretch it any further. In a night washed out by a violent storm, Mithu tries commiting suicide after a breakup, and Ghosh finally frees all the floodgates. Twenty-six years of pent up conversations come out and something quite unprecedented happens within Indian cinema: a daughter questions her mother’s capacities of giving, loving and caring. And then, lo and behold, a mother divulges the mediocrities of her deceased husband and then goes on to talk about their failed marriage.
Operating within the stereotypes of ever-giving, ever-sacrificing mothers of Indian cinema who are never doubted or questioned, Mithu confronts Sarojini and holds her accountable for her absence: “I kept waiting for you every night, and then through all that waiting, Ma, I grew up.” Sarojini, standing against Indian standards of mollycoddling motherhoods, says, “I never really thought that to love my daughter, I need to stick to her.” She goes on to explain how Manish was unable to first process the burden of having a celebrity wife, and then when she was ready to give it all up, he didn’t have the stomach to process the guilt of keeping her away from what she really loved. This resonates with Mithu. After all, she too was ready to give up her medical practise in order to please her boyfriend’s family. The lives of the two women with their big red bindis mirror one another in strange ways. For the first time in her life, Mithu is forced to face the mediocrities of the father she worshipped. The more she wanted to be her father, the more she ended up becoming her mother. “Did he beat you up?” she asks, and Sarojini laughs it off and asks back, “Do you really have to be a violent man to be a bad husband?”
It took a death to tear them apart and an almost-death to bring them to talk, but it happened. At the end of the long night of storm and rain, the sun filters in. The women’s faces are flushed from the crying; it has been a long night, but it’s finally a new day. The phone rings; it’s Sudip, Mithu’s boyfriend. The women are smiling at each other, for now. There is still hope.
Bedatri Datta Choudhury (@Bedatri) grew up in India and has studied Literature and Cinema at the University of Delhi, Jawaharlal Nehru University and New York University. She moonlights as a writer and likes writing on films, gender and culture. She lives in New York City and loves eating cake. Her recent work can be found at www.bedatri.com.