Remembering Unishe April by Rituparno Ghosh
Ghosh died aged 49, this was his first major film
Rituparno Ghosh passed away six years ago on May 30, 2013. Though he made around 400 advertising films before stepping into cinema proper, his first film Hirer Angti, did not make much noise. It was his second, Unishe April released in 1995, that bagged the top award at the National Film Awards, drawing notice to this very young talent which continued to flourish until his untimely and sudden death.
Ghosh made many films after this one, earning a string of national and international awards along the way, but Unishe April remains a milestone film in the world of Indian cinema. The film also bagged for its heroine Debasree Roy, Best Actress at the National Awards.
Through this very unusual film, Ghosh aspired to free the censored and distorted image of the screen mother from the taboos and constraints of patriarchal culture, to place it as a subject of psychological study and sociological inspiration for a feminist reading.
In the mother-daughter story Ghosh uses the narrative itself (conceived, scripted and written by him) as the vehicle for diagnosing a mother-daughter schism in ideological terms, with a certain amount of objective distance since the director does not identify with the gender-identity of his two central characters.
Adrienne Rich has written that patriarchal culture depends on the mother to act as a conservative influence, “imprinting future adults with patterned values even when the mother-child relationship might seem most individual and private.”
The dilemma of the daughter Aditi (Debasree Roy) in Unishe April springs from her screen mother Sarojini’s (Aparna Sen) inability to imprint ‘patterned values’ based on patriarchal codes of motherhood.
The timeframe is caught within a single day and night: the 19th of April, from which the film takes its title. It is the death anniversary of Aditi's father, who died when she was a little girl of maybe ten.
As the film opens with a flashback to the father’s death and then zooms into the present, we find that Sarojini has just received a prestigious award for her singular contribution to the art of classical dance.
News of the award sets in motion a chain of events that finally leads to a confrontation between mother and daughter, distanced through what appears on the surface to be a clash of values, but which has snowballed over time, basically from a slow and certain breakdown in communication.
Aditi’s consciousness is made up of memories of a dead father, his identity, his pain, his alienation from his celebrity wife, reflected as a kind of picture-puzzle through various pieces of flashbacks from her point of view.
Sarojini, on the other hand, has created her own space through her dance recitals, and is focussed on the dance classes she now holds in her own house. She is aware of the alienation from her own flesh and blood, Aditi. She tries to build bridges. But her celebrity status comes in the way, increasing the chasm between the two.
Sarojini tries to compensate for this gap in the motherhood experience by playing surrogate mother to her dance pupils, who are devoted to her.
Aditi plans to bring permanence to the divide by announcing her decision to establish a medical practice permanently in Delhi, miles away from her mother’s home in Calcutta.
Aditi, on holiday from Delhi, feels redundant in her mother's larger world of fame, power and status. As she reflects and introspects on her past, her father stands out as a martyr in the man-woman relationship.
Sarojini, thrilled with the news of the award, doesn’t seem to remember the anniversary, reinforcing Aditi's conviction about her mother’s overinvolvement in her love for her art, and therefore, in herself – so much so that in her world there’s no place for either a long dead husband or a living daughter.
Surprisingly, it is the kitchen and all that goes into the making of an impromptu meal in the middle of the night, that suddenly throws the doors and windows of communication wide open. Mother and daughter are seen trapped in an openness for which they are not prepared, and are forced to confront it.
I say ‘surprisingly’ because the kitchen does not form part of their respective public or private domains. The figurative cupboard, Aditi discovers, hides no skeletons, only the tragedy of a woman misunderstood by her own daughter, simply because her love doesn’t quite fit into the mould of an idealised mother-love – which might in the long run have metamorphosed into a stranglehold.
The mood of the film changes slowly as the camera follows the two women into the kitchen. Tins are opened, an old recipe notebook is found, there is a frantic search for a particular ingredient that must go into the single-course meal.
“Let’s make it without the saffron,” says Aditi. “No,” says Sarojini, underlining her striving for perfection in every area of life.
Then, one tin discloses a long lost bottle of French perfume which Sarojini thought had broken long ago. “I hated that smell!” cries Aditi, “It reminded me of your absences.”
The meal’s preparation is subordinated to the unfolding layers of information and understanding between Aditi and Sarojini, as is the meal they share at the dining table, finishing it off to enter Aditi’s bedroom on the floor above.
This use of the kitchen offers an insight into its own identity in bridging this woman-to-woman relationship within the home. It comes despite the fact that in Unishe April, neither mother nor daughter is a housewife in the ordinary sense of the word. The kitchen arrives like a point of catharsis in the narrative and visual space of the film. And having played its role, it recedes once more to the background, allowing mother and daughter to reoccupy centre stage.
The camera now moves upstairs, into the girl’s bedroom, marking noticeable paraphernalia – the pills wrapped in aluminium foil – for an elaborately, almost childhishly planned suicide.
Sarojini chances upon the suicide note while Aditi is in the bathroom. When she comes out, the mother slaps her daughter. Instead of reestablishing the chasm that’s about to be sealed, the slap brings them closer.
Ghosh takes great care to choose the decor of the duplex apartment setting, to establish a definite relationship between the decor and his two protagonists.
The walls of the elaborately furnished drawing room downstairs are flush with huge photographs and posters of Sarojini bedecked in her dancing finery. The telephone on the writing bureau, pen and pad by its side, defines the method and the perfection in her life.
Aditi’s bedroom is filled with memorabilia of her father, with the fresh flowers on his photograph emphasising the importance of the date. The objects are symbolic of her choice: of remaining trapped and crowded by things that constantly remind her not only of her dead father, but also of the deep empathy she feels for him.
The single-date calendar is a constant reminder of the day, its significance in the narrative and in the lives of these two women. It also brings out the typical attempt of a bourgeois household in a contemporary urban metro to make life stand still.
Carrying the argument further, it symbolises Aditi’s emotional stasis, though in terms of attainment she has proved her worth.
One will discover that her choice of medicine as a career was not an independent one. On one hand it is a conscious and deliberate defiance of her mother. On the other, it is the sense of personal commitment she feels she owes her dead father, also a doctor.
And beneath the surface of a medical career is her craving to belong, to hold on to a romantic relationship which, considering her boyfriend’s casual attitude to it, is probably a stillborn one.
The economic significance of the relationship between Aditi and Sarojini is brought out when her mother tells her that it was she who made the major financial contribution to Aditi’s upbringing and her expensive medical education.
The flashbacks, narrated now from Sarojini’s point of view, unfold the same power relationships that exist between a husband and his wife, in a patriarchal order where the husband is the main breadwinner and the wife merely offers a complement in terms of income, if at all she does earn.
This highlights the fact that even with a significant financial contribution, the urban, enlightened, Indian woman is not free from the patriarchal power base in the family.
Unishe April does offer a feminist reading of the filmic text. It also opens up possibilities of a strong Marxist reading of the film.
It sheds light on the dual reproductive responsibilities of the woman, who reproduces labour for the next generation (the daughter who becomes a doctor, an economically productive human being). And who also supports labour (by making it possible for her husband to pursue his medical practice) in the present generation through the economically unrewarded and unrecognised housework and home management.
Sarojini also has a third dimension to her contribution: she herself is a major financial contributor to the household expenses. For her troubles and her struggles, all she receives is her daughter's total condemnation of her and of all that she stands for.
The only sop is the dramatic irony (melodrama?) in the shape of the Sangeet Natak Akademi Award she receives on the anniversary of her husband’s death.
The best significance of the film lies in the fact that Ghosh makes no pretence of sanctifying the institution of motherhood, or of exalting its ideal, while punishing and humiliating the individual women who participate in it.