Review of 36 Chowringhee Lane
36 Chowringhee Lane is being released as part of the Shashi Kapoor collection, along with Utsav and Junoon. At first glance it appears strange that he doesn`t act in it, but examination of the credits shows that he was the film`s producer, and his late wife Jennifer Kendal, sister of Felicity, starred. In the interview on this disc, he states that it is a film that he is most proud of. Popping the disc in the player, the placard stating that it is part of the Merchant Ivory Collection appears, but it isn`t a Merchant Ivory film. Again that isn`t surprising, Shashi Kapoor appeared in a great number of Merchant Ivory productions, and in style and tone, 36 Chowringhee Lane is if anything a soul mate to those films, languorously paced and similarly evocative of feeling and mood.
Violet Stoneham is an ageing spinster living alone in Calcutta. She has spent her life teaching Shakespeare to schoolgirls, and is now approaching that time of life where she is being assailed by regrets. Her niece Rosemary left India not long ago after getting married, and keeps writing to her aunt asking her to join her family. But Violet`s elder brother Eddie is in a care home in the city, Calcutta is her home, and she has too many memories to want to leave. Still, she reflects on the path not taken, lost loves, and the prospect of spending the rest of her life alone with only her cat Sir Toby for company. Then she runs into Nandita Roy, a former student, and her boyfriend Samaresh Moitra. She invites them home for coffee and to catch up on old times. Nandita and Samaresh have been pursuing their clandestine relationship despite the disapproval of their traditional families, and stealing kisses in the back of taxis. They are taken with the privacy afforded by the flat at 36 Chowringhee Lane. Samaresh presents himself as a hard up poet looking for a spot of privacy to work in, and Violet, charmed by the young man offers the use of her flat during the day. Still, spending time with the young couple makes Violet feel young again.
The transfer is a 4:3 regular one, and age is apparent from the off. Print damage is the most obvious problem, and there are moments of cine wobble. Colours are a little faded as well, but the film is never less than watchable. The image is clear and well defined, and of consistent quality throughout, so the flaws soon lose their significance. The film`s direction is gentle and understated, and the story and characters are allowed to shine without any extravagance or flourish.
A slightly subdued mono soundtrack that is never going to light up your amplifiers, but the dialogue is clear throughout, despite some occasionally ropy ADR. It`s mostly in English, but the occasional burst of Hindi or Bengali is subtitled. The burnt in subtitles are the old style that you used to get with late night foreign films on TV, grey rectangular captions with white text.
The most significant extra on this disc is the 8-minute interview with Shashi Kapoor. He talks about producing this film, the role that his wife played, setting the film in Calcutta and the dream sequence. In addition to this there are 5 pages of production notes, text biographies for the main cast, director Aparna Sen and producer Shashi Kapoor.
The film starts with those infuriating anti piracy messages, but in a godsend they can be easily skipped.
36 Chowringhee Lane perfectly captures a moment in the twilight of a woman`s life. It isn`t so much a narrative as it is an observation. The film succeeds in evoking feelings and sympathies in the viewer as we share in the regrets and hopes of a spinster facing a life alone, finding herself increasingly sidelined at work, with fewer years ahead than behind.
Violet Stoneham is an Anglo-Indian, part of a community that stayed behind in India after the end of the Raj. Her circle of friends diminishes as time passes, and she and her brother are the last of her family left in India. It adds a sense of isolation to her existence, but like many people of her age, routine has made change all the more untenable. So she grasps to what she knows, rather than taking the opportunities offered by her niece to move abroad. It`s a sad existence as we see in the beginning of the film, and she dwells on her past with a sense of melancholy, her one true love killed in the war.
When she meets Nandita and Samaresh, it`s as if she is able to vicariously recapture her youth. She enjoys the company of these vibrant young people, and it is less that she is unaware of their deception, than she willingly chooses to turn a blind eye. This film hinges on the central performance by Jennifer Kendal, and it is an awe-inspiring one. She brilliantly portrays the elderly spinster twice her age, evoking a sense of melancholy and isolation. She`s vulnerable and trusting, yet has an inner strength, an indomitable spirit that defies feelings of pity.
That said, 36 Chowringhee Lane isn`t exactly my cup of chai. It`s a film that is about establishing a mood, it`s sedate, evocative and engrossing, but not a lot happens (the dictionary definition of a Merchant Ivory picture), but while it is happening, you can`t turn away. If you are looking for something different to try, then this film fits the bill.