Though Hirer Angti was his first film, Rituparna Ghosh truly arrived on the national scene with Unishe April. A loose remake of Bergman’s Autumn Sonata, it won Best Film and Best Actress (Debashree Roy) at the 1994 National Awards. Like its acclaimed inspiration, at the heart of the film is the relationship between a famous, talented mother and the daughter who she neglects. The similarities end here - Ghosh’s approach may be spare, but it’s hardly as stark or unforgiving as the Swedish maestro’s.
Sarojini, a dancer utterly devoted to her craft, keeps her daughter Aditi at arm’s length. Aditi, having lost her father to a heart attack and her mother to dance, is the bhadralok version of a rebellious teen: she is studying to be a doctor, and gets on her mother’s nerves by being excessively polite. Early on in Unishe April, Sarojini learns that she’s been selected for a prestigious award, resulting in her making immediate travel plans. This triggers off Aditi’s long-repressed feelings of abandonment, and when her mother unexpectedly returns that night, the resentment spills over.
Ghosh displays great assuredness for someone at the start of his filmmaking career. He patiently layers long, dialogue-heavy scenes one onto another, until the cumulative effect starts to show its power. At times one wishes that the visual flourishes – like the beautiful first shot where the camera pans away from the dancers, or the silhouette of Aditi lit by a single candle - were more frequent. The performances, however, keep one from straying. Roy gives Aditi a complexity often missing in such roles – her change in demeanour from the time she demands that her boyfriend call her long-distance to her break-down when he does, underlines the illusory nature of control. And Aparna Sen goes from affected to affecting as her character’s past is illuminated. Films made in this country often have teary endings, but few earn them the way this one does.
A version of this review appeared in Time Out Delhi.