Aparna Sen

Silver Screen Storyteller

Actress, screenwriter, and director Aparna Sen has been a celebrated member of India’s cinema industry for four decades. Winning India’s National Film Award for Best Director this year was another milestone for her.

Born in 1945 in Calcutta, Sen grew up steeped in movies. Her father, Chidananda Das Gupta, was a film historian who counted the great Indian filmmaker Satyajit Ray among his close friends. In 1961, Ray gave the 16-year-old Sen her first movie role, as a tomboyish village girl, in Samapti, the final part of his triple feature Teen Kanya (Three Daughters).

Over the next 20 years, Sen acted in many films, but was often dissatisfied. “The kind of films I was acting in were not the kind of films that I liked,” she told the Mumbai-based online news provider To ease her frustration, she started writing a short story about a schoolteacher.

The story, made into the English-language film 36 Chowringhee Lane by Sen in 1981, tells of a lonely Anglo-Indian schoolteacher who allows a former student to have romantic trysts in her apartment. Now regarded as a classic, it won the Grand Prix at the 1982 Manila International Film Festival. Sen went on to write and direct other movies, including Paroma (The Ultimate Woman), in which a Bengali homemaker discovers herself through an extramarital affair. The 1984 film shocked audiences used to sentimental Bollywood fare. “[Adultery] was never talked about,” Sen told “People were kind of outraged and threatened. They still talk about it.”

In the early 1990s, Sen became the editor of Sananda, a popular bimonthly women’s magazine in West Bengal, where her editorials tackle social issues.

But directing remains her first love. Her most recent movie, Mr. and Mrs. Iyer, is a love story between a devout Hindu woman and a worldly Muslim man who are thrown together during an episode of fundamentalist violence. Sen’s screenplay, which predated the riots in the western state of Gujarat in early 2002, was prescient. “I have been deeply concerned about the ugly head of fundamentalism that has been ravaging the country,” Sen told “It pains me to see that the secularism that Jawaharlal Nehru and Mahatma Gandhi stood up for is almost extinct.”

Sen’s pride in the film is twofold: Besides winning her the National Film Award for Best Director in July, it netted a Best Actress award for her daughter Konkona, who plays Mrs. Iyer. The family tradition, it seems, is continuing.