Photo by Morgan Grana

When Aparna Sen strolled into the Nickelodeon Theater in oversized sunglasses and a bright blue sari, murmurs of excitement quickly spread through the room.

Hosted by UC Santa Cruz’s Satyajit Ray Film and Studies Center (Ray FASC) director, screenwriter, and actress spoke of her 2010 film, “The Japanese Wife,” to an engaged crowd after the Apr. 25 screening.

Sen has been a legend in the Indian and Bengali film industry for over 40 years, with three National Film awards and eight international film festival awards under her belt. She is known for focusing on underrepresented communities in her work, though she was quick to reject any type of label.

“I’ve been hailed, for some reason, as a feminist messiah, which I’m really not,” Sen said in response to the global praise she has received for addressing women’s issues in her films.

“The Japanese Wife” explores differing female roles as well as the quiet, unconsummated marriage between characters Snehamoy and Miyage. Bound to opposite ends of the continent, the two ‘pen friends’ maintain a loyal correspondence throughout both their lives, although legally marrying partners closer to home is inescapable.

“I was so utterly charmed by the completely bizarre premise,” Sen said.

The film was based on a novel by Bengali author, Kunal Basu. Sen has won five awards for the “The Japanese Wife” including the Best Film Award at the 2010 Hidden Gems Film Festival in Canada.

Despite acting in 58 films since the age of 16, Sen never felt that Bollywood productions were examples of good filmmaking.

“There came a time when I said, ‘I do not want to act any more in these mindless movies,’” she said, “’Will I be doing this all my life?’ And the answer was a big ‘no.’” 

Disenchanted with Bollywood superficiality, Sen released her debut film, “36 Chowringhee Lane,” in 1981, which received the Golden Lotus Award for Best Director and Best Actress in the Evening Standard British Film Awards.

Sen says she is inspired by the 1913 Nobel Prize winning Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore. Dilip Basu, Ray FASC Founding Director and history professor, finds her work emblematic of Tagore’s widely-taught philosophies.

“This tradition of humanism, global combination, and universalism that started with Tagore is continued now by Aparna Sen,” Basu said.

Every year, Bengal observes the poet’s birthday with various festivities. Sen took part in the 100th birthday celebration in 1961 when director Satyajit Ray cast her in his film, “Teen Kanya.”

“I was one of the Ray heroines,” Sen said of the role.

Last year, Sen continued the national tradition as part of Ray’s 150th birthday celebration, an annually celebrated event.

Audience member Paula Sarkar described why she thought Sen’s work exemplifies the best of Bengal.

“[‘The Japanese Wife’] is very touching, it’s not your typical Hollywood-Bollywood ‘ra ra,’ everything lovey, happy ending drama,” Sarkar said. “This is very touching. It goes to the innocence of the Bengali culture.”

Sen said she was especially proud of “The Japanese Wife.”

“I’m least embarrassed by it,” she said, jokingly.

Sen is critical of her most recent film, “Iti ‘Mrinalini’: An Unfinished Letter.” She explained to the audience that the role of actress and director was overwhelming.

“It’s awful and it’s terrifying,” she said. “I’m all dressed up as Punti I have to plot, plot, plot through the sand, and then I have to get to the camera and then look at the monitor and then while you’re acting you’re thinking ‘oh my god how much longer are we going to get the light?’”

Despite these difficulties, Sen is already working on her next film, “The Jewelry Box.”

Sen may be critical of her work, but others, like audience member Sarkar, find that films like “The Japanese Wife” touch on what is often forgotten.

“It was really about humanism and I think we need that,” Sarkar said. “I think that gentility, and that innocence that once was, is important to have these days with so much violence and stress in our lives.”