Anwesha Arya: The Miracle Womanby Vinta Nanda June 22 2020, 2:44 am Estimated Reading Time: 10 mins, 57 secs
In times when many of Bollywood boys and girls are under the scanner, Vinta Nanda interviews Anwesha Arya – granddaughter of Bimal Roy, daughter of Basu Bhattacharya and Writer Rinki Roy Bhattacharya, sister of filmmaker Aditya Bhattacharya, wife of actor Sagar Arya, sister-in-law of cinematographer Sameer Arya, daughter-in-law of actor Sulbha Arya and National Award winning cinematographer Ishaan Arya, niece-in-law of actor Shabana Azmi and the list is endless…
She is a writer, poet, academician, actor, filmmaker; mother of four children and she lives in England.
Her poem ‘The Wind’ has been selected for the Annual Poetry Review, Beckindale – what an honor that is!
Her piece Amritaji (Pritam) appeared in Acumen in January 2020.
Her books available on Amazon include her poems - Rye on the Hill, short stories - Orange Cat and other stories, The Bimal Roy Book, which she has co-edited and the first Indian essay on abortion - The mother that wasn’t - in Janani (Sage).
I know Anwesha Arya – her entire clan actually – because it is that one ‘Bollywood Family’ I’ve been friends with across my thirty years here, which I feel totally at home with. No airs, no pretensions and no nothing that is Pecksniffian – everything about them is normal; too normal?
Anwesha decided to follow a path, which she has laid out for herself and she digs deeper to pave the way towards an unknown destination. She’s sure there’s no other way that she wants the magnum opus of her life to unfold.
What is your latest book - The Orange Cat and Other Stories about?
These eleven short stories are threaded together through the theme of isolation. Not the sort of self-imposed isolation that the current state of 'Viral' fear has made each one of us experience, it is about isolation at a mundane level. How we human beings cope by ourselves, in our interior spaces, when we are really alone.
Why this book now?
The timing has everything to do with the way my own personal life has been. The last fourteen years have been a sort of self-imposed exile. Living abroad by accident, not design; required some serious adjustments. I kept writing, and writing. It's what writers do. When 'isolation' became a familiar, feared, weird word in daily conversations I thought, my short stories might reach someone else now. Others might read and know that they weren't alone either. That isolation is not alien. So, now… And of course there's always a bit of luck involved in publishing.
When did you go to London and why?
In October 1996 we had just completed post-production on 'Aastha', the film by my then boyfriend (now captive!!) Sagar and I had acted in. His aunt, Shabana Azmi’s film was about to premiere at LIFF (London International Film Festival) and she got a free companion ticket and offered it to him. My suggestion to my father who directed the film was, could we also go represent our film there? It was too late of course - I didn't know the inner workings of festivals then.
Also my secret plan was to go visit SOAS (School of Oriental and African Studies) at the University of London. You see I'd applied for my Masters there for Ancient Indian Law and also at University of Reading for Children's Literature. I'd got unconditional acceptance to both, but I wanted to see the two colleges and meet the teachers to finally decide. I just couldn't outright ask my father. So I was hoping…
Well it worked. Sagar convinced Baba. We travelled. I fell in love with London over Reading - The NFT, all the theatres, the River and just London.
My father said he'd fund my Masters. I refused. I'd applied for the JN Tata scholarship and the Felix… But then that June 1997, my father died. The same day my interview call came.
The timing was so strange. I put everything on hold. SOAS luckily held my place. The Dorab Tata scholarship helped with my travel grant. And I escaped.
What was your dissertation on and how does it define you today?
So my Masters dissertation was on the existence of Dowry as a traditional practice in ancient India. At the time you will recall there was a huge furor about dowry being a British invention (Veena Talwar - Oldenberg). I didn't get it. In school during history we were taught that in Vedic times we had this egalitarian society. In 1984 Roop Kanwar and then Mathura were all over the front pages, in every gory detail. Your film Vaastav, for Project SMITA shocked me; the report of the little Rajasthan village where for fifteen years there had been no recorded female birth!
I had to investigate. So, sixteen Sanskrit lessons layer upon layer, I was elbow deep in ancient verses and I began to recognize a sadly broken pattern. Lying. India has adored patriarchy and embraced it forever. Girls are property. And the Vedic Indians adored wealth and gold. So? Full stop. I learned why women in India are not equal. There's a weird conflict, an old British saying goes 'A son is a son until he gets a wife, a daughter is a daughter all her life'. Need I repeat what we call our daughters, 'another's wealth’? Not our own? It chafed badly. It hurts still. It changed me.
So then the PhD, which is forthcoming from Routledge, it's an involved extended study of dowry and daughters in our culture.
Today my academic voice defines me as a woman who wants to be a woman, valued for myself, not because I'm equal to a man. I'm better. I can nurture and give life, whether or not I choose to. As a woman I want my voice, and as a woman I do not crave to be a goddess, thank you.
Your marriage to Sagar Arya - four children thereafter - what has life been like on the personal front?
Sagara is the kind of person who has a quiet strength about him. He's been by my side through the kind of tumult few can endure. Thirty years on, we're still laughing together. Do you know when we started dating he was shorter than me? We're extremely private people. Our gang of four is our wealth, the reason everything shines every morning. We're fortunate in so many ways. We're both able to pursue what we love and have a home surrounded by greenery and beautiful views of the sea. It's never easy, but always great.
Bimal Roy and Basu Bhattacharya - your maternal grandfather and your father - where do the twains meet and where don't the two of them connect with regard to their films?
That's a brilliant question. The story goes that my father never really assisted my grandfather. He was on set for a time on Parakh. However, whether this is true or not is so hard to cross check. Their ideologies are remarkably parallel, not akin completely. Bimal Roy's work is very outward in its examination of societal conflict, imposed injustices and the uprising of goodness from within society itself. Baba on the other hand focuses from the very beginning - Teesri Kasam (1966) on the development of the most fundamental aspect of society, the man-woman relationship.
His exploration of young love - Tumhara Kaloo, Madhu Malthi, Anubhav - or the stresses and strictures of the early stages of marriage - Aavishkar, Griha Pravesh, Panchvati, Aastha - are extremely interiorizing. As an audience member you know this is intimate stuff.
With Roy there is the outside looking in, whether Bandini or Sujata, even in the most intimate moments the director never intrudes on the privacy of the performer. They're like two different poets, like Eliot and Hughes, one is formal and the other is confessional.
It was an impact of their specific time of life, the culture of filmmaking in the 1940s and then in the 1970s. Thirty years in cinema history is the lapse of an era. So… I hope that makes sense? The twain does meet, as very crucially socially aware Bengali intellectuals. Their breeding ground was the same field, but my father was an acknowledged Naxalite, my grandfather an ardent Socialist. They both, to their credit were invited to the Moscow International Film Festival - as Jury Chairpersons. Yet, their language was distinct.
How would you sum up yourself in context to your family - writers, filmmakers, creative genius et al?
Ouch, surely that sort of summarizing is not for me to do? HELP! I've made documentary films, acted, and directed, taught, blah and blah. I am a writer. Have you noticed how almost in every profession, people will wish they were some other thing - a runner wishes to be a film star; a pirate wants to be a shopkeeper. Writers always want to be writers. It's my best explanation, please!
Talk about your writing. Where did it start, what was published and where you are today?
This might sound clichéd but I've always written. The other day I found a poem from a ridiculously long time go. The easiest way to date it is, that I had my first piece of writing published in Target Magazine (Remember that?) when I was fourteen. The piece was a description of the night…
Since then I've published in every college journal, edited several, work-shopped Creative writing at SNDT University, where I coincidentally taught Bijal Vaccharajani, who recently won an award for her brilliant book 'A Cloud called Bhura’ - there's sheaves of things.
Most importantly I have published my poetry, which has been so warmly received. This is the most intimate part of myself, my prose poems.
My novel is nearly ready for publication. If my short stories reach an audience that accepts my strange style of storytelling, then there's hope.
What is it you are attempting to do to consolidate your father's works and persona into a piece of film history?
At the moment I'm working on two books, which feature my father Basu Bhattacharya's work. The first is a book that clusters together five filmmakers who emerged from within the tutelage of what I call the Bimal Roy School of filmmaking: Hrishikesh Mukherjee, Nabendu Ghosh, Gulzar, Rithwick Ghatak and my father.
The second book is one that explores the attempt my father's cinema made to peel away veneers from the most commercial film stars, exposing their true talent. How he cast people in their prime and convinced them to appear disheartened and disheveled, no perfection in sight - reality as realism, and stark lighting - shadows under eyes, and damp patches under the pits.
How? In a time when buffons and greasepaint were the cosmetic way. In the years ahead I hope to reintroduce his films, his musical finesse, his poetic storytelling and the anecdotal quality to his life to another generation of film enthusiasts. It shouldn't be hard; I'm working with masterpieces.
The first such thing will be an Adda session, a panel of sorts to remember the man and the magic he created daily on his balcony overhanging the Arabian Sea with a cup of weird cha (his own salty invention) in hand.
The challenges you face and overcome - how do you deal with them and life?
Honestly the real challenge has been to not live in Bombay. I adore the city. But I could never be me. In this tiny town where we live no one knows me as anything but 'Anwesha', it's so refreshing it's become addictive. I know people like or don't like me for me, not because of any fancy relatives.
The fact that in England people really are what they seem makes things so much easier. There's a different kind of doublespeak, to do with politeness and politics. But on an interpersonal level you know who your friends are. Once you have a relationship where you've been invited to someone's home, it's cemented. I love that. You can depend on people.
Two such people in Bombay remain our best friends from school, Murad Jetha and Nicolette D'souza Bhojwani. Friendship has been everything to us, to me. It hasn't been easy to decide that this is going to be home. It was so accidental. But I won't digress. Let's save something for another chat.
Daily challenges include living with a young, busy family, while coping with Fibromyalgia and diabetes. I love walking, and the seasonal changes that English people are so famous for discussing is what makes each day unique. It's an island, so our weather is weekly, and even that is never predictable.
I love the rain, I am a monsoon baby, so that doesn't bother me. Having the ability to laugh with Sagar, and each one of our four is so fantastic. And then there's Pasha, our black Norwegian Forest Cat. She makes everything bearable.