'36 Chowringhee Lane' - The Poignant Tale Of A Lonely Soul!

By Dipankar Sarkar. Posted on April 01, 2016

36 Chowringhee Lane was the first film to be directed Aparna Sen. She had made her debut as an actress with Satyajit Ray’s Samapti, playing the role of an an adolescent girl who acts like a tomboy.

Besides Bengali, she has also acted as an actress in Hindi films as a well as 3 films of Merchant Ivory Productions. Aparna Sen wrote the screenplay of the film herself & this is the 1st English language film made by a women filmmaker living in India.

A brief moment of joyfulness

The film narrates the tale of a lonely Miss Violet Stoneham (Jennifer Kapoor) living alone in a dingy apartment in the city of the Kolkata (then Calcutta). The title of the film is the location where the protagonist resides. She is an ageing schoolteacher who takes active interest in teaching Shakespeare to a class of schoolgirls. However her students are least interested in understanding literature, instead browsing through comics during their class hours.

Shakespeare plays a key role in the narrative of the film and adorns the otherwise mundane life of Miss Violet. On a Christmas morning, she receives a visit from a pair of young lovers, also her former student Nandita (Debasree Roy) & her boyfriend Samaresh (Dhritiman Chatterjee). Thereafter her mundane and regimented life takes a joyous twist of fate. But her happiness doesn't last long & ends like a short-lived winter sun.

As the film ends, she quotes from King Lear,

‘No, no, no, no! Come, let’s away to prison. We two alone will sing like birds i' th' cage. When thou dost ask me blessing, I’ll kneel down. And ask of thee forgiveness…’

She even gives away the pie that she had made with warmth for Nandita and Samaresh to the dog following her.

A bitter realization

Nandita and Samaresh are tired of sneaking kisses in cabs & yearn for privacy. On top of that Samaresh is jobless so he & his lover are on the look out for a cosy nest where they can be together, away from the prying eyes of the world.  So when he discovers that their warm-hearted hostess, Miss Violet, has a spacious apartment, he loses no time in scheming a plan. He asks Nandita to frame a lie. He poses as a struggling writer who needs an isolated space to carry on with his creative endeavor. Miss Violets readily agrees to give access of her apartment to the young lovers.

She is happy to have some company around. The youthful enthusiasm of the young couple cheers her up. The old lady & the couple bond, so much so, that in order to enjoy their company she almost forgets to pay a visit to her ailing Eddie, bedridden in the old people’s home.

But eventually the couple gets married & are no longer in need of the apartment. The importance of Miss Violet in their life diminishes & the film ends with a final rejection for the old lady. She realizes with a deepened sense of spurning that they do not need her any more.

Architecture, objects & the city

Historical monuments have played a key role in the backdrop of the film, especially the Victoria Memorial and the Saint Paul’s Cathedral. Victoria Memorial appears twice in the film, first when the trio of Miss Violet-Nandita-Samaresh go out for their first outing & later during the climax of the film.

These buildings highlight the historicity of the city and also contextualize the three key events that takes place in Miss Violets' life in the film. Other key objects such as the gramophone, photo-frames, the 78-rpm records of old songs play a pivotal role in establishing the character of Miss Violet. The old objects underline not only the loneliness of Miss Violet but also her attachment to a bygone era. These also paint a beautiful picture of the life of the minority community of fast-diminishing Anglo-Indians residing in the city.

36 Chowringhee Lane was only the 3rd film to be produced by Shashi Kapoor & the film was a total failure at the box-office. In an interview to The Hindu, speaking about the commercial failure of the films he produced, Kapoor once said, "It was such a pity that the films failed to get the audience. Junoon & Kalyug were partial losses but 36 Chowringhee Lane was a total loss. I had to pay for the publicity charges and even at places had to hire the theaters myself to exhibit it,'' he lamented. "Yet I am proud of my productions. As far as I know they are good films,'' he said.

The film went on to win 3 National Film Awards in the year 1982. It won the award for the Best English Film, Best Direction and Best Cinematography. The film also won international awards at Evening Standard British Film Awards (UK) and Cinemanila International Film Festival (Philippines). Jennifer Kendal was nominated for the Best Actress award at BAFTA in 1983. That is a rare achievement for an Indian film.


Dipankar Sarkar is a graduate in film editing from the Film & Television Institute of India. He was selected in 2007 for the Talent Campus organised by the Osian Film Festival. He's currently working as an independent filmmaker and video editor.


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