Shakespeare, Nostalgia and Memsahibs: Four Decades of ’36 Chowringhee Lane’

This year marks the 40th anniversary of 36 Chowringhee Lane, the directorial debut of the Bengali film actress, Aparna Sen, that won her the award for Best Direction. The film was critically acclaimed, and is one of the best cinematic representations of the systematic marginalisation of Anglo-Indians after the end of the British Raj. The film allegorises the melancholia experienced by Anglo-Indian memsahibs, given their nebulous position as ‘insider-outsiders’ after independence.
I came across 36 while doing research for my doctoral thesis, on memsahibs in India.

I had read extensively on the literature around Anglo-Indian women, and became wholly fascinated with Raj-related themes in Indian cinema. I chanced upon Sen’s film while writing a paper on literary representations of Anglo-Indian memsahibs, and found Jennifer Kendal’s performance in it to be one of her best. The film revolves around her character — an ageing and unmarried Anglo-Indian — Ms Violet Stoneham, who teaches Shakespeare at a school in post-independence India. It makes a crucial commentary on the identity-crisis amongst the dwindling British diaspora in the erstwhile Calcutta, as Ms Stoneham is shown to be lonely, isolated, and increasingly nostalgic about the bygone days of the British rule.

Sen’s film is majorly hinged on the precarious position of people belonging to the British diaspora/Anglo-Indian community. It portrays Ms Stoneham as a relic of the Raj that belongs to the past and consequently, inconsequential in independent India. Indeed, she is shown to be engulfed by nostalgia for the colonial period, and several scenes highlight her desire to retain markers of the past as she is unable to come to terms with the changing sociocultural milieu. As an Anglo-Indian woman, she has a liminal status, as her ethos is dissonant with the times in which she lives.

The film is, undeniably, an extremely stirring insight into Anglo-Indian community’s subjectivities as a minority group that has always been stereotypically portrayed as desiring a return to ‘Home’ — which is England. However, Ms Stoneham is shown to display a propensity for Calcutta (now Kolkata), as she feels India is her true homeland. Her desire to establish friendship with the young Bengali couple is her attempt to forge ties with India that might prevent her severance from the land. It is only when she realises that the couple doesn’t want her company, does her final exclusion take place. Their rejection of her friendship becomes emblematic of the final repudiation of her attempts at assimilating into post-independence India.

Significantly, the couple’s disinterest in her is paralleled with her students’ disinterest in her lessons. Indeed, the film demonstrates how the profession of teaching Shakespeare to Indian students who no longer have the cultural sensibilities to appreciate the British canon, seems incongruent in the context of politically independent India. The film, therefore, portrays a postcolonial society in which British literary texts were becoming increasingly irrelevant and at odds with the emergent sociocultural and political consciousness. Shakespeare Wallah (1965), by Merchant Ivory Film Productions, is yet another film that deals with the same theme as it portrays the effacing influence of Shakespeare in India.

The film is about a British theatrical troupe, the Buckinghams, that performs Shakespearean plays in the 1960s, seeking an audience for their plays in a fast-changing world. Here too, the lack of audience for Shakespeare is used as a metaphor to demonstrate the attenuating relevance of British culture in the post-colonial space. In an interesting article, “Cultural Imperialism and Intercultural Encounter in Merchant Ivory’s Shakespeare Wallah” (1965), Dan Venning has said:

Shakespeare Wallah depicts a British theatrical troupe… performing Shakespeare in what appears to be overt cultural imperialism… The viewer is encouraged to understand that the loss of “Shakespeare” is natural and even necessary, even as she or he mourns the passing” (5).

Needless to say, Shakespeare as an icon of British culture was no longer as appealing as it was during the Raj. The rising spirit of nationalism eschewed markers of the British culture in a bid to form a separate and independent Indian identity. It must be stated that both 36 and Shakespeare Wallah espouse a subtle and poignant critique of postcolonialism. This is because nostalgia inherent in the movies are ambiguous and not unequivocal. In Shakespeare Wallah, Sanju, for instance, is nostalgic about the Raj, and confused where his loyalties really lie.

The movie ultimately demonstrates an assertion of Indianness as he chooses India in end, whereas Lizzie, his romantic interest, leaves for England. The assertion of Indianness is present in 36 as well, and here too, Ms Stoneham is faced with the reality of not having a legitimate position in post-independent India. Her departure is not shown, as Lizzi’s departure is shown in Merchant Ivory’s film. But it is implied — Ms Stoneham is left with the reality that neither does she have any friends or family in India, and nor will her job as a teacher last for long. She must ultimately return.

An important question, therefore, arises: 40 years after the release of 36 Chowringhee Lane, how relevant is the movie, with specific reference to Shakespeare, given the present rigid forms of nationalism that are intent on reviving a kind of Indianness devoid of foreign cultural influences? While the cultural value ascribed to British texts has not attenuated entirely, it does seem to have diminished over the past few years. However, the fascination with Shakespeare still manifests in occasional cinematic adaptations – Haider (2014), being the last in mainstream Bollywood. It may be said, four decades later, scholars, writers, and filmmakers must find newer and steady ways to sustain the engagement with Shakespearean literature, and study any signs of disassociation, while positing it as a consequence of present politics.

It must be noted that mainstream films, especially Bollywood, have always enabled the formation as well as buttressing of the national identity. Moreover, reformulations of the Raj nostalgia through the medium of the ‘gori’ memsahib, triggered through a series of revivalist and recuperative cinematic attempts by Indian filmmakers, facilitate such ‘recastings’. Salman Rushdie has said that “Raj revisionism” was underway in Hollywood, and allowed the British to nostalgically evoke the glorious days of the Raj. In much the same way, the appropriation of the memsahib like in 36, allows the Indian audience to receive the colonial past in more palatable as indeed ‘postcolonial’ ways.

It must be said, Aparna Sen’s directorial debut finely captured the psychological and emotional conflicts experienced by Anglo-Indians in newly independent India. Four decades later, the aesthetics of the film, the themes of longing and loneliness, the idea of friendship in a fast-changing and mostly utilitarian world, and most importantly, the ever present nostalgia for the past, still seem to be relevant. After all, the sepia-tinged society portrayed in the film was about the precariousness of identities in a fast-changing world. How far is that subject from our present reality?

Ipshita Nath teaches English Literature at Delhi University. She is the author The Rickshaw Reveries, published by Simon & Schuster India in 2020.