36 chowringhee

„She wanted to warm herself,“ the people said. No one imagined what beautiful things she had seen, and how happily she had gone with her old grandmother into the bright New Year. (The Girl with the Matches by Hans Christian Andersen)

The aging Anglo-Indian Violet Stoneham is a teacher for literature. Her relatives and fiends have passed away or have moved to another country like her niece Rosemary. During the film, her brother will die too. The administration of the school where Stoneham works, demoted her. They say it is because of her age but some colleagues suppose it has to do with her ethnic belonging.

Her monotonous and lonely life she shares with her cat Sir Toby. A young couple brings for some time more diversion into her life. The young woman was once a student of Violet Stoneham. The young man pretends to be a writer who looks for a quiet place to write. While Violet Stoneham is working, the young couple occupies her little apartment. While the spectator soon questions the intention of the young couple (which seems to be rather on the search for a love nest), this constellation becomes soon a replacement for Stoneham´s family which does not exist anymore.

Later, when the young couple has married and has made a career, they hardly contact the old lady anymore. Once she shows up at their place unannounced and they try to get rid of her as soon as possible. They say they are just on the way to an appointment. After a sudden inspiration, Violet Stoneham prepares her much vaunted Christmas cake. She intends to put the cake as a surprise in front of the couple´s door because they are supposed to be not at home during holidays. The sceptic spectator begins gradually to be worried about the lonely lady. These two aspects of the the dreamy poetic and than a sober scepticism which we can feel in many films by Aparna Sen.

On this very day, Violet Stoneham reaches with her cake at the house of the young couple. A single close up of her face suggests that she has something seen which upsets her. This close up is followed by a slow camera movement towards the big window of the house. It is the window of the living room. The window is fogged up but the room is lighted. Many people are celebrating, singing or dancing. With one hand, Stoneham wipes a peephole on the foggy big window. And suddenly the peephole becomes a big screen. What the screen reveals appears as a projection of Violet Stoneham´s dreams, a party with friends, the opposite of her isolation and loneliness. But the party takes place without her and no one seems to miss her. There is the old phonograph, she gave to the young couple as a wedding gift. If she has noticed that a young man is mocking about the phonograph and the old fashioned records, I do not know. She stands like she is rooted to the spot.

Than the camera moves backwards and the big screen becomes again a small peephole of the fogged up window. This scene is hard to bear. It is on one hand a high concentrated example of pure cinema on the other hand we witness how the longings of a very lonely woman suffer the cold death. The dreamy view into a festive lighted room changes into into the disenchanted insight of loneliness how I know only from very few films. This setback from a great moment of cinematic poetry through two seemingly simple camera movements to grim loneliness gives the film a long echo which burns into the memory.

Now she is walking alone through the deserted nocturnal big city. A straying little dog (who must have smelled the cake which Miss Stoneham has still with her) follows her. She cites a bit from Shakespeare´s King Lear and than we hear her voice over citing a letter to her niece Rosemary. For the first time in her life, Violet Stoneham thinks about to leave her country India for good.

This concourse of poetry and realism reminds me in the deeply sad fairy tale by Hans Christian Andersen “The Girl with the Matches” The joy of the girls at the images induced by the light of her matches fascinated me as a child. With the first match she just wanted to warm herself up. But than she creates for herself everything what she is missing with the matches. She struck another match against the wall. It burned brightly, and when the light fell upon the wall it became transparent like a thin veil, and she could see through it into a room.” (The Girl with the Matches, Hans Christian Andersen).At first she sees in her own visions a splendid decorated Christmas room but when her recently deceased grandmother appears, she wanted to see her again and sacrifices her last match to walk with her into the light. The harsh contrast between this wonderful vision and the next morning, the lack of comprehension of the people at the sight of the girl who has frozen to death unsettled me a lot when I was a child.

Rüdiger Tomczak

This is the english version of a german text published in shomingeki No. 27 in homage to Aparna Sen in four parts.