On the surface, Mr. and Mrs. Iyer is a love story that lulls us in with the promise of affection between its two central characters. Set against a backdrop of communal violence, however, Aparna Sen’s 2002 movie offers far more.
Sen immerses us in her context almost immediately. The movie begins with a montage of news clippings that highlights post-9/11 paranoia and plays on the memories of communal riots in India that marked much of the 90s. It’s against these socio-political complexities that Meenakshi Iyer (Konkona Sen Sharma), a conservative, high-caste Hindu, and Raja Chowdhury (Rahul Bose), a liberal Muslim, meet on a bus ride. As the bus snakes through the mountains, Meenakshi and Raja bond. The outbreak of a communal riot in a nearby town disrupts this journey and tensions bubble to the forefront.
On learning of Raja’s religion, Meenakshi is disgusted at first, but later rescues him from a militant Hindu mob. In one of the movie’s most heartbreaking scenes, as members of the mob strip men to check for foreskin as a test of religious identity, a Jewish co-passenger tells on an elderly Muslim couple to save himself. The spectre of their deaths haunts the rest of the movie as the bus passengers reel from the horror.
Later, during a moment of solitude, Raja says how in the calmness of the night, he finds it unbelievable that there’s a riot raging somewhere. We momentarily dare to imagine their lives as separate from their circumstances. But reality seeps in as their shelter’s caretaker comes rushing, asking them to lock themselves inside since rioters were close. The violence of their reality is inescapable – as, so often, is ours – as the mob hunts down and kills a man.
The movie ends with Meenakshi and Raja arriving at Calcutta. It ends on an optimistic note, complete with fond goodbyes. As they part, each of them having experienced personal growth from the shared journey, we can only believe that perhaps love and empathy can truly be transformative for us and, by extension, the world.