Aparna Sen, the filmmaker who wrote and directed Mr. and Mrs. Iyer, never seems to garner criticism for casting her own daughter in her films. Perhaps that is because her daughter is the best young actress in India. Konkona Sen Sharma was the shining star of her mother's 2005 film 15 Park Avenue. Before that, she earned a National Film Award for her charged and real performance as the skittish Meenaxi Iyer in Mrs. and Mrs. Iyer.
The film opens on a bus traveling through an unspecified rural province, carrying a varied assortment of passengers who are a distillation of the diversity of India. The chatter on the bus is a Babel of the nation's languages - Hindi, Punjabi, Bengali and Tamil are represented, as well as English, the lingua franca of the entire subcontinent. Many of India's religions are represented as well - there are Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs, and even one of India's rare Jews. Meenaxi Iyer (Konkona) is a sheltered, traditionally Hindu, Tamil Brahmin wife, en route with her infant son to Calcutta to meet her husband. Raja (Rahul Bose) is a Bengali wildlife photographer also traveling to Calcutta. When the bus is waylaid by a curfew imposed as a result of some local sectarian violence, the journey turns dark and treacherous, as riots and killings spring up all around. Circumstances throw Raja and Meenaxi together - soon they are traveling as the titular Mr. and Mrs. Iyer - and what follows is a tense exploration of Hindu-Muslim relations, the interplay of traditionalist prejudices and modern biases, and the strange way that intimacy sometimes finds people even when they are not seeking it.
During their ordeal, Meenaxi and Raja do not talk much about their real lives. This lends a sense of unreality to the journey, as if it is bracketed and separated from real life. There is an echo in that unreality of the characters' own mixed perception of their adventure. By shutting out their reality they can take comfort in the shared illusion of being Mr. and Mrs. Iyer and in the closeness that develops between them within that illusion. But it serves another purpose as well; if they think too much about reality, they will have to acknowledge that the journey and the violence and the danger is real as well. In one of the film's most breathlessly chilling scenes, Meenaxi is jarred fitfully into that acknowledgment when she witnesses a sectarian killing. Thanks to Konkona's brilliant work, Meenaxi's anguish leaps out of the screen.
I am coming to suspect, based in particular upon Mr. and Mrs. Iyer and 15 Park Avenue, that Aparna Sen is at her best with high drama and powerful emotion. In her films, mundane, quotidian dialogue sometimes comes across as forced or stilted. But when she lets her characters go, prepare to be shaken to the core. The most charged scenes in Mr. and Mrs. Iyer left me breathless and stunned.
Finally, in the allegorical language of Indian film, the interaction between Meenaxi and Raja may be mapped to the intersection of traditional and modern India, respectively. Raja challenges Meenaxi to leave off the caste and religious prejudices with which she was raised; Meenaxi demands Raja's respect. That they ultimately manage both to compromise and to bond with one another suggests that the film's message is not merely that the disparate elements of Indian culture learn to get along, but that if they are willing, they can each be enriched in the process.
Mr. and Mrs. Iyer is mostly in English; as Raja speaks no Tamil and Meenaxi no Hindi, the two must communicate in India's lingua franca. (Indeed, any awkwardness in Aparna Sen's dialogue, both here and in 15 Park Avenue, may be attributable to a less-than-deft handling of English.)