Looking Back at Mr. and Mrs. Iyer

The story of an almost-affair between two strangers is an abiding reminder of how, when faced with ugliness, it is goodness that prevails
Looking Back at Mr. and Mrs. Iyer

A bus that is a microcosm of India: Gujaratis, Tamilians, Jews and Bengalis; boisterous youngsters, elderly couples; abled and disabled; people of all ages; the ugliness of someone saying "bloody terrorists" when a Muslim man performs namaaz in the aisle; the beauty of random acts of kindness. This is where we meet the two strangers who will become the titular couple in director Aparna Sen's Mr. and Mrs. Iyer. The film is as much about Meenakshi and Raja's deliciously vague relationship as it is about a turbulent society trying to cope with the violence by which it is beset.    

Twenty years later, there's a lot about Mr. and Mrs. Iyer that feels nostalgic (remember the Walkman? Remember being on a bus in which a group of people sing raucously?). At the same time, it's unsettling to realise how much of it feels ubiquitous rather than extraordinary — like how Meenakshi Iyer (Konkona Sensharma) shudders with distaste at having shared water with Raja Chowdhury (Rahul Bose), a Muslim man; or when a rioting mob enters the bus and starts assaulting non-Hindus. 

Violence and kindness sit side by side on the journey that Sen takes us on with her film. Raja is a wildlife photographer and his camera is an excuse that lets almost-lovers brush one another's fingers as they gaze at deer. In the next minute, it becomes the spyglass that makes two terrified people witness rioters slit someone's throat. To save himself, a Jewish man points an elderly Muslim couple out to the rioters. A few moments later, Meenakshi places her infant son on Raja's lap, using her privileged status of a Hindu Brahmin to protect her fellow traveller.  

Watching Mr. and Mrs. Iyer today — why isn't this film on any of our streaming platforms? — the film's victory lies not in the scenes that show hate, but in its subtlety and the hope it determinedly rests upon our humanity. Meenakshi and Raja's relationship is a tightrope act, one that both Sensharma and Bose perform with precise perfection. In a world of Kabir Singh and Pyaar Ka Punchnaama, Bose's Raja had aged surprisingly well. He's both tender and stern as he helps Meenakshi with the baby but also puts her in her place when she attempts to flaunt her caste purity at him. Meenakshi's conflict is writ large on her face through Sensharma's performance: she is aghast at how Raja touches his mouth to the bottle when drinking water, and she is a giggling mess when he cracks a joke. She struggles between the conservatism that she's been socialised into and her emotional intelligence. When she wakes up to find her hand resting on his, she snatches it away, but not before a smile slips out. 

The film gets its title from that fateful and dramatic moment when Meenakshi christens Raja "Mr. Iyer", but for me, the relationship between Meenakshi and Raja is at its poignant and sensual best when in a later scene, Meenakshi, while on an STD call (remember those?) with her father-in-law, hands the phone over to Raja, who is holding her baby, and he pretends to be the bus' manager. For her, he lies and says Meenakshi will spend the night in a hotel with the other ladies from the bus, when in fact she will spend the night with Raja – strictly platonically – in a remote forest bungalow. Somehow, the chasteness of this shared night is more sensual than all the late-night romps of Bridgerton.  

In 2022, Mr. and Mrs. Iyer remains not only relevant but also charming for its refusal to be categorised into easy clichés. Not once does Meenakshi come across as an unhappily married woman. Neither do Raja and Meenakshi make any plans to meet again or put a label on their vague relationship. Instead, they remain connected by the memory of living through a life-changing experience that could have been horrifyingly traumatic, had it not been for the companionship that Meenakshi and Raja provided one another. 

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