In a country obsessed with politics and religion, it is quite rare to see any movie paying attention to science and scientists — that too fine attention. 15 Park Avenue (2005) by Aparna Sen is one such movie, which had received the National Film Award for best feature film in English.
I liked this movie for several reasons besides its screenplay and artistic merit. The foremost reason is that it brings nearly all my favourite actors and actresses under one roof — Shabana Azmi, Konkona Sen Sharma, Waheeda Rehman, Soumitra Chatterjee, Kanwaljit Singh, Rahul Bose, Dhritiman Chatterjee to mention only a few. And all of them performing under the expert direction of Aparna Sen who has shown her calibre more than once with movies such as 36 Chowringhee Lane (1981), Yugant (1995), Paromitar Ek Din (2000) and Mr and Mrs Iyer (2002). What more could one ask for?
Another reason is that it presents Shabana Azmi as a physics professor, teaching relativistic quantum mechanics to college students. Wow! And if you follow my arguments further below, you would be convinced that Aparna Sen has done this in full sincerity and honesty, giving attention to very fine details. So there are no loopholes left which could have turned her efforts into a laughing stock. This deserves appreciation because whenever mainstream Bollywood movies talk about physics, they talk about krypton bomb, and when they discuss chemistry, it is only about laughing gas.
There is nothing extraordinary in the disappearing boundary between arts and sciences, especially when we had Leonardo da Vinci and Johannes Vermeer. In contemporary Bengali literature, several times I have come across short stories and novels where the protagonist was a science professor — physics, mathematics or chemistry — and the writer had given enough illustration to convince the reader that it was indeed so. We do come across Ramdhari Singh Dinkar and Hazari Prasad Dwivedi writing about physics, though only in the context of religion, philosophy and science. Otherwise, for some strange reason, Indian artists in general shy away from science.
Anyway, let us return to 15 Park Avenue. As the third reason I share with you a scene from this movie where Shabana Azmi is introducing Schrodinger’s equation to her students. At the same time, back home her sister Konkona Sen Sharma who is suffering from mental illness is being ‘treated’ by a tantrik, at the behest of her mother Waheeda Rehman. This illustrates the conflict that India is fighting everyday in the 21st century. On one side she boasts of technological and scientific advances on various fronts, and on the other still fights with superstition, dogma and rituals. It is indeed distressing to see India, which once advocated reason and logic, being entangled in a mesh of ignorance and rituals. As Shabana’s voice intermingles with that of the maid, you begin to realize the complexity of Indian society. You begin to question whether it is at all possible to separate the two Indias from each other, and to transform the one which is holding the whole nation back. The inertia is too strong to fight, as this half does not want to be educated, illuminated or reformed — simply because it is convinced that there is nothing wrong in its methods.
Finally, the study room of Shabana Azmi is a visual delight for any physics lover. You can easily appreciate the fact that the room has been meticulously arranged to make it appear convincing. You see no less than three photo-portraits of Albert Einstein, the face of 20th century physics. Not only that, the various books arranged in shelves are devoted to physics alone — modern physics to be precise. Of course, you could argue that Aparna Sen might have gone to a university library and asked the librarian to give her books on physics. However, I prefer to give her more credibility than that. Now, here is my assignment for physics students, teachers and lovers. See the clip below carefully — very carefully — and check how many book titles can you identify. Following is the list of books that I could identify. Then I checked the titles on Amazon and noted their authors. Needless to say, in case of any errors, please do point them out. And do add the titles you could identify.
11- Genius: Richard Feynman and Modern Physics — James Gleick