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Aparna Sen’s movies (and heroines) take on the prevailing orthodoxies of Indian cinema – often with sisterhood at their very core.
Beginning with the mid 80s through the 90s Indian society as well as the overall prevailing mindset has witnessed a paradigm shift. The hitherto modest, demure, and unobtrusive Indian women began to awaken and seriously attempted to break the shackles. At this juncture, Aparna Sen, a feisty feminist, made several landmark films whose linchpin was feminism and women’s liberation.
Sen’s magnum opus Paroma (1984) rattled the orthodox Indian society to its foundations. The protagonist Paroma (essayed by Rakhi Gulzaar) is a middle aged housewife in a quintessential Indian (Bengali) household. Paroma is a mother of three kids and a devoted wife. The pattern of her existence may be summed up thus: rearing her kids, providing sexual company to her husband, and running errands for her humongous joint family.
Sadly, nobody has the time to delve into her mind to gauge her fantasies, passions and heartfelt desires. To the people of the mega household she is simply faceless figure. She is the Maa, Bouma (daughter-in-law), Boudi (brother’s wife) and Kakima (aunt) to everyone in accordance to her marital status.
Interestingly, her life takes a U-turn when a male member of the household brings in a guest from overseas. The man in question, Rahul is a noted lensman with a reputed international journal. He is enchanted by her beauty and grace. Rahul zeroes in upon her for a photo feature on the theme of an ‘Indian Housewife.’
As the story progresses, we witness how fate throws Rahul and Paroma together for several hours each day within the precincts of the family home the bulk of the shooting takes place indoors. Moving freely within her familiar environs, Paroma begins to blossom inwardly and enjoy the visitor’s company. This is mainly because throughout her conjugal life she had never received so much attention. The viewers must note that there is not even an iota of infidelity and extra marital fling, whatsoever, in her attitude.
During an outdoor shoot Rahul asks her why doesn’t she try and live dangerously rather than confining herself to the cloistered atmosphere of her house. This stuns her and she begins to fell nostalgic about her life as a young maiden when she took music lessons and dabbled in poetry. It is her marriage into the elite family that ends it all.
Now the anti climax. Suddenly Rahul departs to the US to take up a new assignment. And without her prior approval, publishes her semi-nude photographs in a magazine. Audaciously he even sends a copy of the journal to her home address with a personal note. A scandal erupts in the household. The family members castigate the hapless lady while no one thinks of blaming Rahul, the culprit.
A distraught Paroma suffers a nervous breakdown culminating in a suicide attempt. She is rescued and given medical treatment. The traumatic experience awakens a new Paroma who, despite her family’s offer of forgiving and forgetting, is determined to strike out on her own. She manages to get a job and agrees to undergo psychiatric treatment in order to shape her future with her own hands, the way she wants it.
Feminism is predominant in yet another path-breaking film Paromitar Ek Din (House of Memories) (2000) churned out by Sen. The film plays out mostly in flashbacks, and each scene is vivid and poignant. During her mother-in-law’s funeral, Paromita (Rituparna Sengupta) relives each moment of her life since she crossed the threshold of her shoshurbari (in-laws’ home)
Initially, the young bride hailing from a liberal, educated family receives a culture shock in the new household. Her mother-in-law Shanaka (Sen herself) while affectionate and caring, is uneducated, rooted in orthodoxy and superstitions.
Paromita’s in-laws’ household is exceedingly male dominated and the ladies are content to play second fiddle to their men folk. The lives of these two women are intertwined (coincidentally) by similar experiences and circumstances. Both get married early, undergo sexual suppression and are completely denied self-expression in their marital homes.
Shanaka’s life style changes drastically following her husband’s sudden demise. She is subjected to sexual repressions in the garb of norms related to widowhood. On her part, Paromita’s innermost sexual fancies and desires are thwarted by her husband.
Adversity makes strange bedfellows. The agony, disillusionment and sexual turmoil of their personal lives, draws the two of them closer every passing day. For instance, Paromita cajoles Shanaka to try out a face pack to feel rejuvenated. On occasions she sneaks in maach bhaja (fried fish slices that are taboo for widows) for Shanaka.
In fact in one scene, the duo are seen showering together, with Paromita shampooing Shanaka’s hair. This signifies a certain degree of mutual physical intimacy and comfort. In terms of motherhood, the two women share a similar fate again.
Shanaka has a schizophrenic adolescent daughter Khuku while Paromita’s child is afflicted with cerebral palsy. Quite naturally, both face the ire of the entire family. They are branded as sexually deficient for not being able to procreate ‘normal,’ healthy children.
The traumatised women cling to each other for understanding and support. Interestingly Khuku too joins the bandwagon of the distressed but sensitive not-so-ordinary women. Her natural sexual desires surface when she asks one of her brothers why she can’t get married like other young people. The brother brutally retorts that she is ‘abnormal.’ Shattered and woebegone, Khuku finds refuse in her music.
Eventually, Paromita’s marriage breaks down. She leaves the house for good. Shanaka remains heart-broken and inconsolable. Later, she remarries but keeps in touch with her former companion. Upon learning about Shanaka’s ills Paromita returns to the house. There she nurses her former relative till she breathes her last.
It is obvious enough that the two women refuse to seek any support from their male relatives and prefer to live life on their own terms. By refusing to blindly follow the rules and regulations governing lives of women within the homes, they create a silent revolution of sorts.
Picture credits: Still from the movie Paromitar Ek Din
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