In Paromitar Ek Din (House of Memories), released in 2000, Aparna Sen shows women as being at the receiving end of collective cynical condescension and steep moral judgement, and mutually conducive agents of solidarity and deeply generous companionship for each other. The fulcrum of narrative investigation is expansive. Along with casting a measured look at our daily skewed perception of ‘normal’ behavior and the concomitant lack of understanding for the differently-abled, Sen studies the implications of the lived-in rot in marriages that women, tired and enduring to the point of blasé and unrelenting stoicism, passively put up with. In one scene, Sanaka assures Paromita, her daughter-in-law, that the latter will not find any sliver of happiness and respite even if she evades her present marriage by divorcing and remarrying, because, as Sanaka puts it, men are incapable of providing women with what they truly want and need and constantly look for. Sanaka insists men are brutes, too besotted with only a woman’s body, failing in terms of emotional nourishment and enabling any kind of growth.
The notion of the bruised male ego and pricked masculinity is frequently represented through the two primary men in the Sanyal household, Paromita’s and Sanaka’s husbands. There is an immense, yawning gulf between the cultural training, access and affiliations of Sanaka and her husband, as he hardly is home, mostly occupied on office tours, emotionally and physically absent, seeking refuge in classic Hollywood cinema. He lets his snooty habits and preferences define the metric of high culture in the household, and proscribes Sanaka from watching her favorite Bengali films starring Sabitri. When he is at home, he expects everyone to submit and heed his incessant desires, fawn over him and fulfil his demands. As soon as the doctor confirms Paromita’s child being spastic, all he does is persistently and vehemently blame Sanaka for having chosen Paromita as the bride, which has culminated in this unwelcome circumstance and diluted any chance of a much-needed healthy heir for the Sanyal family. A similar anxiety plagues Paromita’s husband Biru. He is apprehensive about people questioning his masculinity for having fathered a ‘defective’ child. He vilifies Paromita’s family roots and holds her culpable. At this point, Sanaka promptly reminds him that someone like Khuku, her schizophrenic daughter, was born in their family. Sanaka becomes Paromita’s consoler and helps her through. Paro’s husband remains stubbornly alienated and coldly remote, restricted to late-night drunken sex. He pesters her for more kids but adamantly scoffs at and refuses the thought and responsibility of strengthening his partner’s mental peace.
Both women offer each other what the men in their lives cannot: the most cardinal understanding of the other’s predicament and repressions. They are upfront with each other; the even-handed tenor of their relationship bolsters an ability to acknowledge and accurately appraise the depths in every passing silence and hesitant, fumbling response. They talk candidly about the stasis in their respective marriages and sexual dissatisfaction. After her husband’s death, Sanaka grows closer to her daughter-in-law and depends on her for a smidgen of solace. Paromita orders a fish fry for her at the restaurant, a place where Sanaka can eat and just be, free of any frowning look or disparaging comments directed her way. They fly kites and bathe each other lovingly. Sanaka’s quick verbal attack and repulsive insinuations directed at Paro, when the latter declares her intent of divorce, stems from an achingly tender place of losing her final shard of emotional connection, which is why she desperately, wretchedly latches on to Paro and beseeches her not to abandon her.
Aparna Sen isn’t content with turning her critical lens on just one section of marginalized entities; she also refreshingly departs from treatment of differently-abled people as asexual and aromantic bumbling, awkward creatures. Her Khuku inadvertently unmasks the many societal hypocritical presumptions. Khuku is derided for expressing her pining for marriage and motherhood, as her family dissuades her from having such unfeasible desires. Sanaka’s instinctive measures of correcting Khuku’s bra strap, or touching her clothed privates, only serve to protect her daughter from male lascivious exploitation and predatory attention. Khuku’s existence undercuts and underscores the casual dysfunctionality of our severely noxious systemic and collective perceptions. Every stray want of hers reveals multiple fault lines, which have accordingly stultified Sanaka’s life doubly so, handcuffing the latter to Khuku’s service and stripping Sanaka of any vestige of a varied reality. To elude her responsibilities, Sanaka locates a kindred spirit in Paromita. Both women forage for a shred of compassion; each is a repository of the other’s wellbeing. Thus, Paromita’s abandonment and departure from the house comes as a lethal betrayal of intimacy to Sanaka.
Half of the film unfolds in flashback. Memory is the sieve through which Paromita assesses her decisions and transformation from an unsure young bride to a woman who has blossomed into a confident maturity. Sen’s film has the remarkable probity and panache to bestow the women with the space and agency to exercise and stage seemingly small but significant rebellions within the cloistered framework of a middle-class family and the institution of marriage. A character like Sanaka, who in other films of those days would have been reduced to a shrill stereotype, is endowed with the power of calling out the man who never mustered the courage to openly express his love to her. Sanaka challenges his timorous ways and laments his inability to give her a hand in stepping out of her unhappy marriage, and even leave her kids, as Sanaka suggests. Sen’s performance imbues Sanaka with a sagacity. Sanaka might not be very educated, but Sen’s portrayal adds a fine sharp intelligence and understated wry wisdom to her. The energetic, vigorous colour of Sanaka’s demeanour is on vivid display, and so is the gradual wilt and the emptying of spirit as Sanaka quietly fades away and retracts into lassitude. Watch the profound emotion that wells in Sen’s eyes as Sanaka clasps Paromita’s face and looks on her with a sacred affection, as Paromita helps her urinate. The precision of Sen’s facial twitches, the slightest shifts of eyebrows and contraction of facial muscles, is shattering. The subsidence of Sanaka’s persona is tremendously and devastatingly captured by Sen. Rituparna Sengupta, in her finest performance, invests an unusual stolidity which she has hardly exhibited on screen ever since.
In Paromitar Ek Din, Aparna Sen’s fierce examination of gender and sexual politics, and her perspicacious negotiation of a woman’s autonomy of expression have a timeless, compelling resonance. Jayashree Dasgupta’s song ‘Hridoy Aamar Prokash Holo’ acts as a window to Khuku’s untrammelled humanity that awes everyone as she sings, stunning them into shame for inadequately understanding her. Twenty years on, strains of the haunting song can still produce an ineffable heave in the heart and nudge us to combine discernment and activated empathies while engaging with those close or distant to us.
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