KINSHIP OF THE SUFFERING
Aparna Sen's Paromitar Ek Din (House of Memories in English) explores female bonding between two formidable women trapped in a rigid patriarchal family. While the edifice of this oppressive system is crumbling as gradually (but surely) as the old mansion the family occupies in North Kolkata, these two women must pay a heavy price for their individuality in the meantime.
The film opens with a framed photograph of Sanaka (Aparna Sen) and then on to a bright courtyard where her death rituals are being performed. Against the backdrop of a priest chanting mantras, we see Paromita (Rituparna Sengupta) sitting quietly in a corner observing the scene playing out before her, but mostly lost in her own memories of the deceased. The narrative, which travels freely in time taking the shape of Paromita's reminiscences is framed entirely from her point of view, beginning with her entry into the Sanyal house on her wedding day as Sanaka's younger daughter-in-law.
Sanaka has a schizophrenic daughter Khuku (Sohini Haldar, who won the National Award for Best Supporting Actress) who, as expected, is her cross to bear alone. Her husband, often on tour and only an irritant when he's not, has no role to play in his daughter's life, nor the two brothers who are now married and absorbed in their own worlds. Sanaka's bitterness surfaces now and then, but she loves Khuku, and knows how to get past her husband's pettiness—he can't bear the fact, for instance, that she's watching television when he's being served dinner by the daughters-in-law and nags her to eventually abandon her sole distraction to fry luchis for him.
Yet, Sanaka has a former admirer from her village called Moni Biswas (Soumitra Chatterjee) who frequently visits her. She loans him money for his medical treatment, but mostly he just comes and sits at her house. While her family scarcely approves, she continues to entertain him, even though she's angry with him too for not having had the courage to ever ask her to leave her family and go with him.
The relationship between Sanaka and Paromita starts flowering, ironically, after the birth of the latter's son Bablu, who is a spastic. Both women must now join hands in preserving themselves while taking care of their respective wards, since no one else has any stake in the two children's lives—the scene where Paromita's husband Biru expresses his frustration and anger about his 'abnormal' child is telling.
Neither woman is given to self-pity. Instead, they make the most of the comfort they can offer each other and become allies in pain—unlike the conventional perception of the mother and daughter-in-law relationship being tenuous and antagonistic. When Sanaka's husband dies unexpectedly, she finally has a opportunity to break free—notice how, when the son breaks the news to her at the dinner table, her expression remains unchanged and she merely puts the next morsel of food into her mouth.
The scenes of intimacy and shared pleasures in the wake of her newfound freedom—Paromita applying a face-pack on Sanaka's face, the two women bathing each other, going out shopping and even indulging in a rare meal at a restaurant—are perhaps the happiest of Sanaka's life. Paromita, herself an orphan, too may never have been able to live with abandon but for this unexpected bond.
But Paromita is young, and life is still full of possibilities. When she meets Rajiv (Rajesh Sharma), a filmmaker who visits the spastic school where her son studies, an opportunity to break the shackles presents itself. Her marriage with Biru is long over and both have already gone their separate ways in their minds. It's only Bablu and Sanaka who have kept her tied to the house.
When Bablu passes away, the knots are loosened, and she must now make a hard choice. One that may give her life a new direction, but bring Sanaka's to a standstill. For, it is not conceivable for a divorced daughter-in-law to continue being close to her former mother-in-law. Besides, Biru decides to remarry and that lends finality to situation.
Perhaps Paromita knows she's signing Sanaka's death sentence when she walks out on her. Khuku, who is at her most lucid when she sings, renders a heartbreaking Rabindra sangeet "Tori amar hathath dube jay" as her sister-in-law leaves. The image of the lonely old woman eating by herself in her once bustling kitchen, her sole companion her overgrown baby daughter who clings to her, is devastating, but worse, the indignity of her last days. That Paromita comes running to look after her on her deathbed, is testimony to the strength of their relationship.
As is often the case in Aparna Sen's films, the male characters are weak and ineffectual—including Paromita's second husband, who may be a vast improvement on the first, but is still not particularly sensitive. Yet you can't help but feel sorry for Moni da, whose weakness is his own curse, and he seems aware of it too.
But Paromitar Ek Din primarily belongs to the three women who dominate the narrative. Haldar's portrayal of Khuku is so authentic, it's almost unbearable to watch her. Sengupta, who had earlier won a National Award for Dahan, could never match the mettle of this role in her Hindi work. As for Sen herself, she is absolutely devastating as a world-weary woman whose enthusiasm for life keeps surfacing now and then, despite all the hard knocks she's served.
There's just one failing in this otherwise near-perfect film, amongst the best of Sen's career—the film-within-film of the spastic school is too long and unnecessarily interrupts the flow. But it's a minor grouse in an accomplished piece of cinema and a rare achievement for a writer-director-actor to be equally skilled with all three aspects of her work. And it is because of the standard Sen set with her best work that makes films like 15 Park Avenue and Iti Mrinalini impossible to accept for their mediocrity.