To audiences fed on shrewish, trouble-mongering mothers-in-law played by the likes of Lalita Pawar, this kind of bonding is quite unusual. And perhaps suspect in the wake of Fire—Deepa Mehta’s film where the bonding between two lonely sisters-in-law crossed over to a physical relationship. Aparna Sen laughs saying, “Fire was just one story. And I did not really think that it made me feel I could not show a female relationship without those connotations.” Instead what she is drawn to is loneliness—whether it’s an elderly Anglo-Indian schoolteacher in her little apartment with her cat, or the loneliness of a woman trapped in a marriage that has become empty. Sen comments that when Sanaka dies, though everyone goes through the motions of grief, the ones who are really bereaved are her ex-daughter-in-law, her old friend and childhood sweetheart who was never able to express his feelings for her, and her schizophrenic daughter Khuku—all of them in their own ways, outsiders to the normal family structure.
It is this notion of normalcy that Aparna Sen hopes to shake with a film likeParomita. In the film she depicts not just Khuku but also Paromita’s son who is born with cerebral palsy for which her husband blames her genes. She recalls that she has experienced schizophrenia in her family and friends circle, and in fact based the character of Khuku on someone she knew. “But we never see marginalized people like that in our films. People are embarrassed by disability. I have a friend who is very kind-hearted but doesn’t want to go to a place like the Institute of Cerebral Palsy because she finds it too upsetting. I think we just can’t deal with anything other than ‘normal.’ I think the definition of normalcy needs to be made wider so one knows that one’s world is inhabited by all kinds of people.”
The film has certainly widened that definition. After its successful run in Calcutta, the Institute of Cerebral Palsy there has suddenly seen an outpouring of public interest. Aparna Sen is thrilled because she remembers visiting the Institute (run by Sudha Kaul whose son has cerebral palsy as well) and being struck by the warm, happy atmosphere. “Most of all, I would just see all these mothers and think how lonely they must have been till they found each other.”
Whether or not films can affect social change, Paromitar Ek Din has certainly done its bit. Not just through awards and honors though it has its share—Shohini Haldar, daughter of theater actress Swatilekha (Ghare Baire) Chatterjee, won a national best supporting actress for her role as Khuku, a role that she was scared to take on at first telling Sen, “you will have to get the performance out of me.” Jayasri Dasgupta, an old friend of Sen’s won a best playback award for the haunting Rabindra Sangeet she sings in the film. Sen says, “I like to think that Rabindra Sangeet with its mysticism speaks of an inner life. I like to think the schizophrenic Khuku has an inner life the rest of us are not aware of. I remember in the Mrinal Sen film Mahaprithibi where I have a schizophrenic sister-in-law, I suggest in one scene when she is sitting quietly in a room after a big row that she be singing a Rabindra Sangeet.”
But perhaps even more important than the awards is the film’s excellent run at the box office. It started out with a run in three theaters in Kolkata and then soon expanded to bigger theaters that traditionally only showed Hindi films. Sen is pleased, but not surprised, because she remembers when she read the script to friends and colleagues they would often be moved to tears. Perhaps films likeParomita are finally drawing back the middle-class, which had all but abandoned the theaters. That spells good news for directors like her. In fact she is already planning her next film based on famous Bengali story Goynar Bakshoabout three generations of women and a jewel box.
What Sen proved through Paromita was she could deliver a film under the most stringent of conditions—for about 30-35 lakh rupees and completed in 33 days. It meant they had to make meticulous ground plans and shot divisions to figure out what would be shot on location and what would be done on sets. “Since film stock and shift time are the single most important components, I wanted to keep that as low as possible. The exposure ratio was 1 is to 2 (meaning only 1 retake was possible for each take). Also the actors took very little money for it.”
Originally she had visualized the film with Shabana Azmi and Tabu. “Javed (Akhtar) had even planned to translate all the Rabindra Sangeets into Hindi,” she recalls. But when that did not work out, her producer put up the money on the condition that she play the mother-in-law’s role herself. Aparna Sen says, “It meant I never got the benefit of my own supervision. But what really helped was that from my last film (Yugant) we have started doing acting workshops to prepare for the film. And I was involved both as director and actress.” It seems the work-shopping has paid off—audiences have been streaming in to see this interplay between two generations of women with its commentary on joint families, mental handicaps, relationships, and the meaning of marriage and individual happiness. But in the end says Aparna Sen, “the film is about kindness and the difference it makes to the quality of our lives.” Perhaps if there is a secret for its success, it is simply that.
Sandip Roy Chowdhury’s works have appeared in A Magazine, Pacific Reader, and Jinn (Pacific News Service). He is an occasional commentator on the New California Media TV show.