The scene is that of a funeral. A woman, dressed in a crisply pleated sari and dark thick-rimmed glasses sits in the courtyard pensively. She stares off into the distance, alienated from her immediate surroundings by the weight of her memories – the memories of a lost companion, and the relationship she had once shared with that companion.
The woman is Paromita, the eponymous protagonist of the Bengali film Paromitar Ek Din (House of Memories), and the companion she mourns is Shanaka, her erstwhile mother-in-law. It is Shanaka’s funeral that Paromita is at, recalling every last encounter she had shared with her, and re-evaluating her own life and sexual choices against the backdrop of her recollections of Shanaka.. The picture she presents is that of intense mourning, but along with it come important revelations on love, sexuality, and her sense of self.
It is here that Paromitar Ek Din (2000) begins, unravelling largely in the form of flashbacks, drawing extensively upon Paromita’s (played by Rituparna Chatterjee) recollections of her relationship with Shanaka. Directed by notable feminist filmmaker and actor Aparna Sen (who also plays Shanaka) the film constantly moves back and forth between past and present, and the cinematography deliberately reflects each time skip. The past is painted in brighter hues, full of bright reds and greens, but the present is full of dull, muted frames. This in itself is a metaphor for the eventual loss of innocence of the two protagonists, and we witness that as the film takes us down memory lane. When a young and naïve Paromita first sets foot in her shoshur bari (the house of her in-laws) as a newly married bride, she is quiet, but opinionated. Paromita comes from a well-educated middle-class background, brimming with the neo-liberal modernity that was typical of any resident of South Calcutta at the time (the film is set in the nineties). But her mother-in-law Shanaka is rustic, relatively uneducated, and rooted in old-world ideas. Belonging to two seemingly different contexts and dispositions, their worldviews clash at first, but soon, they find in each other a kindred spirit.
Women finding solidarity in the company of each other in the spaces that oppress them is no longer a startling revelation – it is a trope that we see continuously reiterated in feminist literature and cinema, and with good reason. Regardless of who you are and where you come from, regardless of your personal beliefs and politics, you find your fate intrinsically linked with another’s, and form a connection based on it. Here too, Shanaka and Paromita’s solidarity is borne out of a similarity of predicaments, of shared battles against the patriarchy.
Memory is tied intricately with history, and Shanaka and Paromita’s histories, though seemingly disparate on the surface, almost merge into one. They’re both married off young, and they’re both grappling with the suppression of sexuality and self-expression in their immediate environment. While Shanaka finds herself unexpectedly widowed, Paromita’s husband fails to pay heed to her sexual desires and to please her in bed. Both Paromita’s and Shanaka’s sexual lives are in turmoil. Neither can Paromita push for more agency or control in her sexual equation with her husband, and nor can Shanaka challenge the archaic patriarchal sexual repression imposed on her as a widow in a traditional Bengali middle-class family. In the midst of grappling with the constraints of their respective situations, Paromita and Shanaka begin to grow closer. Through small gestures like helping Shanaka apply a face pack (which the other members of the household disapprove of) or by clandestinely offering Shanaka a plate of fish fry (as a widow, the latter is meant to eschew ‘indulgent’ food), Paromita solidifies their bond. There’s almost a homoerotic quality to their closeness, as they share intimately the minutest details of their lives, and find the rare safe space to discuss the sexual repression and dissatisfaction they experience. In fact, there is a scene in which the two of them are seen showering together, with Paromita lovingly shampooing Shanaka’s hair, which is characteristic of not only the intimate relationship they share, but also the comfort they feel around each other’s bodies.
But the similarity of their predicaments is not just limited to their experiences with repressed sexuality. Shanaka has a daughter who has schizophrenia, and Paromita gives birth to a child with cerebral palsy. Although both of them love their children fiercely, the people around them berate and ostracise them for their maternal devotion. The deeply bigoted family not only discriminates against their children with disabilities, but also seems to imply that the cause of these disabilities is tied to a failure of the reproductive capacities of Shanaka and Paromita. The two women feel hurt and alienated, and the only empathy they receive is from each other.
Paromita’s memories also circle around Khuku, Shanaka’s schizophrenic daughter, who also struggles with expressing her sexuality. Despite being on the cusp of adulthood, Khuku’s sexual desires are seen as something “unnatural”, just because she isn’t what society considers “normal”… In one poignant scene, she goes up to her brother and asks him why she can’t get married too, like him, and her brother simply scoffs in reply, and tells her not to expect any man to want her. Ultimately, Khuku remains confined to the fringes of the household, doomed to find release only through her music, which is full of metaphors of longing and thwarted love.
By traversing in and out of Paromita’s past recollections and present musings about Shanaka, the film offers perspective on the changing phases in the sexual development of both the characters. Paromitar Ek Din is a study in female subjectivity – it is essentially a woman telling the story (or rather, recollecting the story) of another woman, and reflecting upon themes of sexuality, oppression, and gender-based discrimination. Memory plays a distinct role because, in recollecting the events that caused Paromita to develop a bond with Shanaka, the former gains clarity on her own individual actions and circumstances. The filmmaker uses the device of memory to tie together the stories of these two women (and by extension, the story of Khuku as well) to offer a larger commentary on female empathy and mutual understanding.