The Cinematic Universe of Aparna Sen
Recently, there has been a lot of hue and cry about women directors coming to the forefront and showcasing the reality of women which was never acknowledged, let alone filmed. While that is a welcome change and should be actively talked about, not paying homage to or being oblivious of the work women directors did at a time when the “female gaze” wasn’t marketable is disingenuous. Aparna Sen is one such glaring example in Indian film history and her work should be revisited, restored and celebrated. Her films that were growing up in a parallel cinema space can be held gospel for filmmaking in general, especially while examining women’s experience. In this article, I’d be looking at some of her work and understanding why it is held 20-30 years after its release.
This 1984 film must have been revolutionary during its time. The portrayal of women in this film is unlike anywhere else. An upper-middle-class housewife finds her love out of wedlock in an Indian American photographer and goes out to experience that relationship in its full fruition. It does a lot to re-examine what women’s role is in society but it does something more than that: it makes us aware of our internalised misogyny. I was irked in many instances by the choices the protagonist made only to be shocked at my complacency while doing that. Rakhee Gulzar with her beauteous looks imbues all her sensibilities to Paroma: a woman who tasted freedom and wishes to continue with that. Her wide-eyed exhilaration while listening to the land of Nebraska Prairies and Omaha Indians as her lover describes these, makes me understand what male privilege was 30 years back and how much work went into liberating women out of this. Though the end left me conflicted, I’d remember watching this film for a long time.
Paromitar Ek Din
A few months back, I was watching an interview where Aparna Sen was telling how an Indian wife develops a lot of relationships apart from the one with her husband in the course of her married life and was curious to explore what happens to those bonds if the primary bond with her husband breaks. Paromitar Ek Din is the result of that exploration but with a lot more. Upon watching this film, I realised how this is the first Indian film that addresses mental illnesses without minimising the ill to a mere caricature. This film deals with issues like cerebral palsy, chronic schizophrenia, the dilemma the families with disabled humans face, the necessity for support for these neurodivergent individuals, whilst tackling the crux of it all: female friendships. In Aparna Sen’s lenses, no woman comes without explanation or agency, neither the ones which could be easily vilified. The age-old notion of how a mother-in-law and her son’s wife cannot be friends is challenged in this movie and how. Despite dealing with so much, this movie never feels like a social messaging class. All the events are seamlessly blended into the screenplay with extreme precision.`
This film is a masterclass of thematics, directorial aesthetic and acting of course. Using the magic realist story by Shirshendu Mukhopadhyay, Aparna Sen delves into the study of a Bengal household in the 1950s. The wounds of Indian partition are fresh, the shame of bourgeoisie landlords living life without grandeur is eating them up, and whilst all of this, women continue living as merely second class citizens. The story follows Somlata, a newlywed bride entering into this palatial house leaving her rather a humble one. Goynar Baksho touches upon sexual repression amongst women, child marriage, painful widowing of teenage girls, lifelong depravity, lost love and politics as well. A finely woven tapestry oozes with insights and pain that women have faced for centuries on end. This film has so much heart that it is impossible to ignore it.
These are just a few of the films done by Aparna Sen and there are many others which are far more popular and acclaimed than these. However, it felt great to watch this triad of movies and feel content knowing someone was busy documenting the internal lives of women while the world was busy mansplaining.