Sharing outstanding trendsetters of one’s own cultural pantheon with the larger world out there is, in itself, an act of responsibility. When it comes to the subcontinental diversity of India, there is no dearth of such examples as the sheer breadth of cultures and innate intricacies within them makes the act of experiencing akin to opening a window to micro worlds .
The flipside to this is that overflowing riches of creativity can easily be preserved in the vast majoritarian ring of geographical vividity amongst one national identity and actually we will not lose any of our composite lustre in representation . But universal terms of discovery rule our society and so it is my duty to let the best works reach out to a wider conscience.
It is a treasure trove indeed and hence in this second part of the series on Bengali cinema, I am spurred by the brilliance of works by iconic directors APARNA SEN and SATYAJIT RAY . Here they are.
PARAMA is a Hindi language film that conflates the enormous talents of two towering and enduring individuals, that is actor / director Aparna Sen and Rakhi, the major star of many seventies hits who always held a distinct place in the pantheon of performative luminaries. In the later part of her career, her maternal roles of unblemished strength and often avenging tempers became such templates that they are imitated, discussed widely and in the manner of democratic reflexivity, also spoofed by countless comic acts. Originally from the illustrious Bengali extraction, they both bring a touch of silence and realistic trickle effect to the unraveling in PARAMA.
PARAMA, like many honorifics of the maternal kind in India, mixes PARAM (ultimate) with MA (mother) ; hence the most well defined, worldly role assigned to a woman, especially of a certain middle age as shown here, sits on a high crest of singularity for the lady of the house, an on screen facsimile of millions like her everywhere. The overarching value of the title as in the mother figure will come to affect her selfhood as it so often does. The weight of the world heaped on one’s shoulders can be a silent killer and this is the irony explored here, of a cultural conditioning that denigrates womenfolk but almost always relies on ‘her’ for basic pleasures and joys of the everyday.
In Parama’s case, the bourgeois ethos of her family and sorroundings, the educated collective’s patter, wealth and security does nothing to simplify her being or make her immune to the indifference of her husband (Dipankar De) and three children, two of whom are grown up. It is discernible that an early marriage has only made her get inured to this ritualistic coop. Her vocation in instrumental classical arts remains her private leveller, open to no further acclaim.
This is until she is made to be the subject of a foreign returned family friend’s (Mukul Sharma, husband of the director) photographic endeavours in capturing the ideal Indian woman. Her natural poise and beauty, for the first time in years, are called forth for preservation even though she is deemed ‘old’ by diktats of society and the interior monologue in her own mind tells her this is way beyond her league. But then every man and outsider looks at her through their own prisms as someone who can be grasped and one so simple, guileless and naive so as to not stir a leaf. The irony of her unique station and a growing attraction between the two, denied by her, the traditional homemaker, and encouraged by him, the bohemian artist, implodes finally as a covert photograph is publicised, she discovers a new physical awakening with another man and persecution comes visiting her on all fronts, in the typical genteel Bengali way but none the more painful in the dismissive retreats, all the while as the husband continues to pursue dalliances on the side, like he may have for years, as when he sets his eyes on a secretary while on a trip in Bombay and is rebuffed by her, in response to which he calls her ‘bitch’
PARAMA comes with the brutal reality of this challenging scenario. They are willing to let her accompany the young photographer as his guide in the city and cultural anchor. This is another of her many extended roles. However, nobody even thinks that there could be anything more to this situation. The heart has its own ways and her dormant world finally lets another one in. Judgements creep in with sharp edges. She is an empty vessel, privy to the demands of her husband in bed, until one passionate moment changes everything. Rakhi beautifully realizes the core of that transforming high at the heart of a vulnerable individual’s moral dilly dallying. Her alienation within the home and her eventual mental breakdown become equally heartbreaking. Empathy becomes hard to come by from her kindred but as viewers, we identify her struggles. It’s because we instinctually know womenfolk within our familiar folds go through the same, in permanent shells of self – denial.
By the end, watching Parama with shaved head as part of her treatment, the image of a blooming flower that she couldn’t name all these months and her confession about not experiencing guilt over the life changing events paint a layered evolution. In the case of men, everything is rationalized as excusable owing to a genetic strain as some twits say. By being non-apologetic, Parama refuses to become a victim in the eyes of others. She has committed no crime. Her eldest child, a headstrong daughter attending college and who had, in an earlier passage, called out the institution of marriage as stifling a woman’s worth and questioning her own mother’s sublimation in the inner world of her marital home, is truly by her side. Parama chooses to walk alone by the time of this screenplay’s resolution , like the immortal Bengali lines by Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore ‘EKLA CHOLO RE’
This echoes what my mother, herself a Bengali who has seen life in all hues, tells me about how a woman can never be so meek as to not ultimately hold the levers of her own future.
In PARAMA, the protagonist’s best friend (played by the director herself) is a single woman but is so full of positive attributes and self reliant financially and emotionally that the former’s mother in law expresses her admiration for her. She is crucial in making Parama begin with a meagre job as she doesn’t have many qualifications . To Parama, it is an opportunity to claim herself.
Among the womenfolk, there is Parama’s widowed mother unable to maintain the upkeep of her now crumbling home and expressing her distaste for seeking her son in law or daughter’s home’s financial support for it and also her aunt who, she reminisces, used to be locked up in a room above owing to her perpetual state of mental illness. So here is the classified division of women – the wife, the widow and the mad woman in the attic. Patriarchy governs each assigned role. In Parama, a profound sense of individual enlightenment breaks these stereotypes. It is a powerful film, nuanced, emphatic and worth watching for every discerning soul, timeless in its dissections of the world. That is, in a nutshell, the power of Bengali filmmaking. Aparna Sen honours that credo.
No treasure trove can be complete without the corpus of Bengal’s original voice of change SATYAJIT RAY. As the founder of the Bengal New Wave at a time when the French too rose to the occasion with the likes of FRANCOIS TRUFFAUT and JEAN LUC GODDARD and INGMAR BERGMAN revived cinematic fortunes in his native Sweden, Ray made tales of his region (the state of Bengal) resonate within his people, the larger Indian populace and an internationally endowed sensibility that recognised his no nonsense visual universality.
APARAJITO (The Unvanquished, 1956) is the second in his fabled Apu trilogy that began with PATHER PANCHALI (1955) and concluded with APUR SANSAR (1959), focusing its pivot on the titular Apu as his coming of age reflects the stark emotional vistas of experiences among the downtrodden. On my part, I watched the last film first, the first one secondly and then turned to the mid point axis of APARAJITO. Ray’s fluency is so seamless that following a chronological movement isn’t one of necessity as taken as standalone works too, each title has an individual sway.
To me, APARAJITO is about the theme of movement. This entails the movement of the family from their nondescript village in Bengal to the holy city of Benaras here and the sense of wonder present in PATHER PANCHALI transitioning to a darker cumulative arc for Apu as he reaches the threshold of adolescence. The earnestness of that transformation reveals the rebellion and angst marked by his educational uplift and distance from mother Sarbajaya (Karuna Banerjee) The movement is complete yet tenuous with his shift to Calcutta for higher studies and part time job in an establishment. Smaran Ghoshal and Pinaki Sengupta play Apu through these stages with the naturalism of Ray’s nifty touch intact.
APARAJITO is also marked by the pall of death as Apu’s father (Kanu Banerjee) passing away begins a journey to a village in home state Bengal where the living conditions are slightly better than in the previous one in which the untimely death of his beloved sister Durga (played by Uma Dasgupta in PATHER PANCHALI) cleaved his spirits at a young juncture.
By the end, his distance from his mother doesn’t prepare him for the tragic, lonely reference point he has to endure as one orphaned by fate. The last person standing scenario is realized with the melancholy strain and realistic gravitas of Ravi Shankar’s music, Subrata Mitra’s cinematography and editing by Dulal Dutta.
APARAJITO, like each entry in the trilogy, is about poverty rearing its ugly head, leaving nothing of redeemable note for the millions of Apus of our world even though they don’t lack the qualities to achieve a brighter spot. Ray’s natural progression, devoid of a high point or resolution for the sake of it, will find a place in the heart, mind and soul. There is, hence, an irony to the title. A poignancy to it all. Karuna Banerjee as the mother is the silent soul of APARAJITO.