Paromitar Ek Din, directed by Aparna Sen, is a sensitively rendered film that attempts to unpack a unique bond of friendship that develops between a mother-in-law (Shanuka) and her daughter-in-law (Paromita) in an upper-caste, middle-class household in Calcutta. According to Sen, through this film, she wanted to challenge the stereotype that posits mothers-in-law and daughters-in-law in a perennially antagonistic relationship devoid of any hope of reconciliation, or warmth. The film is a hopeful story of female solidarity emerging from the trauma of unhappy arranged marriages and stifled dreams.
Sen, in an interview, commented, “[In India] a woman not only marries her husband but she also marries his whole family, therefore [with this film] I was interested in exploring what happens to the relationships forged between women within a family after a marriage collapses.”
Sen masterfully captures the trajectory of this hesitant friendship that despite hinging upon a series of negotiations proves to be enduring. An aspect of the female experience that the film spends considerable time exploring, is the burden of care work performed by women for the members with disabilities of the family. The two starkly characters with disabilities in the film being Shanuka’s daughter Khuku and Paramita’s son Bablu who have schizophrenia and cerebral palsy, respectively. The stigma that both women face for giving birth to disabled children and the daily hassles of care work, help Shanuka and Paramita develop an affectionate friendship marked by mutual understanding.
Paromitar Ek Din shines a light on a relationship that is seldom explored through a nuanced lens, which makes for an immersive cinematic experience. But the part that interested me the most about the film was its treatment of the characters with disabilities and the isolation surrounding them.
There is one scene in the film in which Paramita asks Bablus’s doctor, “E ki kokhono normal life lead korte parbe?” (Will he ever be able to lead a normal life?) to which the doctor remarks “Normal life er definition ta ki Mrs. Sanyal? Amra nijder perception diye normal, abnormal bichar kore tai na? Ar thik moton training payele kintu ader moton aunekeri happy life hote pare?” (What is the definition of normal life, Mrs Sanyal? We, based on our perception, decide what is normal and what is abnormal. If given the right training many such children can lead happy lives).
The doctor’s explanation of the experience of disabilities is hailed as the enlightened voice on the matter in the film. The explanation provided, however, remains confusing. The doctor tries to encourage able bodied people to question their notions of normalcy but quickly adds the need to train bodies with disabilities to alleviate their quality of life.
Similarly, despite the film’s focus on the healing power of female friendships, Khuku, as a woman living with a psycho-social disability, doesn’t have access to this friendship. She leads a lonely life with dreams of getting married one day. But any time she shares this dream with her family, her mother bursts in anger. Shanuka, we are told through the film, has many possible reasons for reacting this way. She fears the snickers and laughter of their relatives when Khuku expresses her impossible wish.
Through Shanuka’s account, we get to know that her disdain for Khuku also stems from the fact that she will remain dependent on her all her life because no one will accept her as their bride. Shanuka fears this life-long dependence on her for multiple reasons, one of which being that it will continue to curb her mobility and life choices.
I found Shanuka’s character fascinating. She reminded me of women from my own family who have suffered in similar ways. The drudgery of everyday life is borne quietly by women as their duty towards the household. Women born in “upper caste” families, in particular, are considered the repository of family honor. As dutiful daughters, they must learn to cook and clean before they are handed over to their husbands. In their new house, they are expected to perform all household chores impeccably during the day and fulfill their husbands’ sexual needs during the night. At the end of this humiliating process, they must bear a non-disabled, male child if they wish to experience even an iota of respect within the household. Therefore, it comes as no surprise why a daughter with disabilities, who may not be able to perform this gendered labor, is considered a liability.
There are moments in Paromitar Ek Din where it seems Shanuka realises that women in every marriage suffer under the pressures of the gendered division of labor and the daily humiliation that comes with living within an unequal institution. Unfortunately, however, Shanuka continues to live with anger/sadness stemming from her daughter’s inability to lead a ‘normal’ life and get married. Shanuka continues to believe that the institution that brought her so much pain is still the only source of liberation for her daughter and herself. She, therefore, fails to see that it is not Khuku but the heteropatriarchal and ableist nature of marriage itself that is at the root of her suffering.
Paromita too, after Bablu’s passing, divorces her husband and remarries. Her decision to remarry and consequently leave her in-laws’ house comes as a shock to Shanuka, who tries to, at first, assert her authority as mother-in-law to stop her from leaving but later begs her to stay as a friend. She poignantly pleads with Paromita, “Paro, dharao jeyona. Koro, koro ja icche tomar tumi tai koro, sudhu eye bari chere chole jeo na Paro. Tomar noye office ache, bondho-bandhav ache, kinto amar oiye pagal meye chara ar ke ache bolo?” (Paro, Please wait. You can do whatever you want but please don’t leave this house. You have your work and friends but who do I have beside my crazy daughter).
Despite Shanuka’s pleading, Paromita, with a visibly heavy heart, chooses to leave.
Paromitar Ek Din tries to highlight the oppression experienced by both Shanuka and Paramita within their respective marriages but it steers clear from critiquing the institution of marriage in general. This lack of a deeper critique prevents the film from exploring the possible connections between Shanuka, Khuku and Paramita.
Khuku’s character in the film is either met with pity/confusion or anger. Her soulful singing voice becomes the only a window through which Shanuka and Paramita come to appreciate her deeper humanity. But sadly, during much of the film, Khuku’s and Bablu’s characters remain one tone. Khuku, especially, is portrayed as an innocent and extremely forgiving woman, who never gets angry or vengeful towards the people who treat her badly. In the film, Khuku and Bablu help bring Shanuka and Paramita together, but in the process, they remain lonely and friendless.
Also read: Film Review – Marielle’s Legacy Will Not Die
According to the film’s narrative, their children with disabilities along with their oppressive husbands are the primary sources of suffering for both Paramita and Shanuka. Paromitar Ek Din does not attempt to explore the possible connections between “upper-caste” women’s societal condition and the experience of disability. Having said that, there is no doubt that it is an exceptional film in the way it treats and attempts to understand a delicate friendship that grows between a mother-in-law and a daughter-in-law. The story driving the film is simple yet powerful. Sen manages to capture an aspect of the female experience that is all too often ignored and for that very reason, Paromitar Ek Din deserves our attention and applause.