In 1980, Satyajit Ray made a short film called Pikoo for French television. It showcased a day in the life of six-year- old Pikoo, in the backdrop of his mother’s extramarital affair. Despite her husband confronting her about the affair in the morning and it being her son’s school holiday, she invites her lover home in the afternoon as usual. A seemingly reckless woman, she is torn between amorous love and guilt. In the unrelenting climax of Pikoo, while she is having sex with her lover in her bedroom, her ailing father-in-law dies of a heart attack in the next room, and her son cries helplessly over his dead grandfather and a smudged drawing. This heartless wife and mother in Pikoo was played by renowned Bengali actor- turned-director, Aparna Sen.
Born on 25 October 1945 to the well-known film historian and critic Chidananda Dasgupta, and Supriya Dasgupta, Aparna grew up on a diet of the best of Indian and world cinema. Satyajit Ray was a close friend of her father’s and a regular visitor to their home. She grew up in the company of some of the most prominent Indian and international filmmakers. With her strikingly beautiful face, it is hardly surprising that Ray cast her in one part of his 1961 three-part anthology film Teen Kanya (based on Rabindranath Tagore’s short stories) – ‘Samapti’ – when she was just about fourteen: her portrayal of the tomboyish Mrinmoyee, a girl with a mind of her own, earned her critical acclaim and opened the doors as an actor. Within a decade, Aparna rose to become a major star of mainstream Bengali cinema, paired successfully with stars such as Soumitra Chatterjee and Uttam Kumar. There was, however, a caveat – this was not the kind of cinema that she admired or was proud being part of. Nevertheless, it provided her with sustenance and a great deal of fame – both of which were hard to give up.
When she was at the peak of commercial success in Bengali cinema, she got frustrated playing shallow and hackneyed characters. One day, while waiting in the make-up room on the set of a Hindi film (she did dabble in a few, unsuccessfully), she had an epiphany when she felt that she could not waste the rest of her life acting in films she did not believe in. That is when she decided to do something more meaningful. She wrote a short story and showed it to Satyajit Ray who insisted that she turn it into a film. That short story became 36 Chowringhee Lane, marking Aparna Sen’s foray into direction in 1981.
Going back to Pikoo, Aparna later confessed in an interview that she found it very difficult to cry in the film because she didn’t feel the tears were justified. She felt that Ray had been very unsympathetic to the mother. ‘I think Pikoo is a beautiful film, but the attitude towards the parents is judgemental,’ she said. On the other hand, Ray proclaimed in an interview2 that one of the statements that Pikoo was trying to make was that if a woman is to be unfaithful, she has to be ruthless. She cannot afford to be tender to her child.
When Aparna directed her second film, Paroma, in 1984, adultery was still a taboo in Indian cinema. Even when it was dealt with, the stories revolved around philandering men and their suffering wives. The husband eventually saw reason and returned to his wife. If a woman walked out on her adulterous husband, the film was labelled as ‘bold’. Then Paroma came and revolutionized the treatment of adultery in Indian cinema. In this film, a middle-aged Bengali woman, steeped in domesticity, crossed the threshold of her perfectly stable middle-class home in the quest for romantic love. The Seema of Ray’s Pikoo, who felt she had got the raw end of the deal, shocked the audiences by treating her ‘wayward’ Paroma with love and compassion: it was the story of a woman told sympathetically by another woman without dehumanizing her or letting moral righteousness tear into the fabric of the film. Ordinary cinemagoers were scandalized and outraged – men saw the film as encouraging adultery among women – but it ran in theatres in Kolkata for weeks on end.
The remarkable aspects of Paroma’s character are not only her courage and wanderlust but also the fact that she is not a young woman but a mother of three – including two teenage children – thus presenting an unusual and subversive image of a woman who would go out in the afternoons during her family’s siesta time for clandestine trysts with her lover. ‘Why does it have to be a young person – as if the right to love, lust and sex only belongs to the youth?’ Aparna, who drew inspiration for Paroma from the life of a friend, asks. She thought that a middle-aged woman with children would go through many more inhibitions than a young person would, and hence make for a more compelling character.
Besides, neither Paroma’s husband nor the other members of her family offer any provocation for her to find happiness outside the bounds of her home. She is treated well by everyone and leads a seemingly satisfactory – if not perfect – life, until the photographer arrives and questions the point of her dreary existence. This brings years of suppressed longing for love and fulfilment to the fore.
On discovering Paroma’s affair, all her family members including her husband and her kids distance themselves from her, abandoning her in a sea of turmoil. The relationships that she had invested in – merely extensions of her primary relationship with her husband – fall apart one by one, leaving her disillusioned. Finding no one by her side, Paroma eventually attempts suicide. ‘I wanted her to go to the doors of death before she could take stock of her life again,’ says Aparna. ‘You look back at your life when you are almost on the verge of losing it.’
When she is recuperating from the suicide attempt in a hospital, her family members advise her to go for counselling.
But she shocks everyone by saying she doesn’t feel any guilt for what she has done. She would rather continue the quest for her own identity by taking up a job, an unthinkable thing to do for a middle-class Bengali housewife like her.
More than thirty years after Paroma’s release, Aparna still remembers the audience reaction vividly. At the premiere of the film, during the intermission, some men cornered her and said, ‘What do you think? Women’s liberation means committing adultery?’ She got nervous. When the film ended, there was so much commotion that she had to pick her daughter up in her arms and leave the theatre.
‘A man attacked my father saying – “How can she not have any guilt? There has to be guilt. What kind of a film has your daughter made?” My father said – “Look, I haven’t made this film. My daughter has. Why don’t you talk to her?”’ Aparna recounts.
This excerpt from F-Rated: Being a Woman Filmmaker in India by Nandita Dutta has been published with permission from Harper Collins India.