Parama was the second film to be directed by Aparna Sen following 36 Chowringhee Lane (1981). She was already an established actor in Bengali films, appearing as a teenager in Satyajit Ray’s Teen Kanya in 1961 and has worked consistently ever since as actor, screenwriter and director. She has become one of the major cultural figures of West Bengal. Writing, directing and playing a supporting role in Parama made her a prominent figure for feminism in West Bengal in the 1980s.
MUBI has recently expanded the number of Indian cinema titles on offer and this is to be welcomed. Unfortunately the print offered for this 1980s film was of poor quality – sadly a not uncommon occurrence for even important films like this given the issues of archiving in India. It’s doubly sad that this summer in the UK saw a Satyajit Ray retrospective with some titles restored to full glory. Parama looks almost as if it is a digitised video master and that’s not really how we want to see a film featuring a character who is a photographer seen capturing aspects of contemporary Calcutta. However, once I got past the scratches and the lack of high definition I soon became engrossed in the story. (I am using the colonial name ‘Calcutta’ which was still generally used in the 1980s.)
Parama (Rakhee Gulzar) is a woman in her early forties, an acknowledged beauty in her youth, she is now a married woman with two children, one an older teenage daughter and the other a younger son. She lives in a traditional Calcutta mansion with her husband, children and mother-in-law and a couple of live-in servants. Her husband is a prosperous businessman. The narrative begins during a religious festival when her husband’s brother and his family are visiting. We soon realise that in this patriarchal traditional family, Parama’s individual identity has been overwhelmed by the various family roles she has had to adopt. The point is made emphatically when a guest at the house queries her name (we hear her called ‘Bouma’ (daughter-in-law), ‘Boudi’ (brother’s wife) and ‘Kakima’ (paternal aunt)). Her given name, ‘Parama’ has several meanings as I understand it, including the sense that she is the ‘best of women’ – hence the English title of the film, The Ultimate Woman. (The film is also known as ‘Paroma’.)
The narrative disruption of Parama’s world is immediately evident in the shape of Rahul (Mukul Sharma), the childhood friend of Parama’s nephew (Bubul). Rahul’s family left Calcutta in 1965 for the US and Rahul has become a well-known reportage photographer. He’s in India for a visit and to take photos for a magazine feature. Invited to the family gathering, he photographs the festivities and becomes entranced by Parama’s beauty, eventually deciding that he must feature her in a series of images of ‘The Indian Housewife’. Parama is reluctant to be photographed but egged on by her family she agrees. Rahul is certainly a disruptive figure as a diasporic younger man who questions Parama about her childhood and suggests various ideas of where he would like to photograph her around central Calcutta. Initially wary, Parama finds herself gradually being ‘drawn out’ of herself, especially when she takes Rahul to see her childhood home where her mother still lives in a crumbling former mansion on Elgin Road. I don’t want to spoil the narrative by describing all the details but from this point on, Parama is doomed. It isn’t only that she falls for the charms of a younger man, but also that she increasingly becomes aware of what she has lost by accepting a traditional ‘housewife’ role. Though she doesn’t necessarily do the housework, she is still responsible for organising the servants and being there for her children. The two things that she has neglected are her love of poetry and her sitar playing.
Eventually Parama’s infatuation with Rahul is going to betray her. When Rahul returns to America the couple exchange letters and it seems likely that even someone as dense as Parama’s husband will notice what is happening. (He’s not unintelligent, but definitely caught up in his work and his own importance.) Throughout, Parama is supported by her close friend, played by Aparna Sen herself. But having an ally is not enough. Family and tradition are all that matters in this situation. Families come together to repress the independence that one member desires. The last section of the narrative is remarkable as modern neurology and psychiatry come into play to replace traditional ways of confining a woman who won’t kowtow to tradition. Finally, however, to the consternation of the family, Parama remembers the name of a flowering pot plant that reminds her of her youth and also features as a symbol of Rahul’s love. If your horticultural knowledge is as limited as mine you’ll need to recognise the difference between ‘calendulas’ (marigolds) and euphorbias, specifically euphorbia continifolia (‘the Caribbean copper plant’). The plant, when it flowers, triggers a form of abreaction, releasing Parama from her repressed state. in other words she becomes more able to process how to deal with her own desire in the face of the family pressure to conform. This in turn allows a connection between Parama and her daughter and we feel that perhaps the independence that Parama might acquire, even in a limited form, might inspire her daughter.
This is a powerful story, presenting Parama and Calcutta in the 1980s in a ‘Scope frame. I think it is a little clunky in places, especially in terms of the use of music but it is ambitious and it features a fine central performance by Rakhee. The film has now left MUBI in the UK but it is available on streamers and is recommended. I think the film was also made in Hindi. I have a couple of Aparna Sen’s later films that I must try to watch and write about. It would be good if some of the specialist Blu-ray labels in the West could attempt to put out films like this, preferably after restoration.