Paroma is one of the first Indian films after V Shantaram's Aadmi (Hindi)/Manoos (Marathi) (1939), to endanger the power base of patriarchy. Sen makes her protagonist Paroma deviate from accepted norms of social behaviour, from established values of sexual morality. Instead of using her energies in a struggle where the ground rules are stacked against her, Paroma unwittingly learns to apply them to the active creation of alternatives. In this option, where she chooses to turn her back on society, she experiences that society, positively or negatively - can no longer ignore her. Those who take a course of action that deviates from the accepted codes of and practices are pursued and deviance is seen by those in power (namely men) as a very threatening thing.
Those whose power base is threatened will behave in one of two ways. They will colonize the 'deviant' behaviour, take it over, adopt it, absorb it into acceptable practice in society. Or they will label it as something undesirable. This theory is ideally proved by the polarities in the audience response to Paroma from the time when it was released to the present time. When Paroma was first released, a major slice of the Indian audience reacted to the film by registering extreme shock and outrage at the film's gross violation of marital morality by a woman from an urban middle-class family. Today, the scenario is different. The audience, including many of those who had seen the film more than ten years ago, views the film positively, heralding it as a turning-point film in the history of the portrayal of women in Indian cinema. However, the patriarchal and feudal tendency to label all creative new activities and discourses entered into by women as deviant, weird, perverse, sick, queer and marginal sustains in contemporary Indian society. Any attempt by a woman to get away from the way things have been done or life has been led is attacked with impunity, irrationality and totally out of context. This is a desperate attempt to undermine its appeal and to isolate those involved. But deviance, like beauty, lies in the eye of the beholder. What is deviant behaviour to a secure group will be perfectly rational behaviour to those for whom the very security of that group means repression.
Paroma has a conventional narrative structure. It tells a story, sets up a conflict, and offers a possible solution to the conflict. It is an open-ended film. We are not sure whether Paroma really takes up the job. Whether she goes back to the Choudhury household or somewhere else. It is an unpredictable, almost violent climax with a strange period of retrospection and nostalgia following it. The editing deliberately slows down at this stage, as does the camera, to rhyme with Paroma's mental pace. It almost reaches a point of stasis at this point. There is no foreshadowing of the film's resolution. If there is one, it is in the Shyam Kanchan plant in which Paroma rediscovers her lost childhood self and reunites this self with her present one. Potentially, Sen's discourse, from her subordinate place in the discourses in the text is clear in Paroma. In this film, Sen works against the naturalized, dominating male discourse to produce textual contradictions, which denaturalize the working of patriarchal ideology.
This film deserves to be commended for its courage and its power, though, not so much, for its honesty. Because, the quality of honesty in this film is at times, diluted by its somewhat voyeuristic stance. Its use of the camera-eye, the camera being within the command of a man, within the film, is clearly voyeuristic, reflecting the voyeurism of the eye of the movie-camera as well. This however, is relative to interpretation and description. Paroma reveals the oppressive nature of gender relationships across class-lines in contemporary Indian society. It goes on to suggest the direction in which women may be pushed, to discover their own voices and escape from patriarchal domination of thought. It manages to convey this through a deceptively simple, but subtly political structure that creates several riveting layers of conflict in the central character of Paroma. This is reflected in a myriad different ways to the viewers who watch the film, either the first time, or several times, with irregular gaps between viewings. As a consequence, Paroma is controversial and polarizing. Many men and some women find its sympathetic approach towards the adulterous woman morally reprehensible. TG Vaidyanathan's critique of the film unfolds as a scathing attack on the film and on Sen's fleshing out of its central character. "Paroma does not have the moral right to offer such excuses, and by her own exacting Brahmin standards, her action is, quite simply, unpardonable," he writes.
Though Paroma can be termed a feminist film within the Indian realm thematically speaking, it panders to the male gaze in terms of style, formal technique and in part, representation. Ms Sen made the critical choice between aesthetics and political consequence that marks the line of difference between an aesthetically beautiful film and a feminist film. Paroma clearly has a feminist moral structured into a somewhat laboured climax because the search for that lost plant and for its name suddenly appear like a forced metaphor that is not taken care of. Interestingly however, the narrative journey the film embarks on to arrive at this climax is through the very agents of dominant cinema with its patriarchal cliches which Ms Sen seeks to dispel through plot and theme. The perspective of every frame reveals a male ordering of space.
Ms Sen limits Paroma by casting Raakhee, top star of Hindi mainstream cinema at the time, in and as Paroma. The 'star' in Raakhee, which invests her persona with superficial gloss, keeps peeping out from behind the character Paroma on screen. Raakhee, at once a part and a 'victim' of a popularly constructed star-system cultivated, sustained and perpetuated by dominant commercial cinema, tends to blur the difference 'between the constructed persona of the star and her construction of a character on screen.' However desperately she tries, however much the star in Raakhee tries to internalise the 'character' of Paroma on screen with reinforcements of culturally appropriate costume and make-up, the transparency of the cosmetic metamorphosis cannot be denied. The stylisation is too deeply ingrained to be demolished so easily. As a consequence, 'neither the star persona nor the fictional character could conceal their interiority from her audience, who had a privileged insight into secrets, suffering, passion and loss.' Though Ms Sen might not have intended to present the star's performance as spectacle for consumption, Raakhee's performance is like 'the woman who must perform, and for whom performance is invested in appearance. Performance, appearance, masquerade and their erotic shift from the surface of the screen into the story itself.' Yet, in the final analysis, for Raakhee - the star, the artifice of successful femininity constantly cracks and out of the character of Paroma's vulnerability, rises a towering star performance.
Another reason why the star often intrudes into the character is the beauty of Raakhee, sensuous, feminine, even regal, at moments in time. This beauty marginalizes Paroma's creative past, a past in which she played the sitar and read Premendra Mitra. This throws up pertinent questions on whether Rahul, as a professional photographer, and then as a heterosexual male, would have been attracted to this woman, had she not been so beautiful. In that case, would the explosive adulterous affair and its repercussions on Paroma have ever happened? The question that raises its ugly head here is therefore: why did Ms Sen make Paroma so beautiful?
Paroma has an 'odyssey of consciousness' structure. This structure follows the route where the initially apolitical and symbolically typical housewife-mother, gradually takes on - by circumstance or by choice, the politics of her identity and her sexuality through a confrontation with the repressive patriarchal family and the medical apparatus. At the end of the film, Paroma takes the first autonomous decision of her life, she will take up a job. The salary, the designation, the organization that she proposes to work for, does not matter to her. The decision does. This journey from false to true consciousness is the motivating narrative drive of this film. The audience is almost invited to make this journey with the central protagonist, Paroma. Paroma's journey is from non-feminist heterosexuality to self-identification. Rather than work on a puritanical refusal of the pleasures of 'looking', Sen, through Paroma, prefers to explore the contradictions and instabilities typical of the representation of women in mainstream cinema. In the process, Paroma, the woman, is transformed from an object of contemplation and looking, into a site of conflict and struggle, although there is still, always, the risk of recuperation. Sen does not shy away from taking this risk.
Paroma, attempting to redefine the iconography of woman in Indian cinema, came up against resistance from the Left and the Right alike, the former questioning the relevance of its theme and the latter challenging its assumptions. The facelessness of the woman in contemporary commercial cinema in India has affected conventional stardom by reducing the span of any individual star dangerously. The body exposes and exhausts itself faster and more absolutely than the face. The more controlled and regulated eroticism of the earlier cinema, confined to the contours of the face, has given way to a more exhibitionist eroticism that is too facile to stand by itself. It needs to be sustained by unnatural violence in all its horrible manifestations. The eruption of violence in Indian commercial cinema and its 'middle cinema' variants is a natural corollary of the progressive denudation and consequent demystification of the female body on screen. The inaccessibility of the early stars embodied in the cold dignity of the 'good' fallen woman, or the rock-like endurance of the matron, or the naivity of the sweet young thing, could generate an erotic charge that is diffused in the greater exposure of the woman in later cinema. This is the context against which Paroma sets out to establish a woman's right to choose her life.