Review: Rituparno Ghosh’s “Chitrangada”
Rituparno Ghosh had written and acted in Sanjoy Nag’s 2010 debut film Memories in March that deals with a mother’s (Arati) discovery that her deceased son (Sid) was a gay. The film deftly touched upon the changing dynamics of Arati and the gay partner of her son (Ornob) – Sid always remained as the backdrop. In one of the initial interactions between a female colleague of the son (Sahana) and Arati, Sahana told Arati about her crush for Sid. Then she straightened her dress and quietly challenged Sid’s mother, “Do you think I am up to the mark for him?” What Arati replied is un-important. What is important perhaps is the singular dialogue that puts the matter of Gender in perspective – the patriarchal society looks at women as a commodity even in an otherwise attempted asexual film. This preamble (and lending the content from my previous critique of Memories in March) is necessarily important since Rituparno Ghosh, the writer picks up the threads left in Memories in March and weaves a neat tapestry in Chitrangada – the Crowning Wish.
Chitrangada, like many of Ritu’s earlier films has a ‘film-within-film’ narrative structure; only this time the film-within is Tagore’s epochal epic Chitrangada – the saga of the Manipuri princess who was brought up as a son by the King and who after meeting Arjun desired to reincarnate in her primordial gender state. Ritu understandably dabbled with Tagore’s own interpretation of the Kurup-Surup dichotomy and re-interprets within the rubrics of Gender identity and more importantly the question of ‘Wish’. In the very initial stages of the film, while rehearsing the dance drama (the film-within), the director Rudra (played by Ritu himself) proclaims that Chitrangada’s interpretation is that of the ‘Wish’ – the birth, death and re-birth of it. The Tagorean narrative is used henceforth less as a fulcrum and more to give a pleasant visual and aural experience. This is indeed cinematically unique to blend the other forms of art – not for inter-textual references but more for reception pleasures.
The reason why Memories in March is to be kept in mind is not because it’s written by the same author, but more importantly, the questions and the homo-eroticism absent there in lieu of grief (of Arati and Ornob) are not kept aside in Chitrangada. Here also, the parental agencies find it difficult to accept and pass through the five stages of grief as observed in psychiatry – Denial, Anger, Bargain, Depression and finally Acceptance. These all are the steps towards the ‘self’. Not only the parents move through them, so does Rudra in his acceptance and rejection of Partho (the Arjuna). Like the mother confesses that they never allowed Rudra to be himself, they always wanted him to be someone they would have liked to see. Most scenes involving the parents – the bridge with them and to one’s own self misplaced at some point but regained in the end, are riveting and laden with emotional undercurrents. Most striking however is when the mother says: “I gave birth to this body, which is yours… I have a right to know, whatever goes on in this body. I have a right to know, if it is changing, transforming…”. This is indeed intriguing since here the person coming out of the ‘closet’ is not the gay individual. Rather it is the patriarchal agency which opens up. This role reversal of the agencies of patriarchy demands an insightful reading of the text which as I mentioned above is a re-interpretation of the Tagorean classic.
In 1869, the German homosexual rights advocate Karl Heinrich Ulrichs introduced the idea of self-disclosure as a means of emancipation. He claimed that being unheard was the primary problem of being accepted in the public domain and he insisted that gay and homosexuals need to reveal their same-sex affinity for a larger societal acceptance. The situation hasn’t changed much in the exterior. In the inside however there are occurrences like in Chitrangada where we as audience embark on the next level where the disclosure of ‘self’ comes pre-defined. The crux lies in confronting the ‘self’. Thus Subho, the counselor is the alter ego of Rudra who tries to place him in front of alternatives like a pack of cards to pick up from, and most importantly the sex change decision of Rudra. The journey of self-identification and belief, in disclosing the inner voice is crucial to lift the problem from sexual orientation to gender identity. Rudra in the end did understand that the sex change will not change the gender and just like gender is subverted in an individual’s identity, so is his/her sexual orientation. Hence the betrayal of Partho doesn’t affect the soul since in Partho’s rejection of the physical sexual organs lies the bigger betrayal of not recognizing Rudra’s gender identification and in the larger context, the notion of ‘home’. Rudra had been homeless so far and now (s)he wants to go back to home – ‘home’ stands as a metaphor here, the place one yearns to live in sunshine as opposed to the dark ‘closet’. Rituparno, the writer, hence, uplifts the narrative from being mundane gay film to a more philosophical journey of quest and longing.
The reason for Rudra to go for a sex change operation (rather a series of them) is not something that is well developed in the film. The question of adoption rule in the country and Rudra’s decision to take up this challenge is a bit rushed up. However this minor blemish sets up the film’s philosophical journey which is where the film makes one marvel. There are some previous examples of films in India where the creation is for and by one individual – Nayak (dir Satyajit Ray) is of Uttam Kumar’s , Mera Naam Joker is of Raj Kapoor’s to name two. These films are of these individuals only and are not generic texts of similar people. Chitrangada, like these films is not about ‘any’ gay individual. It is Rituparno’s story altogether and it doesn’t really matter how much of it is actually Ritu’s reality.
Rudra talks about impermanence a few times. As time fleets, life flirts. So does the ‘wish’es. This means the initial premise of a person fighting to lead a life based on one’s own ‘wish’ is subject to scrutiny as well. This dynamism of the ‘self’ as ‘home’ in relation to the ‘world outside’ is what makes life uncertain and worth experiencing.
Rituparno Ghosh, tried to put up a slice of life topped with contradictions and anomalies – he succeeds fairly and Chitrangada will remain an important film in Indian cinema for raising the doubts, contradictions and confusions about identity – sexual and/or gender.