Thursday, December 22, 2011

"Diaries of Transformation": Delightfully In-between

Title: Diaries of Transformation: Work in Progress
Produced and directed by Anirban Ghosh
Camera: Farah Ghedra, Anirban Ghosh
Music: Satchit-Paulose
Distribution funded by Pratyay Gender Trust
Screened at: Dialogues: The Fifth Kolkata LGBT Film Festival, 2011

Academic debate rages over the fact whether the subaltern can represent herself or is always represented by the bourgeois intellectual. However, Anirban Ghosh’s Diaries of Transformation: Work in Progress attributes sufficient agency to the gender subaltern, although the fact remains that Ghosh does represent the bourgeois intellectual. Interestingly, Ghosh is careful enough to address the issue in the film itself. Oishik Sircar, Human Rights Activist, talks at length on the English-educated bourgeois leadership in queer activism and the inaccessibility of many gendered subalterns to the discourses of contemporary queer politics. However, I felt that Diaries is interesting because it does not treat the sexual subaltern as a subaltern; in fact, the film is appealing because it narrates tales of victory, rather than victimization. True, both Rai and Suman have been maltreated by an insensitive employer and callous Kolkata police respectively; but, eventually, they emerge victorious. Raju, Bini and Pinky also have their share of misgivings; Sabir’s situation is even more interesting; for him it is quite difficult to reconcile his religious and sexual identities. Tista and Sudeb appear comparatively more enlightened, and talk at length on the politics of trans-identities and assimilation. But all of them are unpretentiously candid. Especially, Bini and Pinky impress with their warmth and their humorous, no-holds-barred derision of the hypocritical ‘straight’ population.
As one story effortlessly flows into and mixes with another, shots of the various nooks and corners of the metropolis act as means of transition, as it were. Kolkata is overwhelmingly present in the film. The gender margins are physically located at its centre: the Kalighat temple, the Howrah Bridge, the Book Fair, railway stations, markets and pedestrian alleys occupied by gully-cricketers. The hijra and the transsexual man are very much a part of everyday reality, yet invisible. Of course, the invisibility is not literal, but metaphorical: they are deliberately not seen. A shot of an elderly man, probably chewing pan, with a nonchalant expression on his face speaks volumes. He is standing on the veranda, the space that connects the home with the world, but is significantly indifferent to the world, as it were. Another marvellous shot is that of a little girl making an attempt to fly a kite, while the voice-over (Sudeb) talks about irrational gender construction.
Diaries is not only confined to the issue of transexuality; it also focuses on prostitution at length. Without this, the film would have been incomplete. While it sufficiently challenges the received notion of the transsexual as sexually promiscuous, it also treats prostitution as any other trade, dismantling the moral reservation associated with it. Raju, Bini and Pinky talk about their profession, the occupational hazards, and their aspirations with remarkable forthrightness, sometimes shocking the audience, sometimes drawing hearty laughs.
Family remains an important issue all through. Acceptance by the near and dear ones is at the end of the day important to each of them. Raju and Bini are particularly concerned about keeping their mothers happy, while Sudeb and Sabir are at pains to find acceptability within the family. Social humiliation is integral to their everyday existence, but none of them have given up. I would like to mention Suman’s mother in particular: delightfully simple, yet uncompromising when it comes to supporting her transgender son. Gender liminality is celebrated without any inhibitions, throwing to the winds the puckered brow of the moral police.
Technically too the film is quite brilliant. Ghosh has a keen sense of editing and of course a very clear cinematic vision. In association with Farah Gherda, he has done a commendable job with the camera. And finally, kudos to Pratyay Gender Trust and particularly, Anindya Hazra for promoting such a film!

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

"The Dirty Picture": What’s not so dirty about it?

I watched The Dirty Picture sitting in the rear stall of Roxy Cinema amongst a raunchy, unsophisticated crowd whistling suggestively at every drop of the pallu and every hard-hitting dialogue! The 80s were exuberantly revived in the theatre as well as a marvellously uninhibited Vidya Balan bosom-thrust the narrative forward in a believably recreated well-known and often disparaged cinematic garishness of that decade. I was too small to have been to the theatre in the 80s; my first-hand experiences of the cinema hall had begun after the mid-90s, when multiplex comfort could not be even dreamt of. In the 80s, till the late 90s in fact, the educated middle class, especially Bengalis, had strong reservations against Hindi cinema, its mindless violence, titillating choreography and awfully ear-splitting cacophonies that posed as songs. Silk Smitha, the Southern siren, was as tabooed as pornography, or perhaps a moral sin! In fact, I clearly remember I was not allowed to see an otherwise ‘clean’ Sadma on Doordarshan, simply because of Silk Smitha’s erotic cameo! I guess more than the issue of clothes or rather the lack of it, Silk Smitha posed a major threat to the bourgeois hypocrisy about sexuality and sexual desire, by her totally no-holds-barred gestures and parade of socially ‘hidden’ body parts. The Dirty Picture self-reflexively satirizes this moral pretension by exposing the bawdy reality that lies underneath.
The most interesting aspect of the film is the format: reviving the 80s format to tell a 80s story is rather commendable. The sets, the costumes, the choreography, the songs, and the dialogues are all moving intertexts of what we have seen in the 1980s blockbusters. The dialogue gets as cheesy as Bahuton ne touch kiya hai, lekin kisi ne chhuya nahi, yet is so compellingly appropriated by the over-the-top narrative that you really feel drawn in. Vidya Balan makes it all sound and appear so convincing, as she almost effortlessly moves from cleavage-revealing, navel-flaunting raunchiness to sentimental vulnerability.
The film is commendable because it deconstructs what it seeks to construct almost in the same breath: while cashing-in on the female body as the most marketable commodity, it turns upon itself to satirize the practice with credibility you can’t help marvelling at. However, the film is rather weak in several points: especially, Silk’s acceptance speech at the awards function stand out like a sore thumb. The second-half of the film sufficiently loses the punch of the first, for Silk’s downfall is much too drastic and somewhat unexplained. Yet, what is interesting is that, the film could make appear the downfall tragic rather than engaging in moral judgement. But again, despite her boldness and unpretentiousness, Silk somewhat disappoints in death. Why that red sari and the vermillion? I mean the bridal makeup? She could have thrown conventional desires to the wind in the end as well! The film had not prepared us for this.
If not for anything else, watch the film for Vidya Balan: she has cautiously toed the line between the vulgar and the sexy, mouthed the mushy sentimental lines with tremendous credibility, and moved from the compulsively naughty to the lovingly vulnerable with so much sincerity that you can’t help ask yourself whether she is the same demure Lalitha. Naseeruddin Shah has given lechery a new meaning altogether. Emran Hashmi has definitely improved as an actor. But Tusshar is an eyesore! Had he not been there!
Well ‘dirtiness’ gets a makeover in this Milan Lutharia venture: remember it is not a biopic of sorts. It is perhaps the story of several so-called B-grade female actors who rise and fall without perhaps making any difference to the industry, but whose stories need to be told.