Thursday, September 6, 2012

Chitrangada: a crowning wish

Why Chitrangada?

Rituparno Ghosh’s latest borrows the title of Tagore’s poetic play (more popular in its condensed form as a dance-drama) and adds an appendix to it: ‘a crowning wish’. This play was adapted by Tagore from an episode in The Mahabharata, and in its preface, the poet shares his thoughts which went into its conception: while travelling from Shantinekatan to Kolkata in late spring, the poet was struck by the abundance of the season as he looked out of the train window. The fertility of the season would manifest itself in early summer, when the trees would modestly exhibit their fecundity in the loads of fruits that would hang from their branches. Simultaneously, a strange thought came to the poet:
…hothat amar mone holo sundori juboti Jodi onubhob kore je se taar jouboner maya diye premik er hridoy bhuliyechhe tahole se taar surup kei apon soubhagyer mukhyo ongshe bhaag boshabar obhijog e sotin boley dhikkar ditey pare. E je tar bairer jinish, e jeno rituraaj bosonter kachh theke pawa bor, khonik moho bistar er dwara joibo uddeshyo siddho korbar jonyo jodi tar ontorer modhye jothartho charitrpshakti thake, tobey sei mohomukto shaktir daani taar premik er pokkhe mohot laabh, jugol jibon er jayayatra r sahaye. (Rabindra Natya Sangraha, Prothom Khanda, 327)

To summarize: The poet’s intention of composing Chitrangada was to establish the beauty of the soul over the beauty of the body, the latter being temporal and therefore undesirable. When Chitrangada became a dance –drama, Tagore had it open with the following prologue:

Manipur Raj er bhakti te tushto hoye, Shib bor dilen je raajbongshe sudhumatro putroi janmabe. Totsatweo, jokhon rajkul e Chitrangada r janmo holo, Raja takey putro roop e palon korte thaklen…
(Pleased by the devotion of the King of Manipur, Lord Shiva granted him the boon that the royal family would only bear male children. Even then, when Chitrangada was born to the royal family, the King brought her up like a son…)

The two phrases “even then” and “like a son” are important:

  1. A woman who is born debunking divine decree is expected to be unique.
  2. A woman, who is conditioned to become a man, epitomizes the reality of the social construction of gender.
  3. The King of Manipur imposes his wish on his daughter and rears him like a son.

Ritupano Ghosh’s film takes off from these three possible inferences that could be drawn from the prologue of the dance-drama, although the profundity of the original seems wanting. Smitten by Arjun, Chitrangada approaches Madan, the God of Love, to bestow upon her feminine grace and beauty for a year, so that Arjun falls in love with her. Madan relents and grants her the boon; hence, the famed transformation from Kurupa to Surupa (please note these are not Tagore’s terms). However, Chitrangada, recognizing the superfluity of physical beauty, returns the boon before that promised one year is over. Perhaps, the most recognizable literal link between Tagore’s text and Ghosh’s film lies here: Rudra too calls off his cosmetic transformation into a woman, and chooses to remain what he was.

At the very outset, Rudra (Ghosh himself) interprets Chitrangada as the ‘story of a wish’: Chitrangada’s wish versus her father’s wish. But, it’s more about the performativity of gender; or in other words, the fact that gender performance is an illusion, best expressed in the song:

Narir lalita lobhon lilaye ekhoni keno e klanti/ekhoni ki sokha khela holo oboshan/je madhur rosey chhile bihvala, se ki madhumakha bhranti…seki swapner daan, seki satyer opomaan/…dur durashaye hriday gorichho kothin premer protima gorichho/…ki mone bhabia nari te korichho pourush sandhan, eo ki maya r daan?

 The repeated use of such words and phrases as lila (dalliance), khela (play), bihvala (stupefaction), madhumakha bhranti (charming error), swapner daan or mayar daan (an illusory gift) underscore the very illusory nature of gender performativity (seki satyer opomaan). Rituparno Ghosh’s Chitrangada begins with the promise of playing with this very notion, but loses track in the course of the development of the plot, returning to a plausible end, though. Given the access to modern technology which is adept to change the body, the possibility of playing with the ideas of body, gender and sexuality was enormous. The film displays awareness of the same, but doesn’t convincingly execute it.
The central conflict is not between Rudra and any other external force; rather, it is a confounded conflict within him. The apparent problem with the origin of the wish (here, the wish to become a woman) is that it has no credible history. It’s born one fine morning when Rudra discovers Partha’s (Jishu Sengupta) fondness for children. Consequently, he descends into sentimental musings about how Partha would never be happy with him, for he would never be able to bear him children. Two male parents cannot even adopt a child. In order to sustain the relationship, Rudra decides to undergo a gender reassignment surgery. And, in no time, the desire becomes so overwhelming that he actually consults a doctor, and goes in for breast implant. Please note, Partha never asks him to opt for this. In fact, the reality of Partha’s discomfort with the sex-change dawns on Rudra when the former tells him that he was in love with a man; if he had to, he would rather have a real woman, than a synthetic one, not a ‘half-thing’. Despite the political incorrectness of Partha’s invective, I would say this is the most ‘queer’ moment of the film. Although Rudra is shattered and censures Partha for his insensitivity, it is difficult not to sympathize with the latter’s view. It is much later, however, that Rudra admits to Shubho (Anjan Dutta) that he could not blame Partha.

Commendably, therefore, the film recognizes the multiplicity of desires, unwittingly or knowingly; but, the film does not ponder over the sudden change in Rudra’s decision on the day of the final surgery. Apart from that one mysterious text message (‘Why do you call a BUILDING a building even when it is complete?’), that recognizes the fact that the body is into a perennial process of change, there is no elucidation. Rudra abandons as abruptly as he had plunged into exercising his desire. Is it because of a realization that a desire to enter a compulsive heteronormative structure (by becoming a woman) is redundant for it ‘dis-empowers’ him by taking away from him the gender fluidity he has so far embodied?  If that is so, the use of Tagore’s Chitrangada as the reference text might be found just. But, we can only speculate.

Spaces, In-Between

The film demands of the audience painstaking attention; for the narrative not only moves back and forth in time, but also inhabits both real and surreal spaces simultaneously. The stage, the sea beach, the hospital cabin and the operation theatre become a spatial continuum, and the protagonist often exists in more than one space at the same time. This deliberate confusion of the real and the surreal is perhaps the most appealing aspect of the film, for it opens up the right kind of space to accommodate gender liminality. The sexual Other who debunks normativity often acquires monstrous dimensions in the cultural imagination. Therefore, it was important to situate Rudra in a fluid space where the real and the surreal coalesce. In any case, the film is also a celebration of a fancy (as in wish), for which the classical realistic mode would not have worked. The three text messages from some mysterious sender, and the enigmatic counselor Shubho who turns out to be Rudra’s double fit well into this surreal mode.

However, the three philosophical text messages, especially the last one, (‘If driving in a drunken state is not allowed, why do bars have parking lots?’, ‘Everybody wants to go to Heaven, but no one wants to die’ and ‘Why do call a BUILDING a building even after it is complete?’) could have had a greater impact, if it wasn’t explicated. The final explanation given by Shubho robs the message of its intensity. And, the nurse telling Rudra that he must have been hallucinating all these days is completely undesirable. The problem is Ghosh assumed his audience to be intelligent, but could not completely depend on their acumen. Had Shubho remained elusive till the end, the surreal mode would have been highly successful. (May be it's a compromise he had to make keeping in mind the box-office!)

The Journey

The questions, the confusions, the anxieties, and the agony that assail Rudra before he undergoes the final surgery do not seem unreal. It’s quite natural to go through these states of mind before changing one’s biological sex. Rudra is lucky enough to have such understanding parents (Dipankar De and Anashuya Majumdar) who stand by him through the process. It’s a tad painful that Rudra continuously sees his father as a tyrannical patriarch who has never approved of his son’s effeminacy; but, the father does not come across as tyrannical as he was meant to be. Or perhaps, it is Rudra’s imagination that fathers are always tyrannical that makes him look upon him thus. The parents accept their son’s decision with a reserve unexpected of middle class Bengali parents in general. Rudra’s parents are remarkably exceptional to that end. However, a major Freudian slip occurs on the part of the father when he says that they have bought new curtains to do up Rudra’s room. Perhaps, the father still wants to keep him under wraps, away from curious eyes. In his subconscious, he still thinks of his son as a social embarrassment, notwithstanding his compassion for him. The curtains remain uppermost in Rudra’s mind too; when he meets his erstwhile boyfriend in dreamy darkroom, he does not forget to mention them. Has Rudra too not been able to accept himself?
 Rudra does not undergo the final surgery, and decides to return to his original self. The abandonment of the quest is not affected by some sense of guilt, but he no longer feels the necessity of a cosmetic transmogrification. Now, this is what Rudra feels; this is his crowning wish. It would be incorrect to see the film as a cautionary against sex-change; or as a moralistic narrative that ends with the dictum that sex-change is undesirable. It’s important to understand Rudra’s story as the story of an individual. His ‘wish’ cannot be representative of the community, and he cannot be held responsible for not exacting the expectation of the community of transpersons. Taking Rudra’s final decision as a statement on sex-change might be dangerous.

How autobiographical is Chitrangada?

This is one question which is nagging everyone and many are flocking to the theater to see Rituparno Ghosh’s life-story. Towards the beginning of the film, Shubho listening to a script read out by Rudra, asks with concern: ‘Boddo beshi autobiographical hoye jachche na?’ (Isn’t it becoming much too autobiographical?) Rudra replies: ‘Seta tumi jano boley’ (You think so because you already know my story). The film self-reflexively introduces the autobiographical dimension. In fact, the repetitive use of mirrors in the film prompts the audience to see Rudra as an image of Rituparno Ghosh. But, to treat the film as a purely self-indulgent autobiography of the director would be rather reductive. It’s undeniable that Ghosh’s iconic status (as a filmmaker and also as a queer person) remarkably overpowers the character he essays, and it’s extremely difficult not to think of Rudra as a fictional counterpart of Ghosh. For instance, if Sachin Tendulkar plays anybody but himself in a film, it would be difficult for the audience to imagine him as just another actor attempting a fictitious character. Ditto for Rituparno Ghosh. I believe many were even expecting to read under ‘Cast’ on the title card ‘Rituparno Ghosh as himself’. But Rudra’s story, despite containing recognizable allusions to the director’s personal life, is completely fictional, as attested by the disclaimer at the beginning. And I’m sure Ghosh did not intend Chitrangada: a crowing wish to serve as a medium of confession. Even if he had intended, there’s no need to bother. For, we have long stopped taking authorial intention seriously. Thanks to Roland Barthes and Michel Foucault. 

Note: The film would be remembered for its use of spectacle, music (Debojyoti Mishra), and of course, the choreography (Sharmila Biswas). 

Image Courtesy:
Release date of the film: 31 August 2012
Producer: Shri Venkatesh Films, Kolkata


Anindo Sen said...

Kaustav, this has been your best review till date, notwithstanding the umpteen reviews of yours that I have waxed eloquent about earlier.
I wish I could have said that 'Chitrangada: A Crowning Wish' is Rituparno Ghosh's best film till date as well. Sadly, I can't. I have a problem with repetitions and I do prefer more of objectivity in a film, maybe that is what made me a bit averse. I have to say that the film is a must-watch for many reasons, none so important as the fact that it offers a parental perspective regarding the conflict involving their son's sexual preferences (or, should we say, compulsions?) and the empathy is too heart-warming for the viewer.
The sensitivity that Rituparno Ghosh brings to the fore appeals to me the most. He captures the finer nuances of relationships brilliantly, and this film too isn't an exception.
As far as the narrative is concerned, I somewhat failed to appreciate the texture of the relationship between the characters, Rudra and Partha, the initial vulnerability was essayed well, but not the fragility and the fissures that develop subsequently, which could have been made credible.
The use of Kaushiki Desikan's voice was the best thing about the soundtrack, and the framing of many of the scenes were quite exquisite.

Parjanya said...

I must thank Rituparno Ghosh and Sibaji bandyopadhyay for the passes...but in all honesty I did not like 'Chitrangada: A Crowning Wish' one bit!... maudlin sappy sentimentality coupled with narcissistic excess hardly qualifies as a good film...but what was worse was the mere lip-service to Rabindranath's play (apart from the brief but spectacular renditions of sections of the 'nritya-natyo' which was the only saving grace of the film)...

Sanjay Ghosal said...

'Swobhaber o nijer ichchhey aachhey' - ei shonglaap ta onekdin mone thakbey... Ei shonglaap (ba satorkikaron) kendriyo choritrer bibhinno karjokolap ebong mawnon er modhye paromparjo khoNjar proyash thekey amader biroto korey. ... Kintu khed ektai - kendriyo choritro jodi nijey ekbar ei satortikaron e chokh buliye niten taholey uni charpasher lokeder 'karjokolap ebong mawnon' niye eatota bhugten naa aar 'thyatar' bhorti lokeder o bhogaten naa........

Sourav Agarwal said...

While going through this in-depth review, I recalled the insightful, illustrative lessons on Shakespeare's tragedies given by Amitabha Roy, professor at Rabindrabharati University.....what to say more.....thanks for this took me to the depth of Rituparno's latest cinematic creation...