In an early scene in Rituparno Ghosh’s Chitrangada (2012), the protagonist, Rudra, played by the director himself, stops a nurse from addressing him as “Sir”. Admitted to a hospital for a gender-realignment process — popularly known as “sex change” — Rudra, a Odissi dancer, tells the nurse that it would be difficult for him readjust emotionally if everyone kept referring to him as a “man”. A little later, in a flashback, he explains the myth of Chitrangada — adapted from the Mahabharata for his eponymous dance drama by Rabindranath Tagore — to his troupe, ending the narration with the philosophy of his film: “Gender is a choice.”
On Thursday, Chief Justice of India Dipak Mishra, while delivering the Supreme Court judgment revoking a part of Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code that criminalised same-sex relations, quoted Goethe: “I am what I am... Take me as I am.” Responding to it, Kolkata-based writer and LGBTQ activist Sandip Roy wrote: “(The) simple truth is... somewhere we all bear the scars of coming to terms with being different. (‘Section 377 verdict of 2013 taught us how vulnerable rights can be when left to whims of majoritarianism’, Firstpost, 6 September 2018)” To be different, to not conform is the emotion that informs much of Chitrangada — possibly the most autobiographical in Ghosh’s oeuvre.
“Isn’t it getting a bit too autobiographical?” says Subho (Anjan Dutta), Rudra’s counsellor, at the beginning of Chitrangada after hearing the introduction he has planned for his stage production. There are a number of similarities between Rudra and Ghosh — both are directors and performers. Rudra is an engineer; Ghosh worked for years as an advertising executive. The artistic philosophy of both is deeply indebted to Tagore. Like Ghosh, Rudra hails from a solid upper middle-class family; his parents — played Deepankar De and Anashua Majumdar — are a typical bhadralok couple, wearing expensive but muted tasser and khadi, living in a tastefully decorated house.
The Bengali middle-class setting is very important for Chitrangada. It is apparently liberal, artistic, intellectually progressive, but it can also be claustrophobic and discriminatory. This film is part of an informal trilogy of queer films — the other two being Ekti Premer Golpo (Dir: Kaushik Ganguly, 2010) and Memories in March (Dir: Sanjoy Nag, 2010) — of which Ghosh was a part, playing non-hetero-normative characters. All three were released in between 2009, when the Delhi High Court had decriminalised non-heterosexual relations between consenting adults and 2013 when the Supreme Court (SC) overturned the ruling. Ghosh died in 2013, a few months before the SC ruling, and the kind of films he had started making also seemed to have dried up.
In Chitrangada, his last completed film, Ghosh was throwing the gauntlet to the bhadralokmorality by reinterpreting Tagore through a queer prism. Ghosh was a strange dichotomy for the self-conscious intellectually-inclined Bengali society. On one hand, he had claimed the spot of the leading Bengali filmmaker, uninhibited in showing the influence of Satyajit Ray and Tagore in his work. (He adapted the latter’s novels, Chokher Bali and Naukadubi.) On the other hand, he was flamboyantly gay, gender-fluid, wearing make-up and clothes that few other Bengali men would dare to come out in. For this he had to pay a price: constant ridicule. This came to a head when he reprimanded newsreader and stand-up comic Mir on his TV talk show, calling him out for making fun of Ghosh’s effeminate gestures. All these issues are addressed in Chitrangada, where Rudra describes how people have laughed at him and whispered behind his back.
In Tagore’s dance drama, which follows the myth from Mahabharata closely, Chitrangada is a princess of Manipur. Her father, the king, raises her as a son, training her in politics and warfare. “She is conditioned to be a man,” Rudra explains to Kasturi (Raima Sen), a dancer in his troupe. When Chitrangada meets Arjun, she falls in love with him, and seeks the help of Madan or Kamdev, the Hindi god of love, to transform her into a desirable woman, with whom Arjun falls in love. For Rudra, real life imitates the stage, when he meets Partha (Jissu Sengupta), a talented drummer with a heroin addiction who joins the dance troupe.
Partha and Rudra find themselves attracted to each other and start a relationship that is acceptable neither to the other member of the troupe, nor to his parents. One of the dancers asks Rudra if Partha would be able to respect his talent, to value him. “There are lot of people who value me, respect me, but how many have the courage to love?” Rudra replies. When his mother warns him that like all his former lovers, Partha will abandon him and is only taking advantage of his loneliness, Rudra asks what is better? To be lonely all his life, or to have a companion even for a little while?
Perhaps more than everything else, Chitrangada explores the loneliness of its talented and accomplished protagonist. Rudra decides to undergo the sex-change surgery only so that he and Rudra can adopt a child. (Two male partners still cannot adopt children in India.) Partha does not stop him, but does not support Rudra either. When he is in the hospital, Partha starts a relationship with Kasturi. “If I want a woman, I will get a real one. Why should I settle for a synthetic one like you?” he tells Rudra. His parents, too, turn away initially before accepting their son’s decision, with some reluctance.
Most of the scene between Rudra and his parents takes place across their dining table, and are ridden with conflict and guilt. Towards the end of the film, while Rudra is in the hospital, his father and mother have lunch without him. His mother says perhaps Rudra would have been happier if they had accepted him as he was instead of trying to making behave like a boy. “A boy will be like a boy, isn’t that natural?” says the father. “That which is one’s nature is natural to them,” replies the mother. This is a realisation that escapes many of us. Now, with the legal hurdle out of way, we can hopefully start to make a more diverse, inclusive society.