RITUPARNO TO CHITRANGADA: A JOURNEY

Abstract: Rituparno Ghosh, the acclaimed director of Bengali Art films, is known as much for his controversial films, as his sexuality. The present paper seeks to analyse the personal psychological, and physical transformation of Ghosh in the course of the films: Arekti Premer Golpo, and Chitrangada: The Crowning Wish. These films aren’t just representations of the Indian Transgender on screen: they are the very biographical portrayals of Ghosh’s life, his sexuality, and struggles. In fact, they document his transcendental journey from a closet Transgender into a revealed one, his reflections of this primrose path, and the public perceptibility concerned. Drawn from interviews, talk shows, and articles, this paper attempts to tell the story of the “Person” Rituparno Ghosh, and not the “Director” – the story of the lone androgynous “Person” who underwent an isolated, and unwavering odyssey for a valorous self-realization; and gave a popular countenance to an ambiguous, and abhorred identity.

Keywords:  Rituporno Ghosh; biographical; film; Arekti Premer Golpo; Chitrangada; transgender; journey; androgyny.


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Rituporno Ghosh’s life is not so much a destination, as it is a journey!

My tragedy was that I loved words more than I loved the woman who inspired me to write them. (Klugman and Sternthal, The Words)

In the span of his two decade old career, Rituparno Ghosh has been associated with the portrayal of strong female characters entrenched in vignettes of pervasive decadence; with a meticulous Chekovian tenderness (Rao, 2005). Unfortunately, the most scrutinized aspect of this great director’s life comprises not his movies, but his controversial sexuality; and when his reel intentions met his real intentions in the ‘queer film’  trilogy[1] released in the last phase[2] of his life: Aar Ekti Premer Golpo (“Just Another Lovestory”), Memories in March, and Chitrangada: The Crowning Wish. While documenting his changing persona, these films have also mapped the director’s interiority, and become the site for the staging of the self” (Datta, et al., 2015, p.197). They “exemplify how the lines between and among film-making, filmmaker and actor can blur so much that it becomes difficult to separate and identify the one from the other/s. It is clear to many that Ghosh indulged in this process of self – revelation by conscious design, so that through his films, he could bring the marginalized, misunderstood, ridiculed, and humiliated group of people with confused sex identities and /or alternative sexual preferences within the mainstream” (Chatterji, 2013, pp. 252 – 253).

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Ghosh with Abhishek Bacchan in the set of Antarmahal. This was before he started filming the trilogy.

The three films constitute the journey that the closet homosexual in Ghosh undertook, to become the homosexual who wore his conflicting sexuality on his sleeve.[3] Keeping aside Memories in March, the other two films comprise the metaphorical voyages of the ‘self’, one in close alliance with the ‘mundane’ transgender – Chapal Bhaduri; the other in ambitious proximity to the ‘mythical’ transgender – Chitrangada. Quite similar in approach, both are stories of the ‘man’ materializing the ‘imagined woman’ in him into the ‘real woman’; and interestingly, both films play out in the world of Performing Arts, emphasising the act of female impersonation to demonstrate what befalls Transgenderism when it spills over the ‘Mythic’ (and majestic) cosmos of theatrical props and curtain calls into the ‘Mundane’ one of kitchens, family suppers, and bedrooms. The protagonists – Abhiroop and Rudra – act as the prism through which the quest for ‘womanhood’ refracts into two differential understandings and existences for the Transgender: the “Mundane” allowing for a pragmatic, albeit ‘incomplete’ existence, in androgyny; the ‘Mythic’ demanding the embracing of the “woman” in ideal totality, rejecting ‘compromise’. Ghosh interestingly brought about the anatomy of the androgynous identity – he explored a virtual anonymous identity, broke the generic concept surrounding the aesthetic beauty of a ‘complete’ man/ woman; and patronized the incomplete “Half Thing” (Ghosh, 2012) or in this case, a man with not just breasts, but a man proudly decked up in womanhood. Hitherto, Ghosh’s feminine mannerism had been an abstract mentality, which in Roop and Rudra, got materialized into ‘flesh and blood’ – possibly, evoking in him, the courage to undergo an isolated, and unwavering odyssey for self-realization; and give a popular countenance to an ambiguous, and abhorred identity. The fatal flaw, however, is that his ‘propaganda’ chose the abominated androgynous ‘effeminate’ male, and not the congratulated ‘masculine’ female.

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Arekti Premer Golpo draws parallel between the famous Jatra Actor, Chapal Bhadhuri, and the protagonist, Abhiroop, examining the social stigmatization that homosexuals face everyday.

Momo: Do you know what surprises me the most? Abhida puts on this air of being liberated …

Basu: That he is!

Momo: Basu, putting on kaajal (kohl) is not liberation is all about. You know, I think Abhida is as closeted as Chapalda deep inside. I think he’s using this old man’s life very conveniently.

Basu: As in, manipulating him?

Momo: Right. I think he’s using the man’s life as a peg to hang his own story on. (Ganguly, 2012)

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Chapal Kumar Bhadhuri of Jatra fame in Bengal.

For a man ridiculed for his effeminate mannerism, Arekti Premer Golpo almost confirmed the infinite swirling rumors of his deviant sexuality. The character Ghosh played was that of a gay filmmaker, Abhiroop whose interaction with Chapal Bhadhuri makes him realize that “the recognition of an androgynous homosexual is still a marginalized ‘to – be – laughed – at – and – looked – at’ community within mainstream society” (Chatterji, 2013, p.266).

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Ghosh after Arekti Premer Golpo. He almost brought off-screen the attire and mannerism of his character.

His character comes across as one who loves to dress up effeminately in kurtis, and wear jewelry – ‘coincidentally’, it was also around the same time that Ghosh took up a radically changed appearance –

Not just [as] a filmmaker and writer, but [as] someone who embraced his sexual minority not with an activist zeal but an almost matter-of-fact brazenness by just being who he was, with his Sunset Boulevard turbans, his flowing outfits, the herbal kajal-rimmed eyes, the dangling ear rings [and a shaven head]. It was not a fantastic drag queen performance which would have been just an act. It was Rituparno being Rituparno – erudite and articulate, just in a gender-bending salwar-achkan … It’s as if physically Rituparno Ghosh was quietly transforming himself into a woman in front of his audience’s eyes and despite occasional snickers about Ritu-porno and Ritu-di, his very middle-class audience largely played along politely. (Roy, 2013)

The Times of India even noted his abdominoplasty, breast implants before shooting Arekti Premer Galpo and his on-going hormone replacement therapy. Nonetheless, by this time, like his protagonist Abhiroop, he was still in love with his masculine identity, and refused to “be boxed into labels” – “It is assumed that feminine gay men desire to be women. It is an inability to see beyond the binaries of male-female, hetero-homo. It is for me to decide whether I will stand in the queue for men or for women or neither of the two” (Ibid.).[4] In one heated episode of Ghosh and Company, a profoundly enraged Ghosh stated to an anchor, who was mimicking his mannerism – “Have you ever thought that whenever you mimic me, so many effeminate men in Kolkata, in Bengal feel ashamed, feel humiliated? … I can carry off my jewelry with such flamboyance it doesn’t matter to me. But there are many people who feel tremendous shame and stigma about this, who don’t have the courage to wear jewelry, or the guts to wear kajal. I can live life on my terms. But they cannot.” Indeed, by this time, his sexuality was considered simply that of a deviant ‘minority’ who “questions his fake liberation, and faces essential solitude as a marginal being in society” (Chatterji, 2013, p.271). Even Kaushik Ganguly confirmed this when asked what made him pick Ghosh for the pivotal role – “I chose him because he would be able to understand the minute psychological, physical and social nuances of the character the best. He is very sensitive about gays and people with homosexual orientation. I have not typecast him as an effeminate character. He has changed the way he talks, and walks for this character” (Ibid., p.270). In fact, Abhiroop sets the stage for Rudra to emerge – the reel life counterpart of Ghosh himself, who would “performativity disturb the notion of gender, thereby causing discomforts to the traditional norms and the hetero-patriarchal gendered regime” (Bhatkar, 2015) that dominantly constitutes the architecture of Indian cinema.

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Chitrangada: The Crowning Wish draws parallel between an effeminate choreographer, Rudra, and Chitrangada (the mythical princess). Rudra falls in love with an addicted percussionist, Partho; and in order to start a family with him, attempts to undergo a sex-change operation. The film poignantly captures the tumultuous psychology of Rudra in the ‘period’ before the operation.

Partho: So admit it.

Rudra: What?

Partho: You are unhappy with your natural self. You just want to become a woman.

Rudra: Most of us are unhappy with what nature has given us … Will you love me less if I become a woman? (Ghosh, 2012)

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Chitrangada with Arjuna in the Mahabharata, tale from which Rabindranath Tagore drew inspiration for his ballet, Chitrangada.

The ‘physical transgenderism’ of Arekti Premer Golpo becomes supplemented by a ‘mental transgenderism’[5] in Chitrangada: The Crowning Wish which provides an “ambiguous exploration of [Ghosh’s] self and gender via a modernist interpretation of Tagore’s dance drama” (Datta, et al., 2015, p.197); and “is the first ever full length Indian feature film that tackles the fragile subject of sex reassignment surgery” (Chatterji, 2013, p.281).[6] Nonetheless, the real achievement of the film lay in the self – indulgent treatment of Tagore’s oeuvre, and the employment of the film to poignantly convey to the audience his “torturous journey of social and metaphysical self – questioning” for the attainment of his true self (Datta, et al., 2015) –

[He] extends Tagore’s vision of Indian identity, and individual autonomy by infusing it with elements of political, cultural, and sexual liberalism … the dance drama, in a highly idiosyncratic re-reading, becomes a leitmotif in the film, forming the aesthetic backdrop, and a foil to the contemporary love-story of Rudra and Partho … the scenes from the play recur in the interstices of the film as a dramatized expression of Rudras’s inner turmoil over questions of identity, love, duty, and autonomy … The story of Chitrangada[7] provides Ghosh an opportunity to both perform, and understand identity, infusing the drama with his own psychological needs, utopian dreams, and sexual preferences (Ibid.)

Ghosh singles out the identitarian ‘wish factor’[8] in the lore of Chitrangada on the onset of the film, when Rudra appears explaining to his theatrical troop during a rehearsal – “Now the moot point is it’s a story of wish. Her father’s wish versus her own. Chitrangada is a story of desire, that you can choose your own gender” (Ghosh, Chitrangada: The Crowning Wish). Rudra’s interpretation is autobiographical, this belief alone gifts supressed groups the legitimizing conviction to create “an indeterminate state of being that transcends fixed categories – a state in which desires are fluid and shifting; [and] plot a history of desire, all the while negotiating forces of conservatism, and censorship that seek to tame its queer, and multifarious manifestation” (Ibid.). In the film on stage, Rudra plays the part of Madan, the God of Love to whom Chitrangada turns to when she needs to transform herself to be desirable to Arjun. Yet in the film, Rudra is also the real Chitrangada; in fact, Ghosh tries to demonstrate that Madan resides within Chitrangada herself. The desire to change and materialize that change lies within the person; similarly the “creation of a new identity which is a struggle of the protagonist is not between Rudra and any other external force; rather, it is a confounded conflict within him” (Bhatkar, 2015). “The suggestion seems to be that here Ghosh is literally acting out the role of the engineer-auteur who effectuates the sexual transfiguration, and is simultaneously the object of it” (Sen, 2013). In a refreshing interpretation, Dr. Chatterji refutes the above interpretation, stating that “this Rudra is not a reflection of Rituparno the director, actor, writer, and artist. Rudrajit was perhaps a purging of Rituparno’s desire for change.[9] He believed that even desire could change, and when ‘change’ actually happened in fulfillment of one’s desire, the person initiating the change might begin to question the ‘change’ itself” (Chatterji, 2013, pp. 286 – 287). Possibly, Rudra’s refusal to undergo a sex change is Ghosh’s retreat from his aggressive advances toward a deviant sexuality, and own regret for opting for an artificial biological form.

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The biggest legacy of Ghosh’s life, apart from his brilliant movies, is perhaps his giving voice to the transgender community.

To crudely put it, the paper tries to trace the transgendered journey of Rituparno Ghosh via the ‘physical characterization’ of Abhiroop, and the ‘mental characterization’ of Rudra, from demanding a definite identity to making peace with a surreal identity. He cleverly placed the destination of his journey in a “space” of fluid gender identity that availed him of the privilege of both sexes. In an overview, it may appear that in the course of the two films, he was attempting to give voice to alienation and isolation, a quest for identity, a total loss of roots with no definite identity that transgenders suffers. However, a close scrutiny will ensure that Abhiroop’s, Rudra’s and Ritoparno’s quest for identity isn’t a fray of theirs’ alone. “The search for any identity always occurs on contested terrain and the struggle to find a voice takes place in a dynamic relationship with the dominant culture where signs and signifiers can be appropriated and re-appropriated in an endless chain of interpretations. Thus, meaning is rarely predictable and never fixed” (Raina, 2015). The battle is for all, who suffers social marginalization, and is subordinated, in their individual autonomy to patriarchal and heteronormative demands. Ghosh’s refusal to subscribe to a specific gender, and the ability to change according to circumstances should be a glittering lesson. Gender is a social construct, but identity is a self-construct. It is the comfortable identity that drives our personality; if proved otherwise, we suffer a drawback, both mentally and physically. A constrained identity leads to a constrained self – and to avoid a constrained life, we should abide by this sole impossible logic –

Rudra: Why is a building called a building, even after it’s complete?

Subho: Because no transition is ever complete. It’s an ongoing process. (Ghosh, 2012)


ENDNOTES

[1] The current paper will majorly analyse Chitrangada: The Crowning Wish (2012) majorly, employing the analysis of Arekti Premer Goplo (2012) as a prologue to the former. Memories in March (2011) has been deliberately neglected.  The foremost bears the full scale expression of Ghosh’s transgender mannerism, whilst the latter portrays him as a comparatively less flamboyant transgender.

[2] Ghosh’s directorial career has been divided into five phases: [1] Giving women a “Voice”; [2] Portraying redefined relationships; [3] Adapting of Classical and Contemporary Literature on Screen; [4] Re – reading Tagoro on screen; and [5] Exploring the Actor-Director and Alternative Sexual Choices on Screen. (Chatterji, 2013)

[3] In the films concerned, Ghosh “broke away consciously from the ‘safe’ path of ‘audience-friendly’ good cinema blended into aesthetically, and socially defined ‘entertainment’ to finally come to terms with a different kind of cinema: cinema as a reflection of the Self and the Self reflected in cinema. It was a journey into the innermost recesses of the androgynous and/or homogenous personality’s mind and body, his sexuality and his gender he considered to be fluid, flexible, volatile, and changeable. Dogged by ‘choices’ that haunted him for years, he was finally ready and determined to execute these choices. He had done so in real life as a public figure. But the films stand testimony to his desire that his audience accompany him on this journey”. (Chatterji, 2013, p. 264)

[4] Ghosh’s interview is a statement in itself: like Derrida, he finds binaries restrictive enough to explain the complexities and shades of life. This defines the tone set for the trilogy, especially Chitrangada: The Crowning Wish – his characters go beyond these limited roles and socialized spaces sanctioned for men and women via hegemonic ideas. The characters seek to find their identities and a space for themselves, in the struggle to exist. Their destination is about the journey of knowing oneself and discovering the unknown, therefore the characters are in a process-ual form which is not complete and always in the making. Further, Gender socialization traps the individual within the cage of cultural norms, but soon the impossibility of living by these socio-culturally norms are realized and therefore begins the journey of knowing the reality. The reality therefore is not a binary one, but one that is complicated, and requires confrontation and courage to face this complexity. (Bhatkar, 2015)

[5] For the role of Rudra, Ghosh underwent vigorous training in Odissi to acquire the grace and poise of a dancer on-screen. This left an impression on his personal mannerism, off-screen.

[6] Interestingly, however, despite his radicalism, he was not unconditionally embraced by the LGBT community of Kolkata; they have been scathingly critical of his films on the grounds that they elided over local histories and cultures of remarkably non-conforming and rebellious queer subcultures and located queer desires within the snugness of affluent homes, cordoned off from grass-root politics.  The enormous risk in deciding to go public about his sexuality and making films on same-sex desires, estranged him from a section of his audience … the middleclass audience, and his reputation suffered. In Kolkata, especially among the Bengali middle class, Rituparno Ghosh and ‘gayness’ have become unequivocally synonymous to many, whereby the indeterminable range of sexualities indicated by the term ‘queer’ has been eliminated from the popular imagination. In fact, ‘Rituparno Ghosh’ has become a brand epithet of abuse for men who cross-dress and/or are ‘effeminate’. An LGBT activist of Kolkata writes: I want to ask whether that name [Rituparno Ghosh] apart from becoming a cultural icon of the feminine man is also standing-in for something else for the Bengalis. Is this name (which among many other things is also a brand of sorts for gendered performativity), unwittingly, carving out a comfort zone for middle/upper class Bengalis? Is this name nothing but a sanitized version of such offensive terms as ‘ladies’, boudi, sakhi (and more recently and increasingly ‘homo’)…by which the Bengali bhadrolok has always abused his effeminate classmate mauling the latter’s self-confidence…? (Datta, et al., 2015)

[7]The ‘triad’ form derived from Tagore’s dance drama, the Mahabharata, and Ghosh’s interpretation, in effect bestows a particular strength to the Chitrangada character, who explores her sexuality and sexual identity through love, both in herself and in Rudra. The film successfully considers notions of beauty, both of the (inner) self and the bodies that matter. The structure takes on a special meaning through elements like the narratives about the self (thereby shifting the focus from middle-class private spaces to the personal and the political), inter-textual dialogues (between cinema, theatre, and the epic form), and themes of discontent (Mukherjee, 2014). The most striking aspect of the film is the manner in which Rudra’s identification with Chitrangada, and the dilemma of his ‘gender fluidity’ is conveyed to the audience. Ghosh uses the ‘anonymous counsellor’ Subho (who can stand as – [1] the ‘faceless’ audience [2] Rudra’s inner conscience [3] Rudra’s hallucination) to soothe his inner demons, as well as come to terms with his choice of deconstructing his identity in favour of an ‘alien’ identity. 

[8] The major conflict that arises in a transgender resides in the realm of desires and wishes, their fulfilment as well as unfulfillment. These desires have their seeds implanted in the childhood itself. Over the years, all that a child wishes for is nothing but the fulfilment of those penetrated desires. Those desires are the ones that crown his/her life, the fulfilment of which can be advantageous or hazardous as well. Thus, uncertainty in this case brings conflicts. Rudra’s case is no different. “Gender is a construction that is ingrained in us from day one of life literally” and at the same time transition from one stage of life to the other is inevitable. A child has to grow up into an adult. No matter how time passes on, some wishes will always remain. When he/she turns into an adult, the ways to concretize his/her wishes that have crowned life since forever becomes more plausible as per the sources and power available in hand at that stage. Also in addition are the sour experiences of life. Rudra followed his desire to cross the threshold and turn himself into a woman just for the love that he felt for Partho. But life works in its own mysterious ways. It may happen that when even the most awaited dream is about to come true, it is no longer needed and it is wished that it never comes true. The nearer something is, the blurred it gets. The closer Rudra was to become a woman, the farther he went away from Partho and his dreams to a happy life with him. Chitrangada: The Crowning Wish is representative of this conflict. (Raina, 2015)

[9] In the movie,” Rudra is left just half. He is at a stage where he is half male and half female as the operations are not yet complete. A consequential conflict will be the handling of two bodies at one time. At the time of the surgeries, Rudra’s body is vacillating between that of a “Natural Man” and a “Technical Woman”. The only result is disillusionment and disenchantment from every factor of life. What the natural body was perfect at, the technical body hinders that”. (Ibid.) Ghosh might have felt this disillusionment.


WORKS CITED

Ghosh, R. 2012. Chitrangada: The Crowning Wish (the movie).

Ganguly, K. 2012. Arekti Premer Golpo (the movie).

Chatterji, S. 2013. Reading Rituparno. Kolkata, Sparrow Publication.

Sen, P. De-Gendered Expressions: the Chitrangadas of Tagore and Ghosh (2013, Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, Calcutta)

Roy, S. An icon beyond labels: Man, woman or Rituparno? (2013, First Post).

Mukherjee, M. Transgression and being: Memories of Rituporno (2014, South Asian Popular Culture).

Bhatkar, O. Deconstructing Desires: A Critique of Heteronormativity in Rituparno Ghosh’s Films (2015, Amity University, Rajasthan).

Datta, et al. (Ed.) 2015. Rituparno Ghosh: Cinema, Gender and Art. New York, Taylor & Francis.

Raina, A. Rudra’s Quest for Identity in ‘Chitrangada’: Technical Woman or Natural Man (2015, IOSR Journal Of Humanities And Social Science)


 

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2 Comments

  1. There are multiple instances of Ghosh speaking of his sexuality in his articles and promos. But because it is a seminar paper, I had to be brief, and I had to choose my sources carefully.

    And thanks for sharing your opinion! 🙂

    Like

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