I came to film Gautam and Buddha by chance. I was exploring a film about Jatra; a centuries-old form of traveling theater of rural Bengal. Over the last fifty years, Jatra has undergone many changes – women have entered the cast, as have film and TV actors, and today’s playwrights sometimes weave product placements into the script. I traveled for a month with a Jatra company.
One night, seated on a trunk in the front of their bus, I noticed a light truck – the type popularly called Charsho Shaat, i.e. the Tata 407, a.k.a. Chhoto Haati or Mini Elephant – ahead of us. It was carrying the same kind of gear as us – boxes made of wood and sheet-metal, and loudspeaker cones battered to within an inch of their useful lives. Their staff though, sat on top of these boxes in the open back of the truck, not in the relative comfort of a bus. “Who are these people?” I asked.
They are a Gajon company, I was told with an air of dismissal. They do six or seven skits each night, not one long play like us. Men do their female roles.
In a few months, I was bouncing around south Bengal in the back of a 407 with the New Conquerors Gajon Company. The word “New” hides old feuds over ownership of the name. Names like The New Original Joy Ma Kali Gajon are not uncommon. The term Gajon itself is confusing – the Bengali bhadralok associates Gajon with this quaint rural parade of singing and dancing in praise of Shiva during the last month of the Bengali calendar. Somewhere along the way, that got mixed up with Jatra and soap and Bollywood. Today’s Gajon starts with a Shiva-Parvati story; by the third skit, I’ve seen an ex-MLA walk into the bamboo-and-tarp dressing room to register his disappointment that folk culture is no longer what it used to be and by night’s end, you know why men play women – the action is explicit enough that the ex-MLA could have called in the current Police Inspector if it was done with women.
The cast has four men and four men acting as women. It didn’t take me long to realize that two of them were a little different. Gautam is married, has a son, retreats often into patriarchy; he drew strength from Buddha, who is not above employing the hijra hand-clap to ward off an overzealous ticket-checker. Gautam lives a hundred kilometers from Calcutta off a clay path that could test an ice-skater’s skills during the monsoons. Buddha is building a one-room house for himself and his boyfriend next to his family’s home in a neighbourhood that’s village, slum, and small-town all at the same time.
Is Gautam’s closet sustainable? Does the new house with new furniture lead to a walk into the sunset for Buddha?