When queer love stories are etched onto the screen, oftentimes we forget about the structures of the society and just portray queer lives as a distanced phenomenon from the social life. The fact that queerness is not only something restricted to sexuality, but also applies to class, caste, religion, ability et al comes through in this cinematic piece. It is not just another love story about two queers, but a love story about queers who are on the margins within their community as well. This is a love story about the journey between living and existing, the journey between becoming and unbecoming, the journey between desire and death. It does not have a happy ending, it doesn’t give you hope, but it beautifully portrays pain and loss and the pleasures in-between.
Nagarkirtan (2017) [English Title: The Eunuch and the Flute Player] is a story about two characters, Puti, a trans-woman stuck in a man’s body living in a ghetto for hijras in Kolkata with her Gurumaa and her chosen family, and Madhu, a cis-gender man who is a flutist with a kirtan group and a part-time delivery boy from the rural heartlands of Bengal. It is a usual love story where the two meet and fall in love instantly, but the queerness comes through during the realization of this love for each other, especially for Madhu who keeps doubting his actions of loving a man (for him Puti remains a man because of her physical body). However, Madhu gets over this hesitation of queerness and decides to run away with Puti to give her a better life and then the story unfolds. As the story unravels, we see these two unlikely characters traversing through love and loss. I would not reveal any further details about the story-line because that would be unfair to the audience and filmmaker. It is a story to be seen and felt rather than read and understand.
Riddhi Sen portrays Puti/Parimal, a transgender woman living in a ghetto with her gurumaa and chosen family. She spends most of her days begging on the roads, but in between we get to see her desires of becoming a woman physically. She stresses over and over that she is a woman born inside a man’s body, and she wants to have a full-body surgery to have her body in sync with her mind and soul. But she also worries about the pain that will be caused to her physically while transitioning; she is also worried about the financial cost of the procedure. These are some concerns that mainstream queer stories otherwise tend to overlook. The fact that Puti has to worry about the financial burden of transitioning is not an isolated or imaginary incident, but an everyday reality of many queer folx that mainstream queer narratives often tend to bypass. We also get to know from flashbacks about how Parimal turned into Puti which brings me to the mirror scene. This was the second Indian film I saw with queer characters which has utilized a mirror scene as a revelatory sequence. Moothon (2019) has a similar scene with Nivin Pauly which is heartwarming and heartbreaking simultaneously. But in Nagarkirtan (2017), the sequence portrays the becoming and unbecoming of Parimal/Puti. This sequence comes right after a severe heartbreak for Parimal, and he dresses up as a bride in front of the mirror only to remove it all in hurry thinking about the impossibility of the happiness that she seeks as Puti. Parimal sees Puti for the first time in that mirror, and she cries in pain of the heartbreak and perhaps, in wonder of what is to come for her.
Ritwick Chakraborty as Madhu is a conflicted character, and that comes through in his expressions and gestures. Ritwick is known to act with his eyes, and he does exactly that throughout this film. Although he has a lot of dialogues, considering he is one of the leads, but most of the consequential sequences with him only uses this trope of gestures and expressions. His character is as human as possible; it has flaws and yet surfaces as a kind and loving human at the end. His character is a village boy who is not only grappling with the questions of class, but also of sexuality. He does not earn much, but he wants to make Puti’s life better by helping her physically transition into a woman. However, he does not want to fully acknowledge the fact that his partner is stuck inside the body of a man, he feels shame, he questions himself and asks, “???? ????? ????? ????? ????? (Can two boys fall in love?)”, and even goes to the extent of asking Puti not to open her false hair in front of him because that would reveal her real hair which reminds him of the physicality of queerness. He does not want to acknowledge the queerness of the body, but wants to bind it into the binary. Ritwick’s character does not question the queerness, but rather avoids it altogether like when he takes Puti to his ancestral home without thinking of the consequences that it would bring on them. He struggles through his queerness throughout the film, but is definitive about the fact that he wants Puti to have a better life. His love for Puti is not restricted by the queerness despite his inability to acknowledge this queerness.
Other supporting characters comprise mostly of transgenders who form the ghetto where Puti lives. Amongst them, the character of Gurumaa/Aroti played by Shankari Mandal Naskar stands out. She has portrayed the structural power within hijra community unabashedly. She is tough yet vulnerable, and to ensure that everyone around acknowledges her power, she exerts that power even when she talks to non-trans folk, like when she tells Madhu, “???? ???? ????? ????? (Do not have any other settings)”. She does not shy away from showing her control over her chelas, and even goes to limits to control her chelas including Puti, like in the scene where Puti is wearing a blouse that reveals much more than Gurumaa had anticipated. Her character is real, raw and honestly portrayed. Another supporting character that shines through is that of Madhu’s sister-in-law Geeta played by Bidipta Chakraborty. The sequences between Geeta and Puti are the strongest scenes, especially the scene when Sudipta undresses in front of Puti thinking her to be a woman, while Puti just stares at Geeta’s body as if in pain of what she does not have.
Director Kaushik Ganguly has previously worked on two films focused on queer narratives, most notable of them being Just… Another Love Story (2010) starring the late thespian Rituparno Ghosh. In an interview, Ganguly said that his previous cinema on queer narrative, namely, Just… Another Love Story (2010)was not satisfactory to him because it was influenced by filmmaker-actor Rituparno Ghosh who was actively involved in the filmmaking process. Ganguly says that Nagarkirtan (2017) is “?????? ??????? ?????? ????… ?????????!” which roughly translates to “a type of purification of… Just Another Love Story”. He explains that although Just… Another Love Story (2010) was a queer love story, it dealt with an affluent section which didn’t have to grapple with the issues of class along with their queerness. However, in Nagarkirtan (2017) he deals with not only queerness but also class issues, and that’s why he thinks it is purification. Kaushik Ganguly as the director and writer of the film has done his job in a nuanced way. He has portrayed lives from the margins of the margins and kept it as real as possible without falling prey to tokenism. His characters are living, breathing human beings. His direction brings our gaze to a section which often goes unnoticed.
The movie engages with lots of issues including the everyday politics of modern Bengal. For example, in one of the scenes it shows a Saraswati Pujo event where people are dancing and among them there is someone wearing a skullcap. This was perhaps the director’s way to show the syncretism that still exists in Bengal. It also uses symbolism often without portraying things explicitly, for example, the love-making scene where we see overflowing hot-dish instead of the intensity of the two bodies. It also rakes up other political issues like land rights of people living in a slum area, and ghettoisation of the hijra community. The film although made for a mainstream audience, tries to slide these issues implicitly into the narrative to be noticed and felt. It also does not shy away from dealing with the inner politics of hijra community, for example, we see how Puti is treated when she is found begging in an area not allotted to her group, and how violently she is made to apologize. It also brings much needed attention to rituals within the hijra community like the initiation ceremony. It further deals with the relationship between mainstream society and the hijra community when they are out on the roads.
But, let’s also come to the problems of this narrative because nothing is perfect. First of all, the gender preference struggle has often been associated to heartbreak in the film, and it confuses how heartbreak can be the sole reason for changing gender preference. Gender dysphoria is a complicated issue and to just represent it to be a result of romantic heartbreak is trivializing the matter, in my opinion. Perhaps a more nuanced and round conversation surrounding gender preference would have benefited the film. In this reference, the last scene of the film left me confused and angry, because that wasn’t something I was particularly in sync with. Secondly, when the end credit rolls, one is surprised to note that all the transgender characters have been billed as ‘Transgenders’ except for Puti and Gurumaa. They haven’t even been given the agency of names, an identifier which is otherwise available to characters that have much less screen time like the child actor who portrays ‘Goja’. It is ironic how a film about trans bodies reduces all the supporting trans characters to just ‘transgenders’ without any name or character arc.
On the technical front, the magic of Sirsha Ray’s cinematography has yet again worked in this film. His portrayal of ghetto, slum, village et al seems original and authentic. He does not shy away from representing scenarios as they are without sanitizing or decorating them for the mainstream audience. Another important part of the film is its background score. While kirtans play throughout the movie, they are in sync with the sequences that they are playing in, and add to the scenes. Prabuddha Banerjee’s subtle yet powerful background score keeps you hooked to the film. The theme music surfaces a lot of times throughout the runtime, but one does not get bored or get enough of the music. It brings a certain kind of vulnerability and helplessness that perhaps no dialogues can bring in. It is also disturbingly haunting at times, especially during the climax sequence which almost makes you feel helpless and gasping for breath.
The film is a study of queerness in multiple forms, whether it is the woman stuck in a man’s body, or the man struggling to identify with his sexual preference. It does not shy away from portraying a community that has been ostracized from the mainstream for so long, and it does so without any sanitization. Oftentimes, when mainstream movies featuring ‘stars’ deal with queer topics, it is deemed as ‘controversial’. Nagarkirtan (2017) met the same fate as news articles had bold titles like ‘controversial film’, ‘controversial scenes’ et al. But the film transcends beyond this controversy of cis-gender actors playing queer characters. It aims to be a conversation point, not a definite result, but a catalyst for future change in both representation and societal position.
Written and Directed by Kaushik Ganguly / Produced by Acropolis Entertainment Pvt. Ltd. / Actors: Riddhi Sen and Ritwick Chakraborty / Cinematography: Sirsha Ray / Music by Prabuddha Banerjee / Language: Bengali