Released in 1999 and currently streaming on MUBI, Performing the Goddess opens with a series of jump-cuts as Chapal Bhaduri disappears into Chapal Rani: he draws his eyebrows, lines his eyes, wears a blouse, a wig and a bindi and drapes a sari. As he paints his lips, he says, ‘Lips…everything depends on these lips. After I paint my lips, I am no longer Chapal Bhaduri. I am Chapal Rani.’
Bhaduri entered the world of Jatra, a form of Bengali folk theatre, by accident, in exchange for a job in the Eastern Railways. The only condition was to play a woman on stage. How a young 18-year-old, sceptical of impersonating women, rose to meteoric fame as Bengal’s premier femme-impersonator and created a legacy by blurring boundaries between reality and performance, is the journey that director Naveen Kishore traces in Performing the Goddess: The Chapal Bhaduri Story.
Interspersed with an animated Bhaduri performing scenes from his time in theatre and jatra, Kishore paints an intimate biography of Bhaduri, an anguished artist and a lonely man, negotiating life, love, body and art. In the film, Bhaduri narrates how in makeup, as Chapal Rani, he is no longer a man, but performing as a goddess, a woman, who is worshipped by women and is the object of desire for men. As Chapal Rani, he transgresses norms, but for Bhaduri, it is not a performance or an illusion. As years have passed, Bhaduri remarks that he has found himself enacting his long-withheld femme fantasies in his personal life and on stage. It is clear that through jatra, Bhaduri had found a space to live with fluidity and challenge gender. It is particularly interesting to see how Bhaduri channels his devotion towards God through jatra’s traditions, which remain heavily influenced by Hindu mythology and Bhakti philosophies. Here, the audiences are left asking: what are other ways in which queer persons negotiate religion?
But even amidst worship and praise, Bhaduri is lonely. Towards the end of the forty-four-minute long documentary, Bhaduri details, with great sadness on his face, an account of romantic betrayal with a married man he loved for thirty-two years. As Bhaduri turns his heartbreak and troubled sexuality into art, Kishore’s intimate camerawork and Anjum Katyal’s candid screenplay make it clear that Chapal Rani is above all, an artist — in this case, an artist who performs the Goddess.