Nagarkirtan: Love that Transcends Conventional Gender Clichés
Kaushik Ganguly’s mastery lies in seeking to understand and include the personal experiences of a transgender in Nagarkirtan, compelling you to think about the love story of Puti and Madhu long after the film is over.
There is a touching scene in Kaushik Ganguly’s Nagarkirtan where a mother brings her little daughter to the father to show him the trophy the girl, in a red-bordered sari and red tikka on her forehead with the sari covering her head has just won at the fancy dress contest in the local club dressed up as Sarada Maa. The father, a watch maker, turns around and says ‘fine’ but is visibly angry. He rebukes his wife and threatens her that if she keeps encouraging Parimal to always dress up as a girl and use feminine cosmetics, he will walk out of the house. That was a small flashback in a film that will move you to tears and might even want you to turn away from the screen to avoid looking at the series of inhuman humiliations Parimal, later turned to Pori and then Puti is subjected to.
The little “girl” it turns out, is biologically born male but otherwise female in mindset, in emotions and later, as it turns out, in love and sex. In other words, she is born a girl trapped in a boy’s body. The story of her life is a painful and tragic journey towards acknowledging and asserting her identity in a world where she fails to fit herself into the mainstream. The world of eunuchs either does not know about her sex or punishes her for entering their ghetto under false pretences. But she is determined to search for and find love and happiness with Madhu, a young man who works in a Chinese takeaway as courier and plays the flute occasionally at local programmes in the city. Does she reach the end of her journey? Yes, she does but the climax shows us that a transgender has no right to live, to love or even to earn a meagre livelihood as a eunuch in today’s India.
“She” becomes part of a eunuch group dancing and singing at weddings when not begging at traffic signals. As it turns out, it is not his father but Parimal who is forced to escape from the trap of the conventional family when he is still Parimal but finds himself jilted in love. Just when he has found love, he finds that the young man he loves deeply betrays him and agrees to marry Parimal’s older sister!
Susan Stryker, in her introduction to the first anthology in the field, defined Transgender Studies as “concerned with anything that disrupts, denaturalizes, rearticulates, and makes visible the normative linkages we generally assume to exist between the biological specificity of the sexually differentiated human body, the social roles and statuses that particular form of body is expected to occupy, the subjectively experienced relationship between a gendered sense of self and social expectations of gender-role performance, and the cultural mechanisms that work to sustain or thwart specific configurations of gendered personhood”
Though the concept of Transgender Studies in academia is already 20 years old and has been formally recognised as such and entered into mainstream media, according to Schorn, transgender individuals remain the target of discrimination and violence and are often silenced. This keeps the transgender community away from being able to influence their own representation in the media, specially the audiovisual media like cinema, television and the internet. In fact, even in this day and age, the makers of The Danish Girl based on the biography of the painter Lily Elbe were roundly criticised for casting the male actor Eddie Redmayne in the lead role.
Elbe was born male in 1882 but began living as a woman after his marriage and had the first of several sex reassignment operations in 1930. She died in 1931 but left diaries and her life was fictionalised in The Danish Girl. This is the first recorded history of a man having actually undergone sex reassignment surgery to become a woman, with the active consent and even participation of his wife, who, however, was heterosexual. The Danish Girl is loosely inspired by Lili Elbe’s Man into Woman, and later, David Ebershoff’s debut novel The Danish Girl.
Puti falls in love with Madhu and the two elope. They meet Manobi Bandopadhyay, a real transgender who went through sex reassignment surgeries to become a woman and also became the first transgender principal of a college in Krishnanagar in West Bengal. She gives the couple her blessings, warning them that it will be an ongoing and painful struggle which will also demand money which neither Madhu nor Puti has. She gifts them with a small figurine of Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu the spiritual leader who is said to have laid the foundations of the Vaishnava School of spiritual philosophy and tells Puti to keep it carefully.
This is the point when the audience discovers that the music and the songs of Lord Krishna that run parallel to the main narrative underscores the reality of the unity of both male and female in many of the Gods within Hinduism specially in the form of Sri Chaitanya and Krishna. The songs are all keertana recitals revolving around Radha-Krishna’s love story and smoothly integrate into the main narrative of the love between Madhu and Puti, highlighting the analogies of the Radha-Krishna love story in more ways than one. The songs are mostly on the soundtrack. Madhusudan is another name of Krishna and Madhu is a shortened form. Madhu plays the flute which Krishna is identified with. Puti finds oneness in her love for Madhu which has sex in it but transcends sex.
According to some believers in Vaishnavite philosophy, Radha and Krishna are collectively known within the Hindu faith as the male and female facets of God. Radha is regarded as the supreme goddess in control of the god Krishna, and members of a Vaishnava Sahajiya sect of the faith identifies with Radha and it is said that they dressed and lived as women as a way of perfecting their love of Krishna according Vaishnava literature. Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, who lived in the 15th Century, claimed to be a manifestation of Krishna in union with Radha. This philosophy, concretised through that small statuette Puti carries along with her in her eloped journey with Madhu who is determined to work hard to save the money needed for her surgeries, runs like a strong undercurrent in the film, never intruding into the main story yet enhancing and enriching the tapestry of their love for each other within their marginalised identities.
The Gaudiyas claim allegiance to Vaishnava tradition, in which the Supreme is envisioned as a male figure, and this is expressed directly or indirectly throughout the theological sources that it uses. However, growing to maturity in the Shakta dominated Bengali culture, it came to acknowledge the power of the feminine, and this is reflected in the cult of Radha and Krishna, a dual form of the Deity in which the masculine and feminine elements are seen as equal. In Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, these elements are united in one person. Looked at in this light, the disagreement in some circles about whether Mahaprabhu is “Radha and Krishna milita-tanu” or “Krishna in the mood of Radha” takes on certain significance.
Ironically, Madhu’s back story is so rigidly tied to Krishna bhakti that even to dream of his Vaishnavite, keertaniya, purely vegetarian family settled in Nabadwip accepting his relationship with a male or an eunuch would be blasphemy. And it does turn out to be blasphemy when he, along with Puti is thrown out of the ancestral home and asked never to show his face again. Puti is separated from her statuette and her cell phone and eventually, from Madhu too, who cannot find ‘her’ despite his frantic search.
Whether Puti is a castrated male who has become a eunuch or is a genetic male emerges slowly through the narrative though it is never mentioned except towards the climax when another group of eunuchs punish her when they discover that ‘she’ is male. The wig Puti wears also has a role to play – in the beginning when Madhu is visibly disturbed when he sees her without the wig for the first time and she promises to allow her hair to grow long. Then, towards the end when her secret is revealed in full public view. The hair also plays a symbolic role which symbolises that Puti’s desperation to become a female in real life, through surgeries is in vain because she will be forced into accepting the sex she was born into but never belonged to.
Holi, the grand colour festival of the Hindus linked directly to Krishna’s frolics with the Gopis in general and with Radha in particular, is introduced seamlessly into the film as it races towards the sad end. Holi is a favourite festival for the eunuchs who collect donations in cash and kind from everyone around for their celebrity feast of rice and mutton-curry and play with colours of all hues and shades. The runaway Puti is trapped within this circle when she goes begging from the public and from shops because she is hungry. They not only beat her up, but they also pour a bucket of blue colour on her when they discover that she is a male pretending to be a eunuch. Blue is a colour that finds immediate identification with Lord Krishna. Till the end of the film, Puti is shown in a strongly suggestive shot, stripped to the raw, her legs all blue. This is a pointer to the brutality the third gender is capable of as much as mainstream men, women and children.
Riddhi Sen as Parimal /Pari / Puti gives a performance that spells out how richly he deserved the Best Actor Award for his performance, switching between and among his multi-layered role smoothly minus any jerks in performance or editing. He dances like eunuchs do and in one scene, his middle-class background surfaces as he begins to dance to a Tagore song and the group laughingly says, “Imagine hijras dancing to a Tagore song!” She switches to a Hindi film song at once. Ritwik Chakraborty as Madhu fits into the mould of a confused but determined young man who is bent upon getting his lady love delivers a sparkling performance. The eunuchs, said to have been drawn from real eunuch groups, are in their element with their ability to laugh at themselves and their confused identity the mainstream refuses to include. The music, the songs, the art direction, the very challenging editing, the dialogue and the jet paced changes of scenario work as beautifully as does the entire acting cast of the film.
Recent representations of trans people in Indian cinema have been more frequent than they were before, but such representation has been included as an also-ran, a comic interlude, or, a song-and-dance number. Pooja Bhatt and Mahesh Bhatt in Tamanna (1997) treated the eunuchs with great humanity and feeling. The other was Kalpana Lajmi’s Darmiyaan. The transgender as the protagonist has also been always very tragic though not negative. But tragedy is the ultimate reality of their lives and representations in cinema cannot be a direct opposite of that. A transgender cannot be expected to fight villains or jump across bridges or even sing lovely songs or romance with the leading lady or leading man. Kaushik Ganguly too, could not afford to jump the line. But his mastery lies in seeking to understand and include the personal experiences of a man who wants to become a woman surgically but is not allowed either by the eunuch community or by the mainstream. He does not sensationalise the subject, he does not emphasise on mundane forms of transphobia. He is never judgemental. But he holds a picture right in front of you that effectively manipulates you to take the film Nagarkirtan out of the theatre and think about the love story of Puti and Madhu long after the film is over. One only wishes that the last twist had not been quite so melodramatic.
 Sryker, Susan: “(De)Subjugated Knowledges. An Introduction to Transgender Studies.” TheTransgender Reader. Ed. Susan Stryker and Stephen Whittle. New York: Routledge, 2006.
 Schorn, Johanna: Editorial in the December 16 Issue of Gender Forum, Issue 56 (Special Issue on Transgender and the Media
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