Onyo Opala – An Unusual Perspective on the Gay Identity
Satarupa Sanyal’s latest film Onyo Opala is an interesting film when it looks into homosexuality but fails overall as it tries to crunch too many issues within its narrative. A Silhouette review.
An interesting feature of cinema is how a film communicates itself differently to different people and how it might change tracks without the filmmaker being aware of it during the making of the film. Satarupa Sanyal’s Onyo Opala is an illustration in point. Satarupa began her career in the audiovisual media with television serials and telefilms as an actress and a director. She is also trained in music and has a great sense of music. She has made two feature films before Onyo Opala namely Anu which won a National Award and Kalo Cheeta along with a wonderful documentary on freedom fighter Jatin Das. Onyo Opala was screened in the Indian Panorama at the Goa IFFI this year.
Though Anu carried a powerful message on the social and filial ostracisation of rape victims by their own families, it was marred by a slightly wobbly script and the inept performance of the actor who plays Anu’s husband though Indrani Haldar was very good in the title role. Onyo Opala has focussed on its woman-centric tale of a young woman who loses her husband and lives with a deep sense of being wronged through her married life. Instead of being intent on revenge, she shifts focus to minutely detailed customs and rituals mandatory for the Hindu widow of an aristocratic zamindar family somewhere in Bengal. But for this viewer, the unfolding of the gay identity comes across more strongly than the woman story.
Onyo Opala opens on a magnificient white, zamiindari mansion where the verandah that runs right around the house seems to go on forever while the rooms differ in their degree of size and décor depending perhaps on the hierarchy of the members within the family. We see a middle-aged Opala (Roopa Ganguly) as a dignified widow in white – her hair is much too black not only for her age but also for the experience she has been through. She runs the family staff with an iron hand and is preparing for the massive pooja and cultural programme in celebration of her husband’s 25th death anniversary. Her son who has come from the US for the event, talks Bangla with a strong accent and keeps chatting with someone on his laptop.
The narrative in the present harks back to frequent flashbacks within Opala’s nostalgia. The younger Opala portrayed to express both the naïve innocence and the confused shock by Ritabhari Chakraborty is touching and carries an impact. Her marriage remains unconsummated because her husband Shyam (Bhaswar Chatterjee) is obsessed with Ananta, (Nigel Akkara), his gurudev who he openly declares he loves deeply. Shyam is very pretty, strongly effeminate, loves to cook and yet loves his wife deeply. But she cannot get pregnant because she is still a virgin as her husband does not want to consummate the marriage. Yet, she gets pregnant and delivers a boy. How and why? Her in-laws who constantly are at her back for not being able to deliver the family heir are thrilled. Shyam saves her when she attempts suicide. Opala who had decided to go back to her parents, changes her decision when she finds so much love and care and nurturing in her husband and accepts him the way he is.
The gay identity has many manifestations. A gay man may be sexually exploited by a heterosexual man. A gay man may love his wife dearly even if he refuses to sleep with her because he says he is committed to another man, his spiritual mentor. A gay man may feel deep guilt about his sexual orientation but cannot help himself. The gay psyche can exist and sustain in an ambience that has nothing to do with bloodline, tradition, social status or marital ties. This came across unwittingly as the more insightful and empathetic part of Onyo Opala than the patriarchal violence the director aimed it would focus on. This is perhaps the first Indian film where the hero is fleshed out with extremely effeminate behaviour and characteristics who finally admits that he is constantly disturbed because he realises he is a woman trapped in a man’s body.
Bhaswar Chatterjee is outstanding as Shyam and his chocolate-boy, eye-candy buildup suits him to a tee. His body language, his openness, his fondness what is commonly associated with the female such as cooking, performing pooja rituals and attitude towards his wife are completely misunderstood by his patriarchal parents. This is natural considering they have no idea about homosexual relationships. The young Opala is also confused till she determinedly finds out the truth of her husband. Shyam’s manner violates every conditioned concept we have been fed about masculinity but this too, is masculine, throwing up the reality that masculinity can and does exist in degrees of difference and may not necessarily be the idealized concept of the ‘macho male’ that has run through our psyche for hundreds of years.
Opala’s sudden and brutally cruel rape by Ananta gets an alternative perspective when she finds that her pregnancy has changed her position in the family and led finally, to warm acceptance by her in-laws because she is now a mother. She does not accuse Ananta openly but does not forgive him either for taking advantage of his relationship with her husband to rape her. Yet, she suffers from pangs of deep guilt and tries to expunge herself from this by devoting herself completely to religion, custom, widow rituals and running the household with an iron hand. “Who are you fighting against?” asks a dying Ananta who seeks shelter from her. “Are you sure it is not a fight with yourself?” He asks and the story comes full circle.
The only person who knows the secret of Opala’s pregnancy is a widowed aunt (Kalyani Mandal in a magnificently layered performance) Opala takes care of when she is very old, bedridden and cannot speak and will not be fed by anyone else but Opala. Opala’s hopes pinned on her grown son who she expects will take over the zamindari after she is no more come crashing down when she discovers that he is gay. The young actor who plays the son is quite bad.
Onyo Opala is far from a very good film because it has too many hiccups in terms of cinematic excellence and aesthetic restraint because there is little to show. The film is more character driven than incident driven but the lead character of Opala is defeated despite the dignified performance of Rupa Ganguly and the freshness that Ritabhari invests the younger Opala with because there are technical gaffes. The songs are beautiful but there are too many songs, too lengthy songs and not always positioned rightly within the narrative. The classical dance number performed to a raga-based song is atrociously bad. The flashbacks are repetitive adding needlessly to the footage. Nigel is unconvincing as the young Ananta but very good as the bent, doddering and somewhat repentant old man.
The main problem with Onyo Opala is that the script and the director seem to have got carried away with too many issues – unconsummated marriage between two very young and beautiful people; the in-law’s desperate craving for a male heir; the closeted gay identity of Shyam which he opens out to only with his wife; the closeted gay-ness of Opala’s son; rape; the double-faced cunning of Godmen shown through and in Ananta; the pain of a virgin bride who does not know what is wrong with the marriage; the deep pangs of guilt Opala suffers from though she is the rape victim and not the perpetrator; whew! What more can one ask for? The editing needed to have been tighter and crisper cutting down at least 30 minutes off the footage which is often riddled with repeat shots. The cinematography passes muster but focusses too much on the ambience of the huge palatial mansion. But Onyo Opala is definitely an ‘onyo’ (meaning different) – a unique film which is not a repetitive cliché.
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