Chitrangada - The Crowning Wish (2012) is a movie that will not let you walk out apathetic and dismiss it altogether as we could do with many recent Bengali movies, mercifully. It unsettles the very foundations of social constructs, raises questions about sex, gender, identity, love, leaving a tart taste in the mouth at the end as we are eventually made to question the very construct of ‘identity of the self’. On one hand we have the evolved self of Rudra (Rituparno Ghosh) who rejects sex reassignment and chooses to remain as he was, and, on the other looms Subho (Anjan Dutt), the counselor, the figment of imagination - the ultimate fluidity of identity. But yet a man must try to become a man, and a woman, a woman. People who do not confirm to this model are marginalized, left out lonely without family, home, mates, in a society still groping for a precise approach towards handling homosexuality. Who sets the rules finally? Given the natural differences between the heterosexuals and the rejected ‘other’ of homosexuality, (even after legal decriminalization of homosexuality ) what is further brought into question is how and where exactly would transgender fit in even after an SRS [Sex Reassignment Surgery] and finally we have the self’s attempts to grapple with the ‘other’ that is always located beyond its reach.
Rituparno Ghosh borrows the title from Tagore’s dance drama and affixes the addendum – ‘a crowning wish’; Crowning in the sense of ultimate. Tagore himself had adopted the episode form The Mahabharata. The legend goes that the King of Manipur was granted a boon by Lord Shiva that children born into the royal family would all be male. Yet a daughter was born – Chitrangada. The King therefore brought her up as a son. A daughter brought up as a son, introduces the mind-body disagreement early. It is an imposition by the father. It is his wish fulfillment. Her own wish comes to the forefront when she meets Arjun and falls in love. Despite all the vinaigrette she is a woman after all. Here begins her personal conflict, that of her physical and her inner self. Chitrangada, trained in horse riding, archery and regal administration is but a woman from within. In Tagore’s dance drama Chitrangada approaches Madan, the God of Love, who bestows upon her feminine grace and beauty, but that beauty is to be short-lived, it would last only for a year. All beauties are short -lived anyway.
When Arjun ignores her in the beginning, (Brahmacharibratadhari ami.patijogya nahi barangane )her female esteem is injured, but when he cannot ignore her beauty and readily succumbs she laments: Hay amare korilo / atikrom amar e tuccho dehokhana.
Chitrangada comprehends the superficiality of physical beauty and can clearly differentiate between the external and the internal self: Se chumbon, se premsangam / ekhono utheche kanpi je ango byapiya / beenar jhankar samo /se to mor nahe”
Rituparno thus credibly introduces the physical self -inner self / kurup-surup dichotomy at the centre of his discourse, for his Chitrangada is also a personal quest, like that of the Manipur princess, brought out through the conflict of the physical self and the inner self. The film opens in the hospital where we meet Rudra Chatterjee with blackened eyes evidently suffering. He gradually begins opening up to his counselor Subho and we traverse his mental landscape.
Rudra a transgender, misconstrued by his father, feels that he has done his duty towards his parents by passing out as an engineer but wants to be something else – he has chosen to be a choreographer and performs passionately in his production of Chitrangada, falling in love, in the process, with the percussionist Partho (Jishu Sengupta) and like Chitrangada of Tagore’s dance drama he wants to relocate his gender identity, for, like her, he has been carrying female sensibility hidden within a male identity. Like Rudra, Partho is also an other, marginalized by his drug addiction.
Both his relationship and his decision of sex reassignment surgery generate controversy. His parents already shocked at their son finding delight in dancing, (we may recall Mahesh Dattani’s Dance like a Man, especially Amritlal’s “Do you know where a man’s happiness lies?...In being a man.”) at his relationship with Partho , are now confronted with his yearning for sex change. Rudra is quite a celebrity. His programs get rave reviews, are appreciated all over, but have never been attended by his father whose beliefs are deep - rooted in social conventions. “I have been a perennial embarrassment” says Rudra. His parents travel from denial to acceptance, admitting at one point that they had known it all along but had not accepted. Together they confront the veracity that their son is to reassign his gender identity since it has always been incongruous with his sex.
Rudra’s wish is born through love, through a desire of mental and physical proximity with his partner Partho lifelong. Having discovered Partho’s fondness for children and musing over the fact that he will never be able to give him a child, he decides to adopt. But since two male parents are not permitted to adopt children Rudra decides to undergo a gender reassignment surgery. As he goes thorough the painful process his parents stand by him, the mother in an emotive scene claims her right: "I gave birth to this body, which is yours... I have a right to know, whatever goes on in this body. I have a right to know, if it is changing, transforming...".
It is impossible not to recall Memories in March (2010, Directed by Sanjoy Nag), authored by Rituparno that brings out heterosexual privilege and homophobia in a story where a mother unearths and confronts the fact that her deceased son (Sid) was a gay. Sid is also the distanced other by death.
In Chitrangada, after the breasts have been successfully implanted and Rudra displays them fondly to Partho, Partho moves away with discomfort. It gradually comes to light that he has already been dating Kasturi (Raima Sen). If he has to love a woman he would rather have a real woman, rather than a synthetic “half-thing”. This shatters Rudra. The text here reaches an aporia from where the discourse falls back and kind of deconstructs itself. The real woman conceives in no time and also wants an abortion. It is so natural to her, and Rudra later admits to Subho that Partho could not be blamed.
The central conflict, however, is not between Rudra and Partho, or between Rudra and his parents who represent the overarching patriarchal agency, but is confounded within him. With his dreams crushed a realization dawns upon him as he is made to question the identity that he had so long yearned to construct.
In Tagore’s Chitrangada, Chitrangada finds that she is superior to her body: ei chaddorupinir cheye /shreshtho ami satogune . sei aponare karibo prokash : bhalo jadi nai lage /ghrinabhore chole jaan jadi ,buk phete /mori jadi ami,tobu ami ami robo …”
Rudra too calls off his cosmetic transformation into a woman, and chooses to remain what he was. Moreover, he now finds shelter in his home.
We have the pleasure of watching some very powerful performances. Anjan Dutta as the counselor with his patient and lingering smile is at his best, Dipankar De as the father with his minimal dialogues brings out the most of an agency that he represents, Anasuya Majumdar as a mother, closer to the son than the father, delivers some of the films most touching dialogues. Jisshu Sengupta as a drug addict percussionist is a potent portrayal of an essential maleness along with Raima with her easy ways and all her beauty. The songs and background music is thought-provoking. Finally it is Rituparno who wears the crown.
Certain scenes may not seem quite appealing , like the scenes when the dance drama and the nurses and the operation table overlap, and certain mannerisms of Rituparno with which all must be familiar by now, but is compensated by the movements back and forth through time and through the real and the surreal landscape – it is an amazing construct. Such fluidity is essential for a film that explores the dilemma of a gender located in a society whose incongruities are ripped open by questions like: If drinking and driving is not allowed then why do bars have parking lots?
Finally, the quest of the self that hauls the problem from sexual orientation to a gender identity culminates in the futility of its very quest for permanence [“Why do you call a building a building even when it is complete?”] would have better been left unexplained.