Chitrangada: The Crowning Wish (2012) is an adaptation of an adaptation; a classic example of how classics live and thrive in our midst, creatingnew meanings in every age.
The original story is from the epic Mahabharata, which Rabindranath Tagore adapted in a dance drama in 1892, which in turn was given a new interpretation on celluloid by Rituparno Ghosh in 2012. From written text to the stage to the silver screen – that is the change it underwent in form; the successive changes in content are,however, even more remarkable. The story of Chitrangada, the warrior-Princess of Manipur, is a digression in the Mahabharata; and there, it is really about Arjuna’s exploits. When Tagore used the story at the end of the 19th century, he gave centrality to the character of Chitrangada, and made her self-assertion to Arjuna (at the end of his tale) a modern statement on gender equality. 120 years later, Ghosh chose to highlight theandrogynous aspect of Tagore’s heroine and treatedthe story as essentially one of wish fulfilment.
The story of the film:
Rudra (Rituporno Ghosh) is a choreographer undergoing ‘gender reassignment surgery’ (or sex change operation) in a Kolkata hospital. He has already been through one operation (breast implantation) and is about to have another (vaginal reconstruction). It is during this interim period – in the course of his sessions with a counsellor – that his life unfolds to us.
We come to know that he had recently staged a successful production of Tagore’s Chitrangada. In the new percussionist of his troupe, he had found a lover; and in the drama, a new meaning – that ‘it is the story of a wish’, the wish to change one’s gender. It spoke to him powerfully as he himself had that hidden desire, which he could fulfil only superficially by wearing jewellery and applying kohl. It is strange that though he connects with the character of Chitrangada while staging the play, it is after it was over that he BECOMES her!
As with Tagore’s heroine, in his case, too, the catalyst is the lover. Rudra’s lover Partho is a bisexual and loves children. Rudra wants to give him a child; but as same-sex couples cannot legally adopt children in India, Rudra decides to ‘technically’ become a woman to enable adoption. Ironically, it all turns out to be in vain – in the 6 months that he is in the hospital to ‘become a woman’, his man (for whom he undergoes sex-change in the first place) ditches him for another woman; and, what’s more, is unrepentant about it later. To add insult to injury, he dismisses Rudra as ‘this half-thing’, saying if he had to have a child, he would have it from a real woman, ‘not this synthetic one’, going back on his earlier word that a child was a child, no matter from where it came.
Rudra’s parents, mercifully, are truly supportive. They not only bear their own trauma with dignity, but are brutally honest in admitting their own mistake as parents – that they knew about Rudra’s sexual orientation from the beginning, but always tried to cover it up, adamant that ‘a boy should behave like a boy’. Had they accepted him as he was, then he probably would not have felt the need for sex change.
Ultimately, in a surprising turn of events, Rudra actually calls off his final operation and even decides to undo the breast implants. The film ends with the message, ‘’Be what you wish to be.’
Trilogy on Alternative Sexuality/ Filmography /Influences:
Chitrangada: The Crowning Wish is now widely regarded as the third film in the trilogy concerning homosexuality that Rituporno Ghosh was involved with – the first two being Kaushik Ganguly’s Arekti Premer Golpo (Just Another Love Story, 2011) & Sanjoy Nag’s Memories in March (2011).
The trilogy was the third and last phase of a brilliant cinematic career that was tragically cut short by death. There were two other major phases before it – in the first, Ghosh predominantly explored middle-class lives and morality in a changing society (Unishe April: 1994, Dahan: 1997, Asukh: 1999, Utsab: 2000,Titli: 2002); and in the second, he worked with a lot of Bollywood actors and also made films in Hindi and English (Chokher Bali: 2003, Raincoat: 2004, Antarmahal: 2005, The Last Lear: 2007, Khela: 2008, Shob Charitro Kalpanik: 2008).
He is considered the ‘best director of his generation’; he also happens to be the most prolific. In a span of two decades, he made 20 features, 1 documentary & acted in 3 films. He was a self-professed Satyajit Ray fan; and like him, came to films from the world of advertising. There were some other similarities, too – as with Ray, Tagore was a great inspiration for Ghosh & he seemed to follow his idol to a fault in this respect. Like Ray, he made 3 features based on/ adapted from Tagore’s stories (though not the same ones) & a documentary on the poet (here again, with different emphases). And like Ray, he bagged awards every year!
If his career had three phases, his narratives also had certain preoccupations, the chief of them being a nuanced exploration of the female psyche – and here the influence of another filmmaker is palpable: Aparna Sen. Sen and Ghosh’s deep personal bond is well-known. Surrogate siblings, she had a hand in making his career possible at an early stage. He imbibed from her a distinct aesthetics of beauty that often became evident in his set decorations, his actors’ costumes etc. But a deeper influence was at the level of theme and characterization. Sen had made the depiction of women-centric subjects her own from the 80s; Ghosh built on that and extended it in his own way.
A fourth influence was his contemporary Kaushik Ganguly, who made his mark in Bengali Tele films in the 1990s before becoming one of the most feted feature filmmakers of the new millennium. Ghosh’s Chitrangada owes an enormous debt to him. I mention him and not Sanjoy Nag because he was the first Bengali director to explore homosexuality as a subject. He did it way back in 2003, when it was only a hushed topic, in a Tele film titled Ushno Tari Jonyo, which depicted a lesbian relationship with Rupa Ganguly and Churni Ganguly in the lead roles. Rupa played a documentary filmmaker who, while working on Chapal Bhaduri, is forced to confront her own ambiguous sexuality. The same story was repeated 8 years later in Ganguly’s feature, Arekti Premer Golpo, this time with a gay couple replacing the lesbian one of the Tele film.
Ghosh’s crowning achievement:
Chitrangada: The Crowning Wish needs to be understood in the light of the above ‘back story’ of Ghosh’s career. It is Ghosh’s best Tagore adaptation; it is also his most direct personal statement about alternative sexuality. It is thus a culmination and a coming together of two important strains of his work. In this film, he brought Tagore to the service of his cause, and was immensely successful in his objective.
There are three aspects that really stand out in the film – his portrayal of the anguish of the sexually marginal protagonist, Rudra; his forthright depiction of the suffering of Rudra’s parents and the exploration of their filial bond; and his profound questioning of what constitutes identity.
Needless to say, they are all connected.
While Arekti Premer Golpowas (at one level) a bio-pic of Chapal Bhaduri, it helped Ghosh to ‘come out’, thus making him (to quote a line from the film that described Bhaduri) “… the first self-evident, self-confessed gay actor of the Bengali [film industry]”.Bengali cinema was absolutely mum about homosexuality before Kaushik Ganguly came on the scene.There have been some Hindi films that depicted closet homosexuals (Madhur Bhandarkar’s Page 3, Fashion) – but none that dealt head-on with the issue in all its complexity; none with the kind of bold love scenes depicted in Arekti Premer Golpo& Chitrangada; and certainly none that showed what parents go through trying to come to terms with a gay child. (The only exception is Darmiyaan, where the child is a hijra.)
The pain of Rudra’s parents in the film (played by Dipankar De & Anasuya Majumdar) is as palpable as his own, making this a story as much about anguish as wish – the anguish and pain and trauma that the wish to change gender (or the questioning of one’s identity) inevitably entails.
Rudra has four lovers – Partho (Jisshu Sengupta); a photographer (Sanjoy Nag) whom he accidentally again meets in Puri while holidaying with Partho; Joe Wright (with whom, we are told, he had stayed in New York for three years; who calls him up when he is in hospital and whom he refuses to meet); & finally Shubho (his hospital counsellor, played by Anjan Dutta, with whom we sense a budding ‘usno’ romance, but who turns out to be a figment of his hallucination). The lead female dancers of Rudra’s troupe, Mala (Aparajita Addo) and Kasturi (Raima Sen), are also shown to be very fond of him. But despite his many romantic relationships, we are left in no doubt that the closest people in Rudra’s life are his parents. His mother is his dearest one, the only person in his life to give him unconditional love and understanding; but during the course of the film, we also see his father making a heroic effort to bridge the gulf with his son and love him for what he is.
There are echoes here not only of Arekti Premer Golpo & Memories in March, but also some of Rituporno Ghosh’s own previous films. They attest a bitter truth – that for many, their ageing/old parents are the only steadfast fact of life; that love may not happen, or lovers may come and go, but parents remain loyal and dependable forever.
In a commemorative program on Ghosh after his death (Mone Ritu) in ABP Ananda, Aparna Sen paid a rich tribute to him. ‘I’ve been a witness to his suffering’, she said, and also ‘his transformation… He increasingly gathered the strength to be what he was deep inside… and slowly created himself as a clay maker creates a goddess (Nijeke jeno pratimar moto gorlo)… Very few people have the courage to be what they are, and he was one of them.’
Fortunately for him, Ghosh could express his pain as a transgendered person – and also his pride – through the medium of his art. Starting with Arekti Premer Golpo,films became for him a powerful platform to express/validate himself and the LGBT community, of which he was an icon. In Arekti Premer Golpo & Memories in March, others told his story. In Chitrangada, he told his own. It was the ultimate ‘coming out’ act!
Chitrangada is thus a very conscious film by a very conscious transgender filmmaker, exploring androgyny/alternative sexuality; and using his autobiographical story to convey a message – that of compassion and social acceptance. It is to Ghosh’s credit that the message is internalized in the narrative & doesn’t call attention to itself, as something apart from the story.
This film is Ghosh’s crowning achievement.!