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By An allusion to Tagore that leaves much to be desired, writes Aveek Sen
  • Published 20.09.12

Rabindranath Tagore’s Chitrangada — both the 1892 and the 1936 versions — is not about androgyny, or even about the fluidity of sex or gender. A young woman has been brought up by her royal parents as a man. She stumbles upon a man and instantly falls in lust with him. He does not reciprocate her desire, first, because he does not seem to feel any for her, and second, because he is sworn to celibacy. So, she asks a god to turn her into a sexier woman for just a year. Then the man responds. They have a passionate sexual affair, during which she feels intense shame and self-loathing for having deceived him with her divinely transformed looks. He, in turn, feels a little tired of being sexually enslaved to a beautiful and devoted woman for a whole year. He also begins to get curious about the woman-brought-up-as-a-man, about whom he hears from various people (including the woman herself). So the woman realizes that she would get to keep her man, and feel better about herself, only if she confronts him with the simple truth of her plainness. She duly turns into an ordinary-looking princess, but their relationship becomes more enduring, and she becomes a more interesting, fuller, woman.

For Chitrangada, desire for a man becomes a way of realizing and affirming her ‘natural’ sex — in spite of being brought up as a man. The only thing that transforms itself twice during the play is not her sex, but her appearance. Both times, she asks to be ‘changed’ in order to appease the man she desires, and to make her relationship with him more secure. Their attraction is based on the most traditional differences in sex and gender. A woman becomes most naturally a woman, no matter how she has been nurtured, when she meets a man she desires. But because, in this particular case, she has been reared in the masculine arts, she is able to bring into her personhood unusual elements that make her more attractive to the man and more conducive to an equal, companionate relationship with him.

So, if ‘sex’ is what we are in our bodies, and ‘gender’ what we are in our own minds and in the perceptions of others, then neither sex nor gender shows any signs of radical unsettlement in Tagore’s work. In fact, desire for a man makes Chitrangada’s sex — the physical and psychological fact of her being a woman — a great deal more firmly defined as female, although the original Chitrangada’s attractiveness for Arjun is expressed in terms that suggest the androgyne: “Chitrangada rajkumari/ Ekadharey milito purush naree.” But, ultimately, this muddle makes her a more interesting woman — and that is what she wishes to be, desperately, and for the sake of the man she wants.

What she acquires through all this shape-shifting is a firmer relationship with the truth of her femaleness, which she experiences eventually as a heightened and enlarged sense of self or personhood. But that truth has little to do with choice, agency or even play, although Tagore shows her as eminently capable of wresting as well as giving sexual pleasure. So, nature is affirmed as sexual difference, and the anomalies of nurture undone, at the end of the play, through the awakening of desire between a man and a woman.

It is, therefore, puzzling that Rituparno Ghosh chose Chitrangada as the allusive core of his film, Chitrangada: the Crowning Wish. What his protagonist, Rudra, embodies is the breaking down of the distinction between sex and gender — a dissolution that produces a far more radical unsettling of polarities (man, woman; male, female; masculine, feminine; active, passive) than Tagore’s play was ready to engage with. Yet, by yoking this unsettling of sex and gender to a venerable work about the affirmation of sexual difference, Ghosh’s film exposes a peculiar contradiction that makes its exploration of sexuality rather dubious in its intentions and implications.

Both Arekti Premer Golpo and Chitrangada come across as films that are deeply uneasy, in spite of themselves, about a man having a sexual relationship with other men. Both of them work for an ultimately conventional local audience that tolerates homosexuality only as long as its story is told as the unhappy and hyper-aesthetic tale of a woman trapped in the body of a man. So, the structure and texture of this story must draw upon two perennial vernacular pleasures: the stereotypes of heterosexual romantic melodrama, and pedigreed Tagorean lushness. Both films are awkward and inhibited about actual sexual pleasure, and even when questions of “gender identity” are brought back to the body and the evolution of its natural wishes, actual sex between embodied individuals is (often comically) sentimentalized into perverse suffering, beautified by ‘good taste’ into visually delectable ambience, or ritualized into the refinements of song or dance.

What this produces is the strangely evasive discourse of a sexuality without sex — of a gender identity that goes ‘beyond’, or is ‘higher’ or ‘rarer’ than, the banality of an ordinary man having pleasurable sex with another ordinary man. Nowhere in the two films do I seem to remember seeing two men actually enjoying sex without the accompaniment of some ritual of refinement or beautification. Ghosh’s cinema, in spite of what it dares, ultimately keeps well within the limits of the aesthetically, commercially and erotically risk-averse because it refuses to think rigorously enough through the plays of passion that it so abundantly imagines, and to go where this rigorous thinking would take him and his actors. Somewhere, somehow, in ways that remain difficult to pin down, his is a cinema that wishes it did not exist from the waist down. And this sexual evasiveness — fear? — at the heart of his cinema becomes a limitation rather than an enriching ambivalence. It is a ‘bad’, rather than ‘good’, frigidity, for which the films try to compensate with other kinds of visual and sentimental excess.

Yet, Ghosh is perhaps one of the few minds working in the vernacular who can explore, carnally and intellectually, the profound challenge posed by queerness to what Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code calls the “order of nature”. What happens to sexuality when it is genuinely and pleasurably delinked from its reproductive responsibilities, and therefore from the conventional family and from the inequalities or asymmetries of power the family is founded on? And when does it stop being simply a sexuality to find its place among the great — and dare one say, universal — questions of selfhood and of life? By drawing back from where his own capacity for intellectual rigour and play could have taken him, Ghosh is being most unfair to his own critical and creative intelligence. His standards in cinema need not be set by his immediate (and captivated) audiences. He must reach beyond their uncritical provincialism towards the more difficult and unsettling pleasures that he is capable of risking.