Chitrangada: A Crowning Wish is a National Award-winning Bengali film by famous queer director Rituparno Ghosh, released in 2012. The film stars Ghosh himself as the protagonist Rudra Chatterjee, a trans celebrity theatre director and dancer; Jissu Sengupta as Partho Majumdar, his lover and Anjan Dutt as Shubho, his counsellor. The film follows a sequence of scenes from the past and the present, mainly through Rudra’s conversations with his counsellor in the hospital.
The film revolves around the premise that same-sex couples cannot adopt children in India, which is why Rudra decides to undergo sex reassignment surgery to be a woman, so as to be eligible to adopt a child with Partho. The tragedy in Rudra’s life is that while he’s willing to undergo six months of pain and suffering for Partho, the latter breaks it off with him by saying, “If I have to have a woman, I’d rather have a real one, not this half-thing”.
The film beautifully portrays the daily struggles of a queer man, his relationship with his parents and the society around him. It does a brilliant job of highlighting his loneliness and selflessness and at the same time and educates the audience about the several difficulties faced by members of the LGBTQ community.
The film also incorporates bits from Rabindranath Tagore’s story about Chitrangada, a Manipuri princess who was brought up as a man and warrior because it was her father’s wish to do so, and juxtaposes Chitrangada’s desire to be a woman when she falls in love with Arjun during a hunt, along with Rudra’s desire of the same. As Rudra says, the film depicts that “children have desires beyond their parents’ expectations”. It is the story of a wish, that one can choose their gender identity – a story of the parents’ wish versus their child’s wish.
Kasturi (Raima Sen), the main dancer in Rudra’s theatre troupe, or as they call it, the dol, brings in a new percussionist, Partho. Despite his heroin-addiction and obvious unreliability, Rudra decides to give him a chance, because, “since I’ve been through ostracism and gossip in society, I thought that maybe I could help him.” Gradually, Rudra falls in love with him and tries his best to rid him of his addiction but to no avail. It is obvious to everyone including Rudra’s mother that Partho is taking advantage of his loneliness and simply using him, and yet Rudra decides to go ahead with the sex-change anyway, believing he can truly start a family with Partho.
Yet, what is central to the film is the idea of family. This can be thought of in three ways:
- Family as constituted by Rudra and his biological parents
- The constant reference to the theatre-troupe by Rudra as his family
- Rudra’s desire to start his own family
For the purpose of this article, I shall refer to Kath Weston’s Families We Choose: Lesbians, Gays, Kinship, to understand what family means to a trans person like Rudra. Let us begin with Rudra’s relationship with his parents. Most of the conversations between Rudra and his parents take place over dinner at the dining table, and this is significant because kinship is defined by acts of cooking together and eating together.
In a society which rejects him, he gets to determine who he considers ‘family’ and what kinship terminology he uses to refer to them.
While his mother is sympathetic, kind and loving, Rudra’s father highly disapproves of his sexual orientation and choice of profession, that of a dancer. It is important that Rudra’s style of dressing, elaborate jewellery, heavily kohled eyes and non-masculine behaviour makes his choice of gender identity very clear. He was forced to study engineering by his parents and he gave it up later to pursue dancing. While he begs his father to come to his play and admits to wanting him there, he knows his father won’t ever turn up because it is embarrassing for him to watch his son perform with a musical anklet (ghungroo) on.
When he tells his parents of his decision to undergo sex-reassignment surgery, he admits that he has been a ‘perennial embarrassment’ to them and proposes to live somewhere else, thus making an effort to move away from the residence of his biological family. Wanting to leave the residence itself shows how important a person’s identity is to them, that he would be prepared to break with his kin members so that he can ‘be who he is’. Yet, his parents refuse to let him leave and ultimately, we see that it is only his parents who are truly there for him and take care for him, even though they do not fully understand him.
Gradually, we see his parents accepting him. An important moment is when Rudra’s father kisses him on his forehead while he is lying unconscious on the hospital bed. Later, his parents want him to sign an affidavit which proposes to legally register his change of sex. This is important in terms of the legitimacy of inheritance. We know that one of the functions of marriage is to create legitimate heirs, and in this case, as Rudra’s father explains, his will is subjected to his ‘only son and heir’. Therefore, unless Rudra legally changes his sex, he would have trouble inheriting his father’s property. A change in identity needs to be legally registered, otherwise, his father can’t change his will. These are very nuanced but important concepts of kinship that the film goes on to underline.
Coming to his theatre group, Rudra frequently refers to them as his family. One must understand that this has much more to do with the fact that he shares a strong bond with all the members. He tells Partho, “They love me, they are fond of me and they respect me”. This means a lot to someone who has been compelled to undergo shame and humiliation all his life. In this space provided by his theatre group, he can be his own self without any restrictions and let his natural creativity flow without worrying what others think because he knows that they look up to him and take him seriously.
He himself admits, “my dance is not limited by my gender, and neither is my identity”. The way he interacts with the members, even with those like Mala who have left the troupe, it is easy to see that in an otherwise lonely world, he finds emotional support among them. He often calls the younger members as his ‘children’ and often treats them to feasts after a good performance, and perhaps they could be a substitute for the children he wants.
In a society which denies recognition to queer families, the significance of family rests in the eyes of the beholder. Here, the choice becomes allied with kinship and family can mean different things. For Rudra, the importance lies in the fact that he gets to choose his family. In a society which rejects him, he gets to determine who he considers ‘family’ and what kinship terminology he uses to refer to them. Such families bridge the domains of fictive kins and blood kins and are based on identities: the identity of being a performer, a dancer, a story-teller. They have time-depth and involve material assistance too, as can be seen when the older members often lend money to the younger ones.
Yet, the film ultimately depicts blood kins to be more important.
There is an element of routinization, as they regularly meet for rehearsals and spend time together. The thing is, in this kind of a sphere, it is difficult to separate one’s personal life from their professional one as being an actor or a dancer involves being vulnerable to and trusting those you work with, and this automatically brings in an emotional aspect. They often travel to perform in which case they live together, eat together and sleep together, exactly like a ‘normal’ family. Ultimately, it comes down to the need for a family for Rudra, a family that truly accepts him and forms a supporting network. Here, it is like a cluster of persons surrounding a single individual: Rudra.
Yet, the film ultimately depicts blood kins to be more important, as we can see that towards the end, Rudra is only left with his parents to support him. Rudra keeps asking if anyone has come to visit him, anyone from his ‘dol’ and his disappointment with the responses pushes him further into the pit of loneliness.
Lastly, Rudra’s desire to adopt a child is motivated by watching those around him starting families. Also, it is a desire to start a family with Partho, who evidently loves children. At the core of it, it is a desire to not be lonely. This is the reason Rudra keeps giving Partho numerous chances despite the fact that he constantly proves to be an unreliable drug-addict – Rudra fears he may never find someone else to love him. He justifies his relationship to others by saying that Partho has the courage to love him, while most others wouldn’t.
When Rudra realizes he cannot give children to Partho, he offers to move away, but Partho refuses to let him go and says they would adopt a child if necessary. It is here that Rudra decides to undergo surgery to become a woman. Partho accuses him of not being happy with his natural self and using the excuse of starting a family just to become a woman. Rudra says, “If everyone were happy with their natural selves, then men wouldn’t work out hours at the gym trying to build six packs and women wouldn’t thread their eyebrows or wax”. It is the simplicity of this answer that is astounding, for Rudra it is just a ‘cosmetic surgery’.
Yet, the emphasis on biological kin is reiterated by Partho only when Rudra is half-way through his surgeries, “If I have to have a child, I would rather have one of my own, my own blood.” Just like that, Partho breaks it off with Rudra. No matter what Rudra goes through, for Partho, a child of his own flesh and blood is any day preferred over an adopted one. He would prefer a ‘real woman’ like Kasturi, which is why he decides to marry her, then Rudra, who despite his several attempts, cannot pass for a ‘real’ woman and is in Partho’s words – a “synthetic” one.
This emphasis on blood is once again reinforced by Rudra’s mother, who demands to know about Rudra’s surgery despite his refusal to tell her. She says, “You have been born from within me, I have a right over your body… I have taken a lot of care of this body and today if you wish to put it under the surgeon’s knife, I have a right to know”. In this film, what is constantly depicted is the importance of blood kins, or what we call ‘consanguineous’ kins in Bengali society. Even though Rudra had thought he had found a family within his theatre troupe, it is his parents who ultimately stood by him and cared for him.
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Featured image used for representational purpose only. Image source: Amino Apps