It’s not often that one comes across a film that makes you flinch from a scene unfolding before you. Thanks to the outstanding performances, there’s hardly a false note in what is possibly the most hard-edged depiction of the trans community on the Indian screen. As Nagarkirtan tore towards its dreadful climax – over three sequences so powerful they are bound to shake you to the core – I found myself almost unwittingly averting my eyes from the screen, hoping against hope that there was some way one could rewind the last half-hour for a different ending, thus providing its protagonists with a more hopeful alternative.
Of course, then Nagarkirtan would not be the film it is – unflinching, uncompromising, unforgettable. The film holds a mirror to us, reminding us of the hundreds of times we have turned our faces away from the sight of a trans person knocking on our car window asking for alms. They have always been seen as a bunch of miscreants who cannot be trusted, their shadows considered inauspicious and their company considered highly undesirable for any respectable member of ‘civilised’ society.
Parimal (Riddhi Sen) does not want to live her life as a man anymore, as she feels it is not her truth. Unable to live with what she considers her biggest lie and coping with the trauma of being betrayed by her teacher Subhash da, Parimal runs away from home and moves in with a community of trans persons. Here she is named Puti – a name that lends itself to various connotations: a ‘small fish’, or it may be attributed to the game of Ludo, where she always comes up with ‘one’ or ‘put’, as it is called in Bangla – in other words, a loser.
What unfolds is a tender love story that does away with all the norms of love stories we are accustomed to seeing in Indian cinema.
Though Puti goes around soliciting money at traffic signals as we see trans persons do, she longs to undergo the sex reassignment surgery that will enable the realization of her true/complete self – as she tells Madhu (Ritwick Chakraborty), a delivery boy with a Chinese restaurant who she falls in love with. Madhu, who also moonlights as a flautist in kirtans, not only reciprocates Puti’s love but also makes it his life’s mission to raise the money required for her surgery.
What unfolds is a tender love story that does away with all the norms of love stories we are accustomed to seeing in Indian cinema, set against an utterly compelling and authentic backdrop of what genteel society would call ‘lowlife’. The movie has Manabi Bandyopadhyay, India’s first transgender college principal and Bengal’s first transgender professor, playing herself in the film.
One thing that fascinates me about the film is that it never depicts any direct witch-hunt of trans persons. They are never treated badly in a direct manner. Yet, at every step, they are denied even the most basic human rights – the right to employment, for instance, or the right to dignity. In a scene involving Manabi, she laments that despite everything that she has achieved, she can’t even use the women’s toilet at her workplace without raised eyebrows. The social ostracisation is veiled – just under the surface of civil decorum. Nagarkirtan’s success lies in exposing this layer of hypocrisy.
What also makes the film work is its non-linear structure, moving back and forth in time, coupled with two outstanding performances and one memorable sequence after another, making Nagarkirtan a film almost as flawless as one can expect. While Riddhi Sen is arguably the most audacious cinematic performance in recent times (one that not only fetched him the award for Best Actor at the 65th National Film Awards in 2018 but also drove jury chairperson Shekhar Kapur to hail it a ‘world-beating performance’), Ritwick Chakraborty wins everyone’s hearts thanks to his impeccable portrayal of Madhu – irreverently street-smart, casually comic and yet, deeply sensitive towards his lover’s feelings. He protects her with the embrace she deserves and demands.
The social ostracisation is veiled – just under the surface of civil decorum. Nagarkirtan’s success lies in exposing this layer of hypocrisy.
The movie is powerful on one hand and sensitive on the other, a biting commentary on the life of the trans community in contemporary Indian society on one hand and a beautiful love story on the other.
In a scene during which it is particularly difficult to hold back one’s tears, Puti asks her lover – “you made love to me, did it seem to you that I am anything but a woman?” The scene literally breaks one’s heart. Here is a woman who is not allowed to be a woman by society, and seeking a sort of reassurance from a man that has made love to her, asking him if she is feminine enough… writing at its poignant and emotional best.
Coming back to the climax – the director makes a point to situate it in Nabadweep, home of Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, considered in the Hindu religious pantheon to be the incarnation of and combining in himself the attributes of both Lord Krishna and Radharani, thus reinforcing the bhakti roots behind androgyny and androgynous relationships. At the same time, in depicting the brutality of the film’s most traumatic scene on a mobile phone, the director makes a brilliant social comment – on our sadistic fetish for capturing the most inhuman act on camera and presenting it as ‘entertainment’.
This is not the first time that director Kaushik Ganguly has addressed issues revolving around sexuality and gender in his films. In telefilms like Ushnatar Janye (2003), he explored the storyline of lesbians. Soon after the landmark 2009 judgment delivered by the Delhi High Court decriminalising homosexuality, he directed Rituparno Ghosh in Arekti Premer Golpo (2010), hailed for its bold theme for daring to tread on terrain few mainstream films do. With Nagarkirtan, the director sets the bar even higher. There are films and performances that make you go ‘wow’. Then, there are those that leave you spellbound and render you speechless. Nagarkirtan is one such film.
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Featured image used for representational purpose only. Image source: Times of India