15 Oct 2021
Arghya Adhikary, Riddhish Dhar, Manoj A Michigan
A young man from a village near Kolkata navigates the pitfalls of gender nonconformity and the many forms of prejudice and hostility it provokes within his family and wider network.
In an era of greater acceptance of a spectrum of sexualities and gender identities in the Global North, this film shows how the search for his true sexual identity plays out for one young man from a rural Indian background. Hiding his transvestism and his sexual relationship with a local man, Manob (sensitively portrayed by Arghya Adhikary) is contemplating gender reassignment and is sometimes attracted to women.
Attempting to convey the nuances of these complex feelings to his lover, he receives the response, “Does that make you a gay or a lesbian?”, delivered with a mixture of hilarity and contempt that stamps all over the emotional closeness Manob craves.
Drawn to the anonymity and greater liberality of the city, he is freed from the strangling conservatism and adherence to tradition of his home life. A new trans friend provides fleeting hope when she reveals that she holds down a regular office job. However, Manob is able to earn money only through sex work.
Collage-like juxtaposition of images from locations and eras throughout the protagonist’s life are intercut with mises en scene of a purely symbolic nature (for instance, a repeated motif of submersion which occurs at moments of emotional rejection), this symbolism tending somewhat towards the heavy-handed.
Writer-director-producer Tathagata Ghosh’s background in commercials, music videos and fashion informs his cinematography. Charismatic trans figures in vivid makeup and ravishing saris posed against the crumbling back alleys of Kolkata evoke a pop video aesthetic, this seductive visual language perhaps speaking to the elusive alter ego of the imagined or desired self. In this young man’s life, poverty and prejudice are everywhere but the beautiful and fantastical carve out their own space.
Within recent years, the Indian Supreme Court has granted recognition of a ‘third gender’, including the ancient community of gender-variant hijras (traditionally singers, dancers and sex workers), offering some protection of their rights, and consensual homosexual intercourse is no longer a criminal offence, but homophobia is far from vanquished within contemporary Indian society.
We feel this homophobia throughout the film as a potent presence assuming many forms: The blows and cigarette burns inflicted by Manob’s outraged father; the scorn of his best friend, herself an impoverished sex worker, who until the moment he reveals his transvestism, we are led to view as a kind of guardian angel; the brutality with which the attention and approval gained as a little boy allowed to dress up in his mother’s clothes has now soured into rejection by nearly all those he holds dear.
This feature uses a kaleidoscopic and hallucinatory style to merge bleak realism with a defiant assertion of self-expression and a visionary transcendence of material circumstances.