Two of the most well received films at the recently wrapped up I-View Film Festival 2010 in New York were about transgender identity and women’s empowerment, respectively. Yet both take unique paths to explore their subjects and prove to be charming films in the process.
Just Another Love Story
Rituparno Ghosh completely reinvents himself from director to actor and delivers a gripping performance in this very lyrical film by Kaushik Ganguly. Just Another Love Story (original Bengali title: Aar Ekti Premer Galpo) is about a filmmaker Abhiroop Sen (played by Ghosh) who makes a documentary about Chapal Bhaduri, the legendary jatra (Bengali folk theatre) actor who spent his entire career playing female roles on stage, primarily as Goddess Shitala. Thus begins a journey where director and subject learn from one another – on the one hand is Bhaduri (playing himself) who was a closeted gay for fear of social ostracism but was openly accepted as a cross-dressing actor, and on the other is the modern urban filmmaker who is open about his sexuality but is still negotiating his gender identity.
The most striking thing about this film is that it doesn't make a big exhibition about its very brave subject. It's not a look-how-path-breaking-this-film-is kind of treatment. Instead the transgender protagonist is introduced into the story with as much casualness as any other character. Ghosh lends to his character and the story such a complexity that you can't help but empathize with his struggle with his identity. The film maintains a mature and sensitive treatment throughout, never resorting to unnecessary gestures to prove its point.
The parallel story arc of Chapal Bhaduri is sensitively told and enlightening. Bhaduri plays himself with vulnerability and Ghosh playing Bhaduri in the reenactment of his younger life does a great job of switching back and forth between his character as the documentary filmmaker and a portrayal of Bhaduri. In this way the film becomes multilayered with each element building on the other. Sen’s relationship with his bisexual cameraman Basu (Indraneil Sengupta) is also handled with maturity and complexity, especially since the latter’s wife is aware and oddly accepting of their relationship.
Speaking about the taboo around trans identities in Indian, the director Ganguly said, “Trans identities, or the third sex, have been around since the mythological times, so this isn’t a new issue at all. We think it’s new because we’re still recovering from the colonial mindset.” Ganguly’s film is an ode to the traditions of jatra, a powerful yet subtle statement on the intrinsic presence of trans-identities in Indian society, and another glowing feather in the cap of the multi-talented Ghosh, who makes a stellar acting debut.
Director Vinay Shukla returns to the big screen after five years with his latest film titled Mirch. Starring Arunoday Singh, Konkona Sen Sharma, Raima Sen, Shahana Goswami, Sushant Singh and a whole host of supporting actors, this film is witty, cleverly told, and has delightful performances. It addresses the issue of women’s emancipation from restrictive roles in traditional storytelling, and ends up walking a very thin line between making a profound statement about empowerment and being potentially offensive for painting empowered women as cunning. That decision is ultimately left to the viewer, as I too walked out unsure about how to interpret it. Ultimately, Shukla delivers a film that is creatively narrated, makes you laugh, leaves you thinking, and provokes a discussion.
The basic story is of a struggling director/writer (Arunoday Singh) trying hard to impress a producer (Sushant Singh) to back his idea. Under pressure, the director narrates four short stories to him, each female-centric and evolving over time and in its feminist message. Konkona and Raima each feature in two of the stories he narrates, alternating from one to the other. They are supported by a very capable ensemble of actors such as Boman Irani, Ila Arun, Saurabh Shukla and Prem Chopra. One of the best things about the short stories is that each one transports the viewer completely to a new ambience and setting, and for a while you forget that you’re in a story within a story, until you’re pulled back out of it. Credit for this goes to the fluid writing and production design, which enables a seamless jump from swanky producer’s office to medieval village to Rajasthani palace to high-end art gallery to sleazy hotel room. If you’re curious about all those locations, watch the film to see what I mean.
Commenting on the evolution of the film, Shukla said, “The film is highly self-reflective, it mirrors the process I went through to get this film made. It was a huge struggle so the story is a commentary on that as well.” Shukla’s most well known film to date has been the 1999 release Godmother, starring Shabana Azmi, which won him awards and critical acclaim. It is good to see him return with another powerful script and a great line-up of talent. The film’s actual portrayal of women’s emancipation is up for interpretation, but at least here’s a film that inspires debate and shows you a good time while doing it.