It was my first time in Thrissur and my first time at IFFT. There, I turned up a copy of the FOURTH PAVITHRAN MEMORIAL LECTURE, Supriya Madangarli’s NOT QUITE STRAIGHT: QUESTIONING GENDER PERFORMANCES IN POPULAR CINEMA, published by Thissur’s Chalachitrakendram in 2012. Supriya discusses five films — ORLANDO, TOOTSIE, MRS. DOUBTFIRE, CHACHI 420 and NATRANG — before examining Lal Jose’s CHANTHUPOTTA (SANDLEWOOD BINDI, 2005), winner of the Best Actor Award for Dilip as Radhakrishn, a boy raised as a granddaughter called Radha, yet heterosexual. ‘Radha’ ties his dhoti like a woman, wears makeup and a pearl necklace, and throws away his Koli-caste fishing pole to teach dance — until he kisses a girl’s shoulder in the rain and is symbolically deflowered (she breaks his necklace, replaced by an impromptu mangalsutra). Blamed for the lack of fish in Koli nets, “cursed by the sea goddess,” he tries to masculinize himself as Krishnan, has his hair cut, reties his dhoti, tweaks his own body language, sires a son and beats up the villain who had deprived him of his father. “The film stops [sic] give tantalizing glimpses of what could happen if the status quo were broken but manage[s] to retreat into the safety lines just in time,” said Supriya. Then she asked, “Is the door closed for differently gendered identities, transgender identities in popular culture and popular cinema?” (p. 32)
From the perspective of IFFI 2016, the answer has changed to a definite “No.” IFFIT featured four Indian films in as many Indian languages where a hunk is gay, a woman fantasizes a lesbian lover and two men become hijras. I had seen all four before, but at ITTF I had the pleasure of seeing them again.
To the northeast, in SatarupaSanyal’s ONYO OPALAA (THE JOURNEY OF A WOMAN), in Bengali, Opalaa (Rupa Gangly) has been a widow for twenty-five years. It’s now time for her late husband Shyam’s twenty-fifth death rites and she has called her only son, Atanu (Nigel Akarra, the hunk), home from California. A photo of Shyam, always highlighted, sits near her bedside. But in flashbacks we learn that the husband was not only gay, but a devotee of his pansexual guru Ananta, believing him to be god Krishna himself. When Opalaa finds them “together,” she attempts to poison herself, but Shyam (also a name for Krishna) saves her, praising her as his only real “girl friend.” Raped by Ananta, Opalaa gives birth to Atanu. In the present, Opalaa plans to turn over her hawali to Atanu, until she happens past his bedroom while he is breaking-up with his California lover on Skype and discovers that the lover is a man.
The orthodox Opalaa’s decision, after her initial shock, is not one of rejection, nor only that life would be easier for Atanu in California, but of realizing that her own life, without love, should not be repeated in his life. ONYA OPALAA is reminiscent of Satyajit Ray, slow in physical movement, but rapid in its plot development, although the gender subplot is one that Ray would never have touched. It has been a relative hit in Bengal, to its director “returning some interest to its investors.”
To the immediate south, Amartya Bhattacharayya’ CAPITAL 1, in Odia, is an essentially plotless, dreamlike film. A woman is trapped between her male lover and her hallucinatory lesbian lover. She will decide between them, yet in the meantime two women appear in an Odia dance sequence, one sitting demurely to the right and the other dancing in Odia style, as if they were reliefs on the Sun Temple in the Odisha village of Konark. When the girl finally makes her decision, a weighing scale appears on screen between her and her proposed lover. But I doubt CAPITAL 1 will ever have a commercial release in Odisha. It deals with a topic that remains controversial in an orthodox and relatively underdeveloped state, despite the erotic same-sex sculptures on that Sun Temple.
Almost in the center of South India, B.S. Lingadevaru’s NANU AVANALLA… AVALU (NOT HE … BUT SHE), in Kannada, tells the true story of the cross-dressing Madesha, who became the hijra Living Smile Vidya. Effeminate Madesha (Sancheri Vijay) embarrasses his family, except for his sister, even after receiving a diploma. Leaving his small town for Bangalore, he is introduced to a group of part-time transvestites. Not satisfied and still discriminated against, Madesha joins a ‘family’ of hijras and decides to undergo ‘nirvana’ (castration) to become Vidya (‘Knowledge’). To do so, Madesha must travel to Pune.
No fiction, nor any film that I have seen, is so graphic about ‘nirvana.” Conditions are less than hygienic: blood and bandages are on the stairs and the walls. Neophytes are given a blood test for AIDS -– if positive, they are not rejected, but the price, from their begging, is doubled. Candidates are sedated and tied to a bed for the actual operation.
As a castrated hijra, Vidya (formerly Madesha) is instructed by the ‘maa’ of her hijra household to beg. On a train she meets homophobic violence for doing so. In the end, refusing to prostitute herself, Vidya rejects her ‘maa’ and, still rejected by her birth family, seeks office employment. Thrice rejected, Vidya makes an impassioned speech on transgender tolerance. The end titles contain still photos of the real Vidya and her successful theater troupe. I saw the group perform at the 2015 Chennai Queer Film Festival. They were too expensive for the 2016 Bangalore Queer Film Festival.
At the 46th International Film Festival of India, in Goa, I found Sanchari’s performance as Madesha quite mincing, to the point of unintentional comedy, but more convincing in the second half. I did not know if I should laugh or grieve. At BQFF and IFFT audiences took the performance seriously, amused only with and not at Madesha. Sanchari’s performance brought him the National Best Actor Award last year.
To the northwest, in SuhaasBhonsle’s KOTI (HIJRA), in Marathi, a language with a recent history of good films about children, a younger brother, whose older brother wants a sister, begins to act like one, tying a RakshaBandhan string on the elder’s right wrist. Their father, who wants to become the village headman, is embarrassed by their behavior and tells them to stop their antics. However, one night the pair sneaks out to watch a traveling tamasha show and soon arrange their own show, the older selling tickets and the younger dancing in Marathi drag. As their behavior continues, the father visits the extremely virile-looking ‘maa’ of a city hijra family and is informed of the harsh life a hijra must live, “But if you still want to send him here, our door is always open.”
The father has second thoughts, but when relatives arrive for a blessing for their baby from his ‘special’ child, he throws them off his property. In the end, the younger son disappears and the elder chases after him, only to find the metal box in which the younger kept his makeup and saris, open by the side of a road. As the camera rises from the elder son’s perspective we wonder what has, or will become of the younger son. Will he become part of the previously seen hijra family? Will he eventually go to Pune (in the same state as this film) to undergo ‘nirvana?’ We don’t know, as that is the end of the film. KOTI is full of humor, and charming, until the Interval, but then becomes darker. Where it ends NOT HE … BUT SHE almost begins. After three festivals, KOTI has not yet had a commercial release.
So here are four films at IFFT 2016 that answer Supriya Madangarli’s 2012 question: “Is the door closed for differently gendered identities, transgender identities in popular cultural and popular cinema?”
The answer is, “No, the door is no longer closed.” Yet these lives are difficult, according to these films, as well as to Hansel Mehta’s ALIGARH in Hindi and Viju Varma’s ODUM RAJA AADUM RANI (KICKASS KING DANCING QUEEN) in Malayalam. That door is open, but the newcomers in these films are often scared by their life experiences.