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2017 film Nagarkirtan has done what a number of films have been unable to do- portray transpeople as erring and vulnerable humans.
What does it mean to be a trans-person in a myopic, unidimensional world inhabited by cis-gender people? And what does it mean to be a transgender person amongst cisgender people who dedicate a lifetime to the services of a god who transcended all genders and repeatedly collapsed gender binaries?
What does it mean to be a trans-person amongst other trans-persons who follow the same pattern of oppression and suppression and police your behaviour? The one who dictate the terms of your life, putting you in the exact situation you have wanted to escape all your life? Which was exactly what led you to flee the world of the cisgender people in the first place? How does it end when you are a transperson in state custody?
Nagarkirtan by Kaushik Ganguly looks at the nuances of a romantic relationship between a presumably cisgender person Madhu and a transgender Parimal.
The film doesn’t intellectualise the whole subject of gender as a social and cultural construct or engage in a debate between the normative and the non-normative. Instead, it simply gives us the love story of this non-normative couple within a hetero-patriarchal society. Thus, displacing the conventional heterosexual love story.
The contextualisation is subtle and apposite. Madhu comes from a family of Vaishnavas who are a sect that even today dedicate their life to the worship of Lord Vishnu, one of whose reincarnations is Lord Krishna. The family belongs to a community that worships a god who has repeatedly been romanticised, celebrated and mythologised as a cross-dresser.
It has built its religious ethos on the premise that the only man is Krishna whose worshippers are Radha and his gopis. In other words, his worshippers and devotees are women. It is ironic that a family like this fails to transcend the gender dichotomy in real life and disowns Madhu for bringing disrepute to the family by loving a transgender.
The love story has a deep mythological resonance. On the one hand of the love story of Radha and Krishna, the latter often dressing up as Radha. And on the other, the closeness Krishna shared with Arjuna who incidentally had to lead the life of a transperson during his period of exile.
The film humanises the trans-community in a way that very few films have been able to. It doesn’t typecast or objectify the transperson or the closed community of transpersons. Neither does it swivel to the other extreme of caricaturing them or presenting them as victims or objects of sympathy.
It gives them a subject status and an individuality and shows them as erring, vulnerable humans. Humans who are sometimes unreasonable, sometimes principled, sometimes practical and sometimes impulsive just like cisgender men and women.
The women in the film are relatively more empathetic and understanding as compared to the transphobic men. Perhaps because the film depicts most of the women as mother figures in the role of nurturers and caregivers.
The film has an undercurrent of optimism and cynicism at once. It juxtaposes Madhu’s love for Parimal which goes beyond societal dictates, with Parimal’s defeatism, helplessness and a mounting sense of alienation and shame.
Above everything else, the film holds a mirror to our face, the face of heteronormative society. It exposes the explicit cruelty, insensitivity and indifference of the mainstream for the marginalised.
This is done through the scene when a stranger shows Madhu a video which he shot of Parimal. In the video, Parimal is attacked by transpersons of a different place who accuse him of pretending to be a trans-person and falsely representing them to earn money.
The film reveals a rarely discussed issue: the predicament of the individual transperson versus the community of trans-people. The ones who, after being walled out of their family and normative society are inevitably and permanently walled in by the community symbolised by the ‘kinnarghar.’
It also shows the utter impossibility of the transperson ever being able to lead a life that is not on the margins. This is poignantly portrayed through the tenacity with which the trans community protects and fortifies its borders.
Whether it is by censoring and policing the movements and actions of wayward members or resorting to offence for defence. Or even in determining linguistic and cultural boundaries by excluding certain genres of music and dance like Rabindra sangeet, kirtan and Rabindra nritya pursued by ‘genteel’ society or the Bengali bhadralok samaj.
The film includes real-life transwoman Professor Manabi Bandhopadhyaya in its narrative. She is the first trans-person in India who completed her PhD. Through this inclusion, the film brings in the class dimension, which makes it possible for a transgender to get some kind of acceptance in society. Whether it is on the basis of their education or their exceptional and exemplary degree of commitment to their calling essayed by the likes of Manabi Bandopadhyaya or Joyita Mondal.
Parimal on the other hand neither has the money nor the resources to undergo a sex-change operation. And Madhu takes the responsibility of arranging the money for the surgery. However, the interaction between Parimal and Manabi tells us that unlike a cisgender woman, it is impossible for a trans-person to be assimilated in mainstream society. They can only do so if they stand out exceptionally in some of the other fields.
Also unlike cisgender people, a trans-person does not have the luxury of anonymity. The ghettoed community of transgenders seems to be the one space for trans-persons to be themselves. This becomes responsible for Parimal’s final and irreversible alienation and exclusion to the point of no return.
The narration of the film keeps switching between multiple time frames in the past and the present. It takes us down the alley from where Parimal’s journey begins. From someone who was forced to identify as male to becoming a transperson and joining a transpeople community, it takes us on a journey.
Through its simple, yet poignant narrative the film shows how a trans-person’s body is the explosive site of ridicule, censure, voyeurism, violence and state atrocity. Which is a result of community-bred and culturally internalised prejudices.
This is typically brought out in Parimal’s father’s transphobia and apprehension. He is shown to resent a child Parimal dressed as a woman in a fancy-dress competition. It is also brought out in the interaction between Madhu and a police officer who stereotypes transgenders as drug-peddlers or con-artists who lay elaborate traps for unsuspecting men.
Nagarkirtan shows, in a way few films have done, the daily lived pain of social exclusion the enmeshed social and cultural influences that normalise this kind of ostracism. A systemic and structural politics of inclusion and exclusion which decides who is expendable, who is ‘grievable’ to borrow a word from Judith Butler’s vocabulary. And conversely who is not or rather should not be.
But it does so, with an ‘in-your-face’ attitude. Especially through its repeated conflation of Parimal’s body, identity and love story with that of Hinduism’s most popular god Krishna. It does so through Madhu’s final crossing over, from the realm of the cisgender to that of the transgender to unite with his absent lover. And to inhabit the space formerly occupied by Parimal to experience first-hand the lived reality of being a transperson.
Picture credits: Still from film Nagarkirtan
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Trigger Warning: This deals with severe postpartum depression, and may be triggering for survivors.
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