1 MA English with Communication Studies
I have done my research on the movie: Chitrangada: The Crowning Wish. It is a 2012 Bengali-language film written and directed by Rituparno Ghosh. The film premiered on 25 May 2012 at the New York Indian Film Festival. I have tried to apply the Queer theory framework in my analysis.
Key Words: Queer theory, Judith Butler, gender transformation, crossing boundaries, social construction.
The word "queer" in queer theory has some of these connotations, particularly its alignment with ideas about homosexuality. Queer theory is a brand-new branch of study or theoretical speculation; it has only been named as an area since about 1991. It grew out of gay/lesbian studies, a discipline which itself is very new, existing in any kind of organized form only since about the mid-1980s. Gay/lesbian studies, in turn, grew out of feminist studies and feminist theory.
Queer theory emerges from gay/lesbian studies' attention to the social construction of categories of normative and deviant sexual behaviour. But while gay/lesbian studies, as the name implies, focused largely on questions of homosexuality, queer theory expands its realm of investigation. Queer theory looks at, and studies, and has a political critique of, anything that falls into normative and deviant categories, particularly sexual activities and identities. The word "queer", as it appears in the dictionary, has a primary meaning of "odd," "peculiar," "out of the ordinary." Queer theory concerns itself with any and all forms of sexuality that are "queer" in this sense--and then, by extension, with the normative behaviours and identities which define what is "queer" (by being their binary opposites). Thus queer theory expands the scope of its analysis to all kinds of behaviours, including those which are gender-bending as well as those which involve "queer" non-normative forms of sexuality. Queer theory insists that all sexual behaviours, all concepts linking sexual behaviours to sexual identities, and all categories of normative and deviant sexualities, are social constructs, sets of signifiers which create certain types of social meaning. Queer theory follows feminist theory and gay/lesbian studies in rejecting the idea that sexuality is an essentialist category, something determined by biology or judged by eternal standards of morality and truth. For queer theorists, sexuality is a complex array of social codes and forces, forms of individual activity and institutional power, which interact to shape the ideas of what is normative and what is deviant at any particular moment, and which then operate under the rubric of what is "natural," "essential," "biological," or "god-given."
Queerness, in the work of theorists like Judith Butler and Eve Sedgwick, is as much a semiotic as it is a social phenomenon. To say that someone is "queer" indicates an indeterminacy or indecipherability about their sexuality and gender, a sense that they cannot be categorized without a careful contextual examination and, perhaps, a whole new rubric. For gender to be, in Judith Butler's words, "intelligible," ancillary traits and behaviours must divide and align themselves beneath a master division between male and female anatomy.
From people's anatomy, we can supposedly infer other things about them: the gender of the people they desire, the sartorial and sexual practices they engage in, the general elements of culture that they are attracted to or repulsed by, and the gender of their "primary identification." While in practice each of these categories is rather elastic, it is usually when they do not line up in expected ways (say, when a man wears a dress and desires men) that one crosses from normative spaces into "queer" ones. In Butler's view, queer activities like drag and unexpected identifications and sexual practices reveal the arbitrariness of conventional gender distinctions by parodying them to the point where they become ridiculous or ineffective.
Chitrangada: The Crowning Wish
Rituparno Ghosh’s Chitrangada is a film which addresses the gender, gender transformation, crossing bodies and boundaries of mind and body, physically, psychologically and emotionally in a compelling way. It is not the Rabindranath play as the name suggests. The play ‘Chitrangada’ is used as a metaphor of a man’s life. He goes through a similar ordeal of ‘Chitra’, the leading role of musical play of Tagore. As the ‘English’ title suggests, Chitrangada is movie about a wish. A wish that is hard to materialize physically, socially and mentally. Chitrangada, like many of Ghosh’s earlier films has a ‘film-within-film’ narrative structure; only this time the film-within is Tagore’s epochal epic Chitrangada – the saga of the Manipuri princess who was brought up as a son by the King and who after meeting Arjun desired to reincarnate in her primordial gender state. Ghosh understandably dabbled with Tagore’s own interpretation of the Kurup-Surup dichotomy and re-interprets within the rubrics of Gender identity and more importantly the question of ‘Wish’. In the very initial stages of the film, while rehearsing the dance drama (the film-within), the director Rudra (played by Ghosh himself) proclaims that Chitrangada’s interpretation is that of the ‘Wish’ – the birth, death and re-birth of it. The Tagorean narrative is used henceforth less as a fulcrum and more to give a pleasant visual and aural experience.
In this movie Ghosh has tried to demonstrate how the parental agencies find it difficult to accept and pass through the five stages of grief as observed in psychiatry – Denial, Anger, Bargain, Depression and finally Acceptance. These all are the steps towards the ‘self’. Not only the parents move through them, so does Rudra in his acceptance and rejection of Partho (the Arjuna). Like the mother confesses that they never allowed Rudra to be himself, they always wanted him to be someone they would have liked to see. Most scenes involving the parents – the bridge with them and to one’s own self misplaced at some point but regained in the end, are riveting and laden with emotional undercurrents. his parents, who through their own struggle to come to terms with the fact that their son is gay, must still have another battle to win - his need to transform his gender to the opposite reality of a woman. Through tears and anger, they are still able to find peace in themselves, knowing that the ‘the nature of a being, has its own desire to express its own reality’ and no matter what, Rudie is their son/whoever else he feels comfortable to be. His mother is profound – I gave birth to this body, which is yours, I have a right to know, whatever goes on in this body. I have a right to know, if it is changing, transforming…”
This is indeed intriguing since here the person coming out of the ‘closet’ is not the gay individual. Rather it is the patriarchal agency which opens up. This role reversal of the agencies of patriarchy demands an insightful reading of the text which as I mentioned above is a re-interpretation of the Tagorean classic.
Ghosh never appears to be acting; this is raw, real, and deeply emotional as his character evolves from an autocrat in rehearsals to a somewhat needy, relationship-obsessed woman. It's an authentic and memorable performance, often punctuated by extended silences, by an actor at the pinnacle of his career. Sengupta, the wild-eyed impulsive lover, offers an ideal foil, responding in unexpected ways to Rudra's decision to go under the knife. The dilemma of wanting to change from a man to a woman, the selflessness of being able to go under the knife for the sake of love and then face rejection only to be able to reach out to the same person again.
There is that struggle at the psychological level. The Counsellor/friend/alter ego, Shubho, who helps Rudie in his decisions often playing the devil’s advocate, But as the last day dawns, or as the light of Usha burns close to dawn, the viewer is taken to yet another paradigm, where psychology, body, emotions meet the last gate before one steps over threshold of ordinary understanding and enters the philosophical.
In 1869, the German homosexual rights advocate Karl Heinrich Ulrichs introduced the idea of self-disclosure as a means of emancipation. He claimed that being unheard was the primary problem of being accepted in the public domain and he insisted that gay and homosexuals need to reveal their same-sex affinity for a larger societal acceptance. The situation hasn’t changed much in the exterior. In the inside however there are occurrences like in Chitrangada where we as audience embark on the next level where the disclosure of ‘self’ comes pre-defined. The crux lies in confronting the ‘self’. Thus Subho, the counselor is the alter ego of Rudra who tries to place him in front of alternatives like a pack of cards to pick up from, and most importantly the sex change decision of Rudra. The journey of self-identification and belief, in disclosing the inner voice is crucial to lift the problem from sexual orientation to gender identity. Rudra in the end did understand that the sex change will not change the gender and just like gender is subverted in an individual’s identity, so is his/her sexual orientation. Hence the betrayal of Partho doesn’t affect the soul since in Partho’s rejection of the physical sexual organs lies the bigger betrayal of not recognizing Rudra’s gender identification and in the larger context, the notion of ‘home’. Rudra had been homeless so far and now (s)he wants to go back to home – ‘home’ stands as a metaphor here, the place one yearns to live in sunshine as opposed to the dark ‘closet’. Rituparno, the writer, hence, uplifts the narrative to a more philosophical journey of quest and longing. Intending to say that all is impermanence, things are always changing, the reality we know now is no more in the next, everything is in fleeting. Change is the only permanent thing and therefore, if in the body of a man, exists a woman ready to take birth, then in that new body too will be another reality, that will seek its birth and so on and so forth, on and on, because, not that the body is changing, transforming, but reality is forever, changing, and what is ‘natural’ today, may not be the same tomorrow, or even in the next minute, for truth is an ever changing reality. And hence, what then is the meaning of the new realities, for they too are in transition, here, now and gone the next. The wandering soul must find its Home, here and now.
Having travelled though a mire of thoughts, actions, Freudian psychology, for me the film ended in a rather philosophical note and brought home the point that that there is no better ‘home’ than what is available now, and all else is but the mind which must chance upon different domains of reality, in order that it may finally arrive home. Thus without a doubt, Chitrangada: The Crowning Wish will be seen as a classic in examining the trans experience and gender expression.
Green , Adam. "Queer Theory and Sociology: Locating the Subject and the Self in Sexuality Studies ."American Sociological Association. 25.1 (2007): 45-26. Web. 16 Feb. 2014. http://www.jstor.org/stable/20453065 .
Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble. 1990. UK: Routledge, 1990. Print.