This film, inspired by Nobel Prize-winner Rabindranath Tagore’s 1892 play Chitrangada, is a quiet and moving meditation on gender, identity and transformation. The late Rituparno Ghosh directs and acts with an understated but confident intensity, creating an incredibly compelling tale.
Director Rudra Chatterjee (played by Ghosh) is putting together a production of Chitrangada. In the play (itelf inspired from a tale in the Mahabharata), princess Chitrangada is the heir to the kingdom of Manipura, raised as a man and a warrior due to a prophecy that her father would only raise sons. She meets the great hero Arjuna and falls in love with him. But, feeling he could not love her as she is, she asks the God of Love to transform her into a beautiful feminine woman. He does so, and Arjuna falls in love with her. However, Chitrangada is unhappy since in this new form she is failing as her kingdom’s protector, and moreover she wishes Arjuna to know her real self. So she reveals the truth to Arjuna; he loves her even more as an equal, they marry and have a son who eventually reigns over Manipura.
Early in the production, Rudra falls for his troupe’s new drummer Partho, an unpredictable heroin addict who takes pleasure in taking Rudra’s ego down a peg. I cringed a lot during their early interactions, because Partho was kind of a jerkass and I couldn’t see why the sophisticated, dignified Rudra would have anything to do with him. True, he was trying (eventually, successfully) to get clean, but still.
Eventually, they talk about having children. Partho wants them, and Rudra wants to be with Partho, so he proposes becoming a woman. Same-sex couples can’t adopt in India, so this seems like the logical choice. Partho doesn’t think so, but Rudra is determined. He moves out of his parents’ place, to spare them the shame, and is fast-tracked through the gender reassignment process.
But things don’t go well. Rudra and Partho break up, and Rudra’s mood worsens. He starts suffering from insomnia, and due to the surgery has trouble practicing his old dance moves. It doesn’t escape his notice that his life is paralleling Chitrangada’s story, with the surgeon standing in for the God of Love, and Partho for Arjuna. And himself as the aristocratic warrior who chose to become someone else, out of love.
At the very last minute, with the help of his counselor, Rudra decides not to go through with the final surgery (genital reconstruction?) and asks the doctor to reverse the whole process. He would rather be a passionate, creative director and dancer, reconciled with his parents, than a beautiful woman with unknown gifts and without a family.
The story was told in a somewhat non-linear format, with generous use of flashbacks to switch between the present time (Rudra alone in the hospital) and the past (Rudra with Partho) not to mention short snippets of the Chitrangada play-within-a-movie. I admit, it made some parts of the story a little hard to follow—especially the scenes with the mysterious photographer posing as a hospital counselor. He was the one who made Rudra reconsider his choices, but I don’t remember when and how they first met. I’m sure a lot of the symbolism—the house on the beach, for one—went over my head, and that’s not even counting any additional references to Chitrangada which I only know from its Wikipedia entry. This is a movie with layers, and I’ll want to watch it again for a fuller understanding.
If I were to pick a message for this movie, what would it be? What I’m getting is that changing yourself (in whatever capacity, up to and including surgery) can be a great thing, but it has to be for the right reasons, and you must remain true to your dreams and your passions. In the end, maybe the best thing you can wish for is to be yourself, to be the best self you can be, and that is the only way to happiness. Trite and clichéd? Maybe, but it works for me. And it’s something I need to be reminded of every once in a while, though my dreams of transformation involve superhero tights rather than princess dresses.