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From Celluloid to The Courtroom: Mapping Queer Politics in Rituparno Ghosh's Cinema

-Rajashri Seal*


Introduction


Hailed as one of India’s greatest movie directors, Rituparno Ghosh was a name to reckon with when it came to portraying queer aesthetics on the silver screen. Ghosh was an art critic and a cultural icon for the Bengali middle class. Zie started off as a cerebral movie director who had emerged on the Tollywood scene to take forward Satyajit Ray’s legacy and transform the Bengali ‘art house’ genre.[1] Zie then progressed to an artist who was increasingly pushing the boundaries of Bengali cinema by exploring the subjects of gender, sexuality and the politics of desire through hir films. This post critiques the portrayal of the queer characters in Ghosh’s movies, by situating them against the larger backdrop of the queer rights movements that were taking place across India. Though Ghosh’s films were made between 2000 and 2012, when a progressive discourse on queer rights was taking place in the Indian socio-legal landscape, none of them really represented the various intersectionalities that were a part of the larger LGBTQIA+ spectrum. Neither did any of them show the social impact of the law on the lives of its queer characters. In the rare occasion that it did, it mirrored a heteronormative construct, thereby stopping short of a radical re-imagination of the idea of love and relationships.


This post is divided into four sections. Section I looks at Ghosh’s earlier movies to understand how the themes of transgression and subversion continue to run across all hir movies. Section II critiques the trilogy where Ghosh’s queer aesthetics were more prominently visible, through a socio-legal lens. It also analyses another one of Ghosh’s earlier movies, which portrayed a visibly ‘effeminate’ character to understand the politics latent in such depiction. Section III tries to unpack the heteronormativity latent in the trilogy and understand the motivations behind them. Section IV concludes.


I. Situating Ghosh’s Cinema


Even though the only 3 films made by Ghosh which showed queer characters in lead roles came in the last three years preceding hir death, from the beginning of hir film-making career, zie made films on subjects that challenged heteropatriarchy in various forms. It is against this backdrop that hir movies can be situated in what B. Ruby Rich calls ‘New Queer Cinema’.[2] The films within this genre refer to movies which do not simply stop at showing gay heroes and heroines. Rather, they depict complex politics of representation, try to critique heteronormativity, venture into transgressive themes, and thereby challenge the status quo-ist boundaries and assumptions about gender and sexuality. Most of Ghosh’s films can be located within this genre. For instance, Utsab portrayed the existence of incestuous desires between 2 generations of first cousins, Subho Mahurat explored polyandry, Dahan explored marital rape, and Titli explored the possibility of an ‘illicit’ relationship between a teenage daughter and her mother’s former lover. Bariwali highlighted the repressed sexual desires of an unmarried middle-aged woman and featured a visibly queer man servant, and Dosar portrayed the emotional complexities arising out of an extramarital relationship and the social stigma associated with it.[3] All these films try to expose the hypocrisies that are present within the sanctified institution of marriage. They demonstrate how, beyond the capitalist patriarchal project of the ‘family’ consisting of a man, woman and a child, there are multiple alternate expressions of love and sexuality waiting to be discovered.[4]


Even the ways in which Ghosh filmed hir movies were subversive, since they tried to make powerful statements about the physical and emotional agencies of their women characters. For instance, Antarmahal featured the crudity and violence that is involved in the act of sex by showing the creaking sound the bed made when the couple had intercourse. This subverted the notion that sexual intimacy between a married heterosexual couple is always presumably romantic. In Chokher Bali, Ghosh showed the repressed sexual desires of a widow and even had a scene featuring menstruation, thereby showing so-called ‘taboo’ subjects on screen. Interestingly, Ghosh also chose to focus on the male body during the scenes involving sexual intimacy between the characters, thereby replacing the conventional ‘male’ gaze that is traditionally reserved for the female characters. Thus, Ghosh broke away from the usual styles of film-making in many ways.[5]


Most notable of all his work in this genre is the trilogy consisting of Aarekti Premer Golpo (‘APG’), Memories in March (‘MIM’), and Chitrangada: The Crowning Wish (‘Chitrangada’).[6] Although Ghosh directed only the former, zie was associated creatively with the other two and acted in all three of them in the lead role. These were the very first films that portrayed openly queer characters on the Bengali screen and hence, a large part of this post will be devoted to analysing such portrayals in this trilogy. A reference will also be made to Bariwali to analyse its queer politics.


II. Unpacking The ‘Bhadrolok’ Culture In The Movies


In the trilogy, Ghosh respectively played the role of a film-maker, a successful ad professional and a choreographer. All these characters were upper-class, English speaking, elite queer individuals who lived in metropolitan cities, cross-dressed frequently, and had able support systems, either in the form of understanding parents or colleagues. This representation clearly shows that Ghosh’s characters were all situated in, as Kaustav Bakshi puts it, a neo bhadrolok class that willingly participated in the late capitalist, consumerist culture by means of their easily disposable income and higher purchasing power.[7] This is displayed by the designer clothes, accessories and expensive gadgets that they possess, as well as the chic décor of their rooms and workspaces. By deliberately positioning these characters within an identifiable familiar zone of upper middle class lifestyles, Ghosh perhaps wanted to normalise the existence of such queer people in privileged households.[8] Thus, Ghosh perhaps wanted to critique the bourgeoisie moral paradigm, while simultaneously, “wallowing in its material markets”.[9] Zie thus targeted two classes which possessed wealth - the modern, progressive thinking bourgeoisie that had emerged during the Bengal Renaissance, and the consumer culture-emancipated bourgeoisie that had come into existence because of neoliberalism in Bengal after the late 1990s.[10] Thus, hir target audience was itself based on some sort of class divide.


In all these films, class played an important role. For instance, in APG, Abhiroop has enough access to the global politics of sexual identities to empower him to flaunt his sexuality by cross-dressing flamboyantly. On the other hand, Chapal, the lower class female impersonator of yesteryears who is barely literate, is dressed poorly. Thus, while Abhiroop can flaunt his sexuality through his sartorial choices, Chapal has to dress in conventional styles, so as to not ruffle feathers.[11] Thus, the latter has no choice but to repress his sexuality or otherwise face social sanction. As the movie progresses, Chapal is increasingly commodified and his story becomes a highly saleable commodity in the potential market of queer narratives. For instance, Abhiroop becomes indignant when Chapal refuses to share intimate details about his life and sexuality with Abhiroop. This seems as if Abhiroop is somehow entitled to know the intimate details of Chapal’s story simply because he is giving Chapal the right to narrate his story. Thus, by ‘allowing’ him to speak, and then by trying to ‘liberate’ him through his narrative, Abhiroop unwittingly reduces Chapal to a mere case study.[12]


Similarly, in Bariwali, Prasanna’s character, who is visibly effeminate, can be seen to guard the old mansion and has unimpeded access to the inner chambers of the house. In fact, Banalata tells Malati, the maid, that no ‘man’ has ever dared to enter the house’s inner chamber. This indicates that she does not even consider Prasanna to be a man. This is because he lacks any of the stereotypical parameters that are traditionally associated with masculinity in parochial socio-economic settings.[13] Thus, this means that Prasanna’s character can be seen to be like one of those people who have traditionally guarded harems and female spaces in medieval India.[14] In fact, Ghosh mentioned that zie wanted Prasanna to belong to a tolerant feudal world where his presence would not generate discomfort for the womenfolk in their inner chambers.[15] Thus, Prasanna’s sexuality is ‘tolerated’ not out of some inherent respect for queer rights, but because it does not threaten the women of the house. More importantly, perhaps the value of Prasanna’s services to the household far exceeds the need for passing idle judgment on his sexuality. Thus, while Banalata chides Prasanna sometimes, she never mocks him. Juxtaposed against this, Malati, who aspires for the neoliberal lifestyle, continuously tries to mock and emasculate Prasanna, despite their age difference. She thinks that because he too is a servant like herself, his status is no better than that of hers. Rather, his effeminate behaviour puts him in a position lower than hers.[16] This also highlights how queer subjectivities are negotiated along class lines in Ghosh’s films.


This treatment in Ghosh’s films ends up establishing the cultural hegemony of the educated ‘gay’ man over others, even while the queer movement post-2000 had increasingly become more inclusive.[17] This treatment has 3 clear problems. First, it ignores the fact that historically, the queer movement was not just a movement of the elites and homosexuality was not just an elitist construct.[18]It glosses over the reality that multiple people across caste and class lines were involved in the movement, and sacrificed their lives for the law.[19] In fact, the process leading up to the decriminalising of Section 377 by the Supreme Court was one that was initiated and borne by many members of the community, from diverse backgrounds and intersectional identities.[20] However, focussing only on one form of resistance predominantly leads to Ghosh ignoring the local subcultures of resistance that had already began growing in Bengal, like the ‘kothi’ and the ‘hijra’ communities, as Bakshi and Sen argue.[21] Ghosh repeatedly invoked Tagore’s songs to portray amorous love, made references to Chaitanya to show the space for androgynous love in Vaishnavite philosophy, and used ‘brajbhasa’ to depict the themes of queer longing and desire. This shows that zie essentially wanted to sanitise the queer depiction for the sake of hir upper class audience.[22] For instance, one wonders about the need for Ghosh to continuously invoke a more suave language when Bengali itself lacks grammatical gender. This is compounded by the fact that ulti-bhasa,[23] which is traditionally more ‘feminine’, was already available.[24] Bakshi argues that it is Ghosh’s need to appeal to hir urbane audience that shows that zie would much rather invent a sanitised language rather than declassing hirself.[25]


Secondly, this treatment is similar to what Jasbir Puar calls ‘homonationalism’.[26] While discussing the linkages between sexual politics and the formation of the U.S. nation-state, she mentions how America’s tolerance for ‘otherness’ is itself built on very limited perspectives.[27] Thus, the American State’s project is actually biased in that it accepts only certain queer subjects, so long as their specific performances of queerness are based on the conventionally acceptable constructions of identities. Thus, it uses homonationalist ideologies to create idealised sexual minorities which mirror the dominant class, caste and gendered ideals.[28] In that sense, while these ‘ideal’ sexual minorities can then assimilate with the ruling class in America, the sexual minorities who happen to be Sikhs, Arabs or Muslims are seen as being the ‘other’.[29] Thus, when Ghosh chooses to focus on the lived experiences of only elite men, zie unconsciously ends up reproducing the narratives of only those who are endowed with both knowledge and power and hence, their realities gain more prominence. This leads to the erasure of the narratives of other sexual minorities who are already marginalised within the dominant discourse[30] and thus, perhaps are more in need of representation than the relatively emancipated elite cis-gay man. Perhaps an instance of this can be seen in the present scenario, where despite the victory in Navtej Singh Johar,[31] the Parliament passed the Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Act, 2019, while diluting the right of transgender persons to self-identify and disregarding their lived experiences in framing the law.[32] Admittedly, while Navtej was mostly about sexual orientation, and revolved around LGB individuals whereas the Trans Act is for the more marginalised within the queer community, it still drives home the point that even within the larger LGBTQIA+ fold, there are some who are perhaps more in need of representation than others.


Lastly, Ghosh portrays the characters in a very unilinear fashion, thereby ignoring the fates that marginalised queer individuals face in reality. For instance, while Chapal has to cross-dress on stage because it is the only way he can earn a meaningful income, Abhiroop cross-dresses because he wishes to and also perhaps, to make a political statement. Thus, unlike Chapal, Abhiroop’s choice to cross-dress is not based on compulsion.[33] Similarly, while Chapal faces social sanction, Abhiroop does not ever face Khairati’s fate.[34] Kharati is one of the first cases in Indian jurisprudence where Section 377 is invoked against a person simply because he was “found singing dressed as a woman”. The evidence showed that the orifice of Khairati’s anus was found distorted into the shape of a trumpet, which was then relied upon to call him a “habitual sodomite”.[35] Thus, in this case, it was Khairati’s alleged cross-dressing that was used to persecute him. Similarly, in D. P. Minwalla v. Emperor,[36] Minwalla was caught having oral sex with another man in the back of a truck and was then sentenced. One could perhaps argue that the fact that Minwalla did not have access to a private space to engage in the alleged acts is what ultimately led to his conviction. Thus, issues of affordability and social mobility once again play important roles to decide the fate of such individuals. For instance, lack of a private space may impinge upon the right of individuals to express their sexual orientation autonomously, which is an important facet of self-determination, as held in Navtej Singh Johar.[37] However, far from this reality, none of Ghosh’s elite characters ever face extortion, blackmail, police brutality, or are forced into sex work, which is a routine experience of many marginalised queer individuals.[38] Even while being the ‘other’, Abhiroop has more agency, in terms of financial and social mobility, which does not happen in Chapal’s case. Thus, by never depicting these aspects of queer lives, Ghosh prevented the neo-bhadrolok from witnessing the very real linkages between queerness and class privileges.


III. Heteronormativity In The Trilogy


The only movie where Ghosh’s character encounters the regressive nature of the law, which later goes on to shape their reality, is Chitrangada. In Chitrangada, Rudra wants to undergo a sex reassignment surgery so that he can he can adopt a child with his bisexual male partner, since same sex couples are not allowed to adopt in India.[39] This shows the first instance where something extrinsic like the law influences an intimate decision of the lead character; that is, a decision as fundamental as the ability to change one’s sex and the possibility of having a happy future with his partner. Rudra ultimately doesn’t go through with the decision, as he realises that the notion of identity itself is in a constant state of flux, as is the body. Yet, the fact that he wanted to initially undergo the surgery hints at 2 things.


First, that he aspired towards the heterosexual standard of the family. There is nothing inherently wrong with that aspiration and indeed, it should be the individual’s choice and prerogative to determine the kind of future that they want for themselves. However, this means that Ghosh stopped short of radically re-imagining new kinds of alternate family structures. Lee Edelman argues that the queer resistance to compulsory heteronormativity should lie not in the fight for inclusion like the rights of marriage and adoption, but in the rejection of what he calls “reproductive futurism”.[40] Edelman argues that because the notion of “children as our future” is seen as a valuable thing, it impliedly means that heterosexuality is privileged, and alternate sexualities are rendered less important in politics. This is because, the premise is: how could anyone be fighting ‘against’ the children?[41] Edelman, thus, wishes for queer theory to resist the temptation of assimilation and to instead radically re-imagine a future without children, through the exercise of refusal and negativity.[42] Interestingly, Ghosh’s portrayal bears some resemblance to the current tension which is reflected in the queer rights movement, post Navtej Singh Johar. A strand of the LGBTQIA+ community wants rights such as marriage, while other sections argue that asking for marriage rights should not be a priority. Instead, rights such as non-discrimination in public spaces and decent employment opportunities should be privileged.[43] The latter sections argue that focussing intently on marriage reforms at the moment might detract from more pressing concerns that many groups face, such as trans people facing discrimination on account of their identities,[44] and unwittingly put such concerns on the backburner.


Second, the very fact that Rudra wishes to go for the surgery highlights that he has both the financial means, as well as the support of his parents to undergo the exercise; a privilege that is not a reality for many in India.[45] This once again shows the role class plays into Ghosh’s narratives.


However, to be fair to Ghosh, despite the mirroring of heteronormative aspirations, Rudra’s character also perhaps displays the very real anxieties that some gay men might have while being with bisexual partners. In fact, this point is also alluded to in MIM, where Siddharth has misgivings about being loved by both, a gay man and a woman. This is also seen in APG, where the Basu, the character of the bisexual boyfriend, leaves Abhiroop for his pregnant wife. Thus, perhaps, Chitragada portrays this anxiety in heightened terms and represents another nuance of the issue.


Conclusion


This post highlighted some of the problems that are prevalent with Rituparno Ghosh’s characterisation of queer characters, while positioning them against the larger Indian queer rights movement. However, despite these concerns, one still needs to be mindful of the fact that Ghosh broke boundaries by being the first Bengali director who, despite the public criticism, was willing to risk hir fame to bring some of hir personal politics into hir art. Zie thus gave space to some queer narratives, which otherwise would have remained untold. One can only speculate if hir stories would have featured more inclusive narratives if zie had perhaps lived a little longer.


*Rajashri Seal is a student at the National Law School of India University, Bangalore. She would like to thank Professor Kunal Ambasta and the editors of the NLS Socio-Legal Review for their insightful comments on an earlier version of this article.

References


[1] Sumit Dey, ‘Just like a film star! Being Rituparno Ghosh’ in Sangeeta Datta, Kaustav Bakshi and Rohit K. Dasgupta (eds), Rituparno Ghosh: Cinema, Gender and Art (Taylor & Francis 2015) 246-247.

[2] B. Ruby Rich, New Queer Cinema The Director’s Cut (Duke University Press 2013) 16-30.

[3] Rohit K. Dasgupta and Tanmayee Banerjee, ‘Exploitation, Victimhood and Gendered Performance in Rituparno Ghosh’s Bariwali’ (2016) 69(4) Film Quarterly 39-41, 35.

[4] Sangeeta Datta, Kaustav Bakshi and Rohit K. Dasgupta, ‘The world of Rituparno Ghosh: texts, contexts and transgressions’ (2015) 6 (2) South Asian History and Culture 226-227.

[5] ibid.

[6] In India, APG was released in 2010, MIM in 2011 and Chitrangada in 2012. This post follows the order of such release in defining the trilogy’s chronology.

[7] Kaustav Bakshi and Parjanya Sen, ‘A Room of hir Own: the Queer Aesthetics of Rituparno Ghosh’ in Sangeeta Datta, Kaustav Bakshi and Rohit K. Dasgupta (eds), Rituparno Ghosh: Cinema, Gender and Art (Taylor & Francis 2015) 207-209.

[8] ibid.

[9] ibid 209.

[10] ibid 210.

[11] Kaustav Bakshi, ‘Arekti Premer Golpo: The Yesteryear Female Impersonator, the Post-liberalization Transvestite and a Queer Stereotype’ in Sukhbir Singh (ed), Gay Subcultures and Literatures: The Indian Projections (Indian Institute of Advanced Studies 2014).

[12] ibid.

[13] Rohit K. Dasgupta and Tanmayee Banerjee (n 3) 39.

[14] Rohit K. Dasgupta and Tanmayee Banerjee (n 3) 40.

[15] Rohit K. Dasgupta and Tanmayee Banerjee (n 3) 41.

[16] Rohit K. Dasgupta and Tanmayee Banerjee (n 3) 41.

[17] Vivek Divan, ‘Dismantling India’s Anti-Sodomy Law- A People’s Journey in India’ (Cornell, 12 November 2019) accessed 25 December 2020.

[18] Arvind Narrain and Alok Gupta, ‘Introduction’ in Arvind Narrain and Alok Gupta (eds), Law like Love (YODA Press 2011) xxviii.

[19] Vivek Divan (n 17).

[20] Vivek Divan, ‘Celebrating the Long Journey that has led to this Pride’ The Wire (25 November 2018) accessed 25 December 2020.

[21] Kaustav Bakshi and Parjanya Sen (n 7) 211.

[22] Kaustav Bakshi and Parjanya Sen (n 7) 212.

[23] The coded language or ulti-bhasa has a notably ‘feminine’ character as the words, interjections and ways of addressing used are those which are more common among the women in non-metropolitan regions. It contains many words and phrases, which are used mainly as codes and are unknown in the mainstream local language of any particular region. As per Bakshi and Sen, “ulti-bhasa is imbued with sexual innuendos and abusive terms, rhymes and aphorisms, which are considered blasphemous in polite conversations within an educated upper/middle class.”

[24] Kautav Bakshi and Parjanya Sen (n 7).

[25] ibid 213.

[26] Jasbir K. Puar, Terrorist Assemblages: Homonationalism in Queer Times (Duke University Press 2017) 13.

[27] ibid.

[28] ibid.

[29] ibid.

[30] Kaustav Bakshi and Parjanya Sen (n 7) 211.

[31] (2018) 10 SCC 1.

[32] Akshat Agarwal, ‘LGBT+ marriage: To secure equality in civil rights, family law must also be reformed’ Scroll.in (1 October 2020) accessed 24 December 2020.

[33] Kaustav Bakshi (n 11) 119.

[34] Alok Gupta, ‘Section 377 and the Dignity of Indian Homosexuals’ (2006) 41 (46) Economic and Political Weekly.

[35] Queen Empress v. Khairati 1884 ILR 6 ALL 204.

[36] AIR 1935 Sind 78.

[37] (2018) 10 SCC 1.

[38] Alok Gupta, ‘The Moral Order of Blackmail’ in Arvind Narrain and Alok Gupta (eds), Law like Love (YODA Press 2011) 483-490.

[39] As per the Hindu Adoptions and Maintenance Act, 1956, same sex couples cannot adopt.

[40] Lee Edelman, No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive (Duke University Press 2004) 2-5.

[41] ibid.

[42] ibid 40.

[43] Poorvi Gupta, ‘Same-Sex Marriage gets a push in India but some in queer community feel other rights require more urgent attention’ First Post (14 July 2020) accessed 24 December 2020.

[44] ibid.

[45] Somrita Ghosh, ‘Battle for Right Body: The Reality of Sex Reassignment Surgeries in India’ The New Indian Express (24 February 2020) accessed 25 December 2020.

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