Chitrangada: The Crowning Wish, directed by the late Bengali filmmaker Rituparno Ghosh, paints a blunt and beautiful portrait of someone whose existence is a daily fight for the right to define his own identity.
The film sets up a fairly simple parallel between dancer and theatre director Rudra’s life and the opera he’s staging — an interpretation of the story of Chitrangada, a princess raised by her father as if she were a boy.Chitrangada’s life is complicated when she meets the prince Arjuna and falls in love. Since he believes her to be a man, she seeks a physical transformation so that he’ll see her for a beautiful woman. Her plan works, but she mourns the loss of a large piece of her identity and wishes for the prince to love her for whom she truly is.
Rudra (played by Ghosh) was born male and has long been ridiculed for his feminine gender presentation. When he falls in love with his troupe’s new percussionist, heroin addict Partho (played by popular Bengali actor Jisshu Sengupta), Rudra decides to undergo a sex change so they can legally adopt a child together.
The film, released last year, is the centrepiece of the Queer Film Festival’s focus on Indian filmmaking. Its award-winning director was slated to attend the festival as a featured guest before he died unexpectedly of a heart attack in May.
There are times in art when straightforwardness is trite. Words that would ring true in real life fail to translate into film and come out sounding cliché. But sometimes there’s nothing else to say and no other way to say it. Whether it’s a mother’s lament for her inability to accept her son or a man’s declaration that nothing, not even his own body, is permanent, Ghosh makes no move to soften the edges of the questions with which his characters grapple, telling their stories in plainspoken language and long, close shots.
It’s a story about a search for self and for a place in the world. But underpinning the challenges the couple face is a question about the validity of normalcy and the desire to fit into a world that won’t make room for them.
About midway through Rudra’s surgeries, Partho comes back to the room they share and tells him that he has quit heroin, that he’s clean for good. When Rudra suggests they both deserve congratulations for the accomplishment, Partho bristles. Why, he asks. For your great martyrdom? Because you helped me normalize?
While the film focuses on transitions and on the reality of living in a typically either-or framework, it resists the notion of a binary, reflecting what Ghosh had described as his own gender fluidity.
The film’s pace is slow and its movement minimal, which is probably the only reason it gets away with so many flashbacks and devices that seem to lack follow-through. Much of the backstory is told through conversations between Rudra and his counsellor, Shubho, portrayed by musician and actor Anjan Dutt in a minimalist performance.
But it’s the performances that make this film what it is. The scope and subtlety of Rudra’s struggle shows on the actor’s face in every scene, making up for any heavy-handedness of style. His mannerisms are unobtrusive yet crucial to building a character that feels whole and complex, whether surrounded by his dancers, in quiet conversation with his mother or alone in a stark hospital room. Both he and his lover are heartbreaking in their acknowledgment that honesty is not a substitute for peace.