By Joshy Joseph
At the outset, let me confess that I am not a Bengali and I don’t understand the inner most nuances of the language. But we Malyalis have an umbilical cord relationship with Bengal and Bengalis through Cinema, Literature and Politics. I have read the best writers of Bengal in my mother tongue Malayalam. Now for more than a decade through my quest to know how much this cultural osmosis has impacted Bengal from Kerala, I should confess that the graph is not so encouraging. Some of our writers like Thakazhi and Basheer are familiar in Bengal through some literary bound marriages between Bengal and Kerala. Consequently, the Malyali bride learning the Bengali language bridging the languages and cultures but never the vice versa. Even when vice versa wedlocks happened very strangely and mysteriously the doors always opened only eastwards. My emphasis on the act of Malayali learning Bengali language should not be confused as southward parochialism. It comes out from a single fact that we were generally watchful of the happenings in the east. But south was identified as the direction through which ‘ YAMRAJ’ appears or from where Rajnikant comes.
In cinema the cultural exchanges happened irrespective of any matrimonial connections. It is part of our common city lores like the GURU – DISCIPLE relationship of Ritwik Ghatak and John Abraham or mentor – follower equation of Satyajit Ray and Adoor Gopalakrishnan. Mrinalda was in anyway left to the left. The International Film Festival of India – 2010, at Goa, at least to the Malayali delegates gave a new face for Bengali Cinema – RITUPORNO GHOSH. There were three films, ‘ABOHOMAN’, ‘NOUKADUBI’ and ‘JUST ANOTHER LOVE STORY’. The first two were directed by Rituporno and the third one saw him as an actor and creative director. I can’t speak for the entire Goan delegates. But the Malayali intelligentia was awe-struck. The country bars at Panaji witnessed late night open forum sessions both open-for-Rum and debates.
Some months back I had read an interview by ace documentary maker and cameraman Ranjan Palit – “I find contemporary Bengali films, whether its Rituporno or Anjan, extremely ‘Nyaka’. I can’t sit through them. ‘Nyaka’ and pretentious is a dangerous combination.” Instantly I could identify with Ranjan Palit although we had certain differences of opinion in the past. Later, in some Kolkata open-for-Rum ‘adda’ sessions. Ranjan’s words were in circulation, I realized. Incidentally, in one of the recent articles in Malayalam, I dubbed Rituporno as – ‘an overrated pulp fiction maker’.
But I was in trouble with myself at Goa. 90% through the film ‘ABOHOMAN’ I was feeling artistically safe and comfortable as a viewer in the hands of my chosen director. If the film was not encompassing you at some level, you didn’t have to sit through fastening your seat belt in Goa. Just get out and have drought-beer. Vijay Mallya had facilitated for it at half the price of a coffee available in the same venue. Since the overall quality of festival films was average or below average (except the retrospective session) the frequency of walk-outs created seeming beer-bellies around me. But ‘ABOHOMAN’ hooked me up to the point where the protagonist senior filmmaker, who is in a delirium asking his son played by Jshu Sengupta – ‘Tumi eto lamba hoye gechho!’ (You have grown so tall!). I thought the emotional and cinematic graph reached its zenith and was not mentally prepared for a lesser experience there after. Rituporno need not have looked for any walking-sticks in Rabindra Sangeet or otherwise. ‘ABOHOMAN by then started tremoring with a classic cinematic ecstasy. Somehow my personal observation is that, it is a typical Indian problem. We run out of creative stamina by the end. The way Marathi filmmaker Umesh Kulkarni realized his film ‘VIHIR’, reverberating the celebration of sinple and rustic life with its unpredictable tragedies, transformed me into an open-jawed typical Indian viewer, until the typical Indian phenomenon of running out of stamina towards the end, killed my happiness. I was more or less convinced about this ‘stamina issue’, after watching Iranian master Abbas Kirostomi’s ‘CERTIFIED COPY” at IFFI, Goa. He started it well. It got thickened through the journey. It paused where it should, by transferring the aftershock from the theatre screen to mine, expanding the running time of the film beyond its physical. I am elevated. I walk past the beer bars drunk without drinking and without a bulging belly or holes in my pocket.
Then I watched ‘JUST ANOTHER LOVE STORY’ directed by Kaushik Ganguly. I had developed a liking for Kaushik Ganguly after assessing his short film as the best one out of six, in “EK MUTHO CHHOBI’. But I thought his ‘SUNNO A BUKEY’ was basically flawed. The sculptor protagonist of this film was agonized about the small breast size of his wife after their first night. First of all, to me, this fellow is a pitiable joker and a poor sculptor who had to undress to see the anatomy of a girl with whom he was roaming around so far! When our film ‘ONE DAY FROM A HANGMAN’S LIFE’ was theatrically released at Nandan, we tried to parody the title of this film in our posters which had later inconvenienced Chief Minister Buddha Babu. We were told that he saw some political underpinnings in our essentially an undergarment take – ‘Kar Bukey a Sunnota?’ (Whose Bossom is Empty?).
I have problems with Kaushik Ganguly’s film ‘JUST ANOTHER LOVE STORY’ when it comes to the sepia tone enactments of yester years’ artist Chapal Bhaduri, who performed female roles in ‘Yatra’. It is a film within film structure. Rituporno as a filmmaker, making a documentary on man-woman overlapping story of Chapal Bhaduri. While Rituporno as a creative director of ‘JUST ANOTHER LOVE STORY’ blurs the dividing lines between Rituporno on-screen and Rituporno off-screen so naturally and convincingly, I said to myself that Bengali Cinema at last is breaking away from its ‘Nyaka’ art film pretentions. It is one thing for any other actor doing the role of a homosexual filmmaker in a Bengali film and a totally different thing while Rituporno himself is doing thatt role, dressing like off-screen Rituporno addressing the unique nature of a sexuality and thereby undressing a ‘Bhadralok’ mask staright away. I murmured in Goa – Bravo! The Malayali voyeurs in the late night bars wanted to know from me whether I knew Rituporno personally or not. I gave them an expression which could be edited by my friend Amlan into a wedding sequence or a funeral sequence. Let them interpret the sexuality of that moment till the next film festival.
Rituporno stated in an interview – “We don’t realize that it can also be a state of being… that one functions in all areas from this state of being. Homosexuality evokes very strong images of homoeroticism in our minds. The divide between homosexuality and homoeroticism is blurred in us”.
In the ‘Sumang-Lila’ (Courtyard theatre) performances in Manipur even now the female roles are being performed by male artists. I have met dozens and dozens of Chapal Bhaduris in Manipur. While shooting a film entitled ‘MAKING THE FACE” with Tom Sharma, a makeup artist in Imphal, I learned a little more about the lives of homosexuals which are tucked down the carpets in Manipur or even in its representations in cinema. It was by default ‘MAKING THE FACE’ became a film as it is today. While proposing the film to the public broadcaster, Doordarshan through PSBT, we were metaphor ridden at the proposal stage. I had met Tom Sharma long ago during a marriage function in Imphal as he was making up the bride which took hours. At the end the bride looked like a Raslila dancer ready to enter her stage. I was introduced to Tom. We shook hands. I felt a different touch. We were so naïve to propose a film on a transgender, Tom, as a metaphor as my friend Subhajit Dasbhaumik wrote an even more confusing proposal to PSBT. He wrote – “The proposed documentary on Sharma will have to be shot candidly as well as calculatively by following Tom Sharma for a period of 2 months. Liberalization of media (the formats and technical apparatus available in now a days) and its power distribution over enlightened areas will be brought in subjective camera movements. The approach of being an image and the transformation of an image will be marginal dialectical to the film itself.”
Finally, we landed up in Imphal for shooting. The very first day of the shooting, I realized that Tom Sharma is not a transgender person but a homosexual. The assignment in hand is on transgender and how do I change his gender identity, now in Imphal? Rituporno says that ‘the divide between homosexuality and homoeroticism is blurred in us’. But I had to blur everything, including my original self for this film.
There were several objections to several scenes in the film by Doordarshan and Censor Board. When the film was completed I wanted to show it to Tom. It was he who made it possible for the film to enter into the interiors of his life. Tom is a woman caught in a man’s body. The emotional response while he had to attend to the marriage ceremony of his partner was so fragile. Tom got drunk and puked. While we were shooting the film, Tom Sharma, his ex partner and his wife, all were staying together as business partners. Tom Sharma as a makeup artist for Meitei weddings and Devjit as a photographer. I found that Meitei marriages are so colourful and musical. I could effortlessly foreground Tom and his partner, one making up and the other photographing.
The film on a homosexual won the national award as the best family welfare, non-fiction film in 2007. Tom was naturally impatient to see the film. He came to my hotel room and we saw the film together with other common friends. Tom was sitting beside me on the bed. I was nervous. When Tom was uttering candid dialogues like the one that he felt like 50-50 or where he broke down while talking about his partner’s marriage, on screen. Tom pinched me very dearly. Each pinch conveyed differently each time. Then we went with him to his house where we saw him caring and cajoling his partner’s new born baby with radiating tenderness. Homosexuality of Tom Sharma was almost asexual. Everything looked natural and normal to me.
When Rituporno on-screen, who was obviously upset with the news of pregnancy of his homosexual partner’s wife and yet sends a pillow from his hotel room to the pregnant lady for padding up while travelling, I felt the tender care of Tom, which very often escapes our macho mindscapes. Rituporno in “ABOHOMAN’ dealt with such cinematic class the failing wriggle out of a ‘Bhadralok’ filmmaker from an extra marital affair within the action – reaction pattern located in Bengali upper middle class ethos. Not with contempt but with care. And in ‘JUST ANOTHER LOVE STORY’ he confronts these structures. I feel I know him little better after watching his iconoclastic avatar in ‘JUST ANOTHER LOVE STORY’ which should fetch him legitimately a national award as best actor of 2010 with its eloquent pinches. That’s the punch line.