Death looms large over Chitrangada: The Crowning Wish (2012). Don’t do it, it could kill you, different characters tell the protagonist, Rudra, played by writer-director Rituparno Ghosh. They’re talking about gender-reassignment surgeries. Just the thought of such procedures terrifies most of the people around Rudra. His parents are rendered speechless, his lover begs him to reconsider. Everyone is worried about the dangers lurking under Rudra’s decision to transition from male to female. In this film that felt unsettlingly intimate with its provocative honesty and disruptive gender-blurring, the warnings Ghosh had written for Rudra turned out to be prophetic. A year after the film’s release, the filmmaker had a massive heart attack and passed away. They were just 49 years old.
During their lifetime, Ghosh was always referred to as he or him, but considering how deliberately Ghosh refused to subscribe to gender binaries, it feels only right to ascribe gender-neutral pronouns to the filmmaker. Chitrangada: The Crowning Wish makes a strong case for this. “Chitrangada ekta ichchher golpo (Chitrangada is the story of a wish), that you can choose your gender,” Rudra says early on in the film, which slips between English and Bengali. “Wish” as a translation sits uncomfortably in place of the Bengali word “ichchhey”. The English word carries with it a sense of impossible longing because in English, the granting of wishes is the stuff of magic and miracles. Ichchhey, in contrast, is not weighed down by such associations. It’s a word for everyday cravings — things you want and can get or do easily. When Ghosh uses “ichchhey” to speak of gender identity, he’s placing a simple word next to a complex concept and subtly reminding the listener that it shouldn’t be this much of a challenge for someone to be gender fluid. It could be just as easy as an ichchhey.
Except, of course, it isn’t. In the hospital, Rudra has to school the nurse in attendance. “If you keep calling me ‘sir’, it becomes more and more difficult for me to prepare myself,” Rudra says, offering the alert viewer a sharp contrast to the nonchalance with which Rudra had told the surgeon that he doesn’t need counselling because “to me, it’s just a cosmetic procedure”. In Chitrangada, Rudra is a dancer and choreographer whose most recent work is a retelling of Rabindranath Tagore’s dance-drama “Chitrangada”. As Ghosh tells the viewer at the start of his film, Tagore changed the story from the Mahabharata, which is about a princess from Manipur who falls in love with the wandering Pandava Arjun, into something more than a boy-meets-girl fable.“Tagore’s Chitrangada is an Amazon warrior on a quest to discover her gender identity,” says an intertitle before Ghosh’s Chitrangada opens to a shot of Rudra lying on his side, split in two by a metal bar; his kohl-lined eyes looking into the camera, willing the audience to think of the gender binaries into which society tries to categorise Rudra (and Ghosh). (Towards the end of the film, we’ll see Rudra lying down again, but this time we’ll see their face, undivided and whole.)
In Rudra’s retelling of Tagore’s “Chitrangada”, the princess goes under the surgical knife to go from the masculine-presenting Kurupa to the femme Surupa. The story ends up mirroring Rudra’s own life after he falls in love with Partho (Jisshu Sengupta), a percussionist who is also a heroin addict. Ostensibly because Partho likes children, Rudra decides to undergo gender reassignment surgeries, so that he and Partho can pass as a straight couple and legally adopt a child. Spoiler alert: It backfires terribly. “I never wanted you to change,” Partho tells Rudra, after the latter has completed top surgery. “The man I loved was not this half thing. If I have to have a woman, I would rather have a real woman, not this synthetic one.” It’s a cruel moment that feels far more intimate and uncomfortable than any of the scenes in which the two fall on each other in a lust-fuelled rush. Partho’s honesty runs parallel to his deceit — he’s been seeing a woman behind Rudra’s back — and the reality of his pregnant girlfriend (who, ironically, wants an abortion) exists alongside Partho’s proclaimed desire for a man who is not “this half thing”.
Yet what’s evident from the very beginning is that Rudra has always been comfortably between masculinity and femininity. Everyone refers to Rudra with masculine pronouns and nouns — he’s Rudra-da (da meaning elder brother in Bengali) to his theatre company; his nickname is Khokon, which draws on the word “khoka”, meaning little boy — and Rudra accepts this easily even as he embraces an androgyny that leans towards the feminine. In real life, Ghosh cut a flamboyant figure, wearing make-up, bling and outfits that included turbans and kaftans. It wasn’t drag because they weren’t impersonating another gender. Instead, they were presenting themself as partly male, partly female and truly androgynous. Perhaps if he’d been alive today, Ghosh would have opted for non-binary, but back in the 2010s, this vocabulary was still in gestation. Rudra is far less provocative than Ghosh with his wardrobe choices, but he’s a reflection of his creator: He wears tunics and make-up, he loves jewellery and is proudly effeminate. Like Ghosh, Rudra demands the world acknowledge that both masculine and feminine can exist within a person. “No transition is ever complete,” Ghosh writes in Chitrangada. “It’s an ongoing process.”
One of the most beautiful and skilfully-written episodes in the film is a conversation between Rudra’s parents, played by Deepankar De and Anashua Majumdar. “It was our stubbornness that demanded our boy must behave like a boy,” Rudra’s mother tells her husband when the two of them are sitting alone, after having reacted badly to Rudra’s announcement that he was opting for gender reassignment surgery.
“Chhele chheler moto hobey, tai to swabhabik (It’s natural to expect a boy to be a boy),” Rudra’s father replies, his voice soft with helplessness.
Rudra’s mother says, “Jar jeta swabhab, shetai to swabhabik, na? Swabhabero to ekta ichchhey aachey (What’s natural will depend on one’s nature, no? Nature has its own wishes).”
There it is again, that little word “ichchhey”. Once again, it has to do the hard work of redefining gender norms. It’s a marker of Ghosh’s genius as a storyteller that this exchange doesn’t come across as an earnest lecture, but rather as the slow, awkward and pained process of elderly parents trying to understand their failures. In the middle of all the tragedy that is invariably characteristic of queer stories, in Chitrangada, Ghosh presents their protagonist with more hopeful and happier possibilities despite the heartbreaks. Rudra is able to love themself and find acceptance from the patriarch as well as a place within the structure of the family, despite disrupting convention by remaining defiantly non-binary.
Considering Ghosh’s status as one of Bengali cinema’s few openly queer icons, it feels right that Chitrangada ended up being their swan song even though Ghosh’s death will always be an untimely tragedy. Ghosh pushed audiences to rethink social conventions and institutions with their films, training their gaze upon how women are seen and how women see themselves. They left us with some of the most powerful portraits of contemporary relationships and in their films, marriage often comes across as an inadequate institution in the modern era. They brought conversations about queerness, desire and identity to the forefront, making it the stuff of intelligent, mainstream cinema. Most importantly, they left us with questions that are both introspective and disruptive. In Chitrangada, through Rudra, Ghosh asks us to think about how we see ourselves and what informs the way we’ve constructed our sense of self.
“Don’t do this, baby,” Partho begs Rudra at one point. “I love you the way you are.”
“Will you love me less if I become a woman?” Rudra asks him.
Partho isn’t the only one who has to think about an answer. The question goes out to the audience, especially when Rudra decides that the only way to truly be complete is by not conforming to gender binaries. Will you love them less because they refused to “become” either woman or man, and chose to instead to be themself?
Chitrangada: The Crowning Wish is streaming on Hoichoi.