Kaushik Ganguly's Nagarkirtan centres on two people, two states of mind. First, there's Parimal (Riddhi Sen), a young man who feels he belongs to the opposite gender. He runs away from home — from a father who sneers that he walks and talks "like a woman" — and takes shelter in a colony of transpeople in Kolkata. He begins to wear a wig with long hair. He wears a bindi. He wears female clothes, including a bra. He claps his hands at traffic signals and asks for money. The film's other central character works the roads, too. His name is Madhu (Ritwick Chakraborty). He's a fast-food delivery guy and a part-time flautist, and he falls for Parimal. He knows Parimal is a boy/man, and he doesn't seem to have self-identified as gay or bi. And yet, there it is, this attraction, because… kuch kuch hota hai. That's the song (that film's title song) Madhu plays on his flute when Parimal is around. Kuch kuch hota hai: something happens to me when you come near.
These fluid states of mind (and body) find a perfect mirror in the screenplay's fluid timelines, stitched together expertly by the editor, Subhajit Singha. Nagarkirtan is a collection of fragments that go back and forth in time, like a memory book being flipped through by an impatient child. We open with Parimal and Madhu together, and then we go back to the time they met – or really, to the time before they met. It's an exquisite moment, where Madhu bangs on the door of the house where these hijras live, and when no one opens, he walks around the building to see if there is an in. He finds an open window and peeks through the slats. A few transwomen are in various states of undress. The frame feels as though, along with Madhu, we are getting a partial glimpse of a hidden world.
Does Parimal become a woman, through the gender reassignment surgery he seeks? Is Madhu going to be able to lead a "normal" life with Parimal? These are the questions that drive this 2017 film, which just dropped on OTT. In Arekti Premer Golpo (2010), Kaushik Ganguly told the story of a trans filmmaker (played by Rituparno Ghosh) whose life begins to parallel that of his latest subject, a jatra performer famed for his female roles. Nagarkirtan — whose English title is, oddly, The Eunuch and the Flute Player (Parimal is not a eunuch) — is a sequel in spirit. It appears that observing Rituparno Ghosh in such close quarters — during the filming of the earlier movie, and during the last years of the sexually fluid filmmaker's career — led Kaushik Ganguly to mull over what it must mean for a man to think and feel like a woman.
Nagarkirtan, in fact, opens with a title card that says the film is a tribute to Rituparno Ghosh — and it's a worthy tribute. Not since the heydays of that filmmaker's work have I seen such tenderness, such suggestive sensuality on screen. When Parimal and Madhu make love, the camera (by Sirsha Ray) lingers on Parimal's flat chest. Later, with this image in mind, we see how much Parimal covets the curves that define a "conventional" woman. He happens to be in a room with a woman (the marvellous Bidipta Chakraborty) who is changing. Her hips and breasts are full, having borne a child. She complains, smilingly, that she's never been able to get back into her pre-pregnancy shape. Parimal's look tells us what he thinks but cannot say: that she's crazy for even wanting such a thing.
It's a look that's filled with hunger and longing and sadness, and Riddhi Sen employs a tremendous range of variations on this look to flesh out his part. It also helps that he appears soft, wispy, frail, like the angel implied by his shortened name of "Pari". But despite Riddhi Sen's National Award win for Best Actor, this is not a solo performance. It's a duet with Ritwick Chakraborty, who, like Fahadh Faasil, has raised minimalism to a fine art. Just see how Riddhi and Ritwick play off each other in a scene set at a temple, when Madhu is caught wondering if "such a thing" could happen between two men. Through lifted eyebrows and a soft sigh, Ritwick delivers a page's worth of dialogue. Madhu isn't shocked or dismayed. He's just thinking about what happened, this "unconventional" love he's found himself enmeshed in.
The director equates this "unconventional" love to the one between Radha and Krishna. It's no accident that Madhu plays the flute. It's equally intentional that Parimal is drenched in blue (the god's colour) during Holi. They're both Krishna. And they're both Radha. The film is at its brightest during the staged kirtan performances, where Radha-Krishna songs are sung. (Madhu hails from a Vaishnava family of kirtan singers.) These scenes glow as though lit by brass lamps. Elsewhere, the lighting is "natural", flat. At times, you could even say harsh. I suppose it's the difference between the ideal and the real.
There are a few social layers — say, the fact that Madhu is part of the urban poor, whose slum is being razed to make way for high-rises. (In a way, he is as marginalised as Parimal is.) But the film, to its credit, never veers from its mission of taking us deep into unconventional love. One of the Radha-Krishna hymns has a lyric like this: "I feel like a discarded garland". That was perhaps the brief that resulted in composer Prabuddha Banerjee's extraordinary score. The accordion-like music evokes intense yearning, and these fluid tones are constantly interrupted by a plucked string instrument, something like a ukulele. An emotional landscape is sketched out, but the emotions themselves aren't sentimentalised.
The hijras aren't sentimentalised, either. One of the most beautiful images in Nagarkirtan is that of a transperson shaving off a stubble before a mirror, but before we can begin to feel "sentimental", the image vanishes. This is the life. As a line says, "[The surgeons] must build a woman's body bit by bit, just like God." It takes time. It also takes money, which not everyone can afford. With the casting of real-life transpeople (Shankari Mandal Naskar plays Parimal's "guru ma", the equivalent of the boss at work), the film feels like it is taking us into a world that already exists and not one that has been manufactured for the sake of a movie. I loved the touch where Parimal, when asked to dance, launches into a Rabindra sangeet performance, to everyone's amusement. He will soon be taught less "sophisticated", earthier forms of dance. Nagarkirtan does not elevate the kirtan, and neither does it denigrate these sexually charged movements. This is the life.
There are a few passages that overreach, and perhaps oversell the underlying conceits. I was not too convinced that we needed more layering to the Radha-Krishna anchoring, which is what we get with the references to Chaitanya Mahaprabhu. (Like the saint, Madhu was born in Nabadwip.) I wasn't too sold, either, on the scenes with Manabi Bandyopadhyay, India's first openly trans college principal. I understand what a beacon of hope she must be to everyone who's "unconventional", and especially to someone like Parimal. But in an otherwise nuanced narrative, she comes across like a poster girl rather than a character. But this is where the screenplay structure helps. Because we don't dwell on anything or anyone for very long, the storytelling is never weighed out, it never becomes soggy. (The melodramatic conclusion might, otherwise, have become too heavy.) And there's no denying the power of Manabi's admission that she is still not allowed to use the washrooms used by the female professors. She's telling Parimal that it's a long and hard road ahead, and when she gives Parimal a statuette of Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, it's a reminder of the saint's complete commitment to his chosen path towards The One: Lord Krishna.
But again, it's not just about Parimal. Everything is fluid, so there is also the question of Madhu's chosen path. Yes, his heart and soul and his loins tell him that Parimal is The One. But at first, his conditioning comes to the fore. He cannot bear to see Parimal without a wig. In bed, he doesn't seem to mind the boy's boyishness, but once the lights are on, he tells Parimal to always come to him "all dressed up". He needs that illusion for a while, at least until the scene where he admits to a policeman that Parimal is his "girlfriend". That transition is one of the film's finest stretches, for it reflects our own (i.e., society's own) confusion in confronting the unconventional. Madhu learns that the externals are insignificant. The only thing that matters is the love that burns inside.