The immortal tales of love and longing between Radha and Krishna. The doomed romance between the delivery man of a roadside Chinese restaurant in Kolkata and a trans woman. In Nagarkirtan, director Kaushik Ganguly bravely meshes the two. He suggests that the yearning and depth of emotion in these relationships is the same. Nagarkirtan is a moving love story and a plea for acceptance and inclusivity. The film is a tribute to the late Rituparno Ghosh, a director, who in his art and his life, consistently and eloquently asked us to look beyond binaries. Nagarkirtan does the same.
The triumph of the film is the character of Putti, played with grace, empathy and masterful restraint by Riddhi Sen, who was only 19 when he did the role. Riddhi's gait, his mannerisms and body language aren't exaggerated or artificial. And the sadness in his eyes suggests a splinter in Putti's soul that can never be extricated. Fittingly, he won a National Award for his performance. A character in the film tells us that Putti got the nickname because in a throw of dice, she invariably gets one, or put in Bengali. Which suggests that she always loses. Putti was once Parimal. She has spent a lifetime struggling against herself. In one scene, she tells her lover Madhu, "I have the wrong body. I have to make it right. When we made mistakes in math, we'd calculate it again, just like that." But the odds against Putti prove insurmountable.
Putti and Madhu are those invisible people who populate the urban landscape but whose lives we rarely pay attention to. He ekes out a meagre living at the restaurant. She, initiated into a group of transwomen, begs with them at traffic signals. Their romance has to be shrouded in secrecy. Putti's Guru-ma controls her protégés with an iron hand. And Madhu isn't fully sure what to make of his own emotions. At one point, he asks Putti if it's really possible for two boys to fall in love. Madhu insists that Putti meet him only as a woman. He doesn't like to see the short hair under her wig. He says, "Always come to me dressed up. I don't like seeing the patchwork."
And yet, once Putti has initiated their romance, Madhu has the courage to take it forward. He tells Putti that he will save enough to pay for her sex reassignment surgery. He even takes her to his village to meet his family, who have been professional bhajan singers for three generations. He himself is a flute player who performs at kirtans in the city to supplement his income. Kaushik positions him as a Krishna figure and Putti as Radha, forever pining for her partner. The film begins with a kirtan session and a pivotal moment, when it is revealed that Putti is other than what she appears, is also staged during a kirtan. The ache and sadness of the ballads echo Putti's anguish but they also elevate her emotions, suggesting that this romance is otherworldly and perhaps purer.
Nagarkirtan also works as a commentary on the marginalisation of trans people. The film delves into the rejection by the family, the psychological trauma, the aggression and territorialism that is inevitably caused by the inhuman conditions many are forced to live in. Manabi Bandyopadhyay, India's first transgender college principal, plays herself in the film. But the script, also written by Kaushik, never loses sight of the love story. The moments between Putti and Madhu have a lovely tenderness. They work also because Kaushik and Ritwick Chakraborty, who plays Madhu, don't give Madhu brownie points for falling in love with a transwoman. He is a common man with uncommon values and compassion. Ritwick skilfully plays Madhu's devotion in a low-key manner, suggesting that it is natural and inevitable.
Nagarkirtan has been shot by the brilliant Sirsha Ray who also shot A Death in the Gunj. His camera doesn't polish the squalor of these lives but he finds beauty in bleakness. Notice the small moments – like a scene in which Madhu and Putti are on a bus heading to his hometown Nabadwip. Nabadwip is also the home of Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, a 15th-century saint, considered by devotees to be an incarnation of Lord Krishna. Putti is holding in her hand a statue of the saint given to her by Manabi. As Putti falls asleep, her grip on the statue loosens but Madhu takes it, holding it, almost like a talisman that will perhaps ward off evil. It's telling that in the climax Putti no longer has the statue. There is no one to save her from the horror that awaits her.
Nagarkirtan doesn't allow us to look away from Putti's tragedy. And it quietly insists that we make our ideas of sexuality and love more expansive. You can watch the film with subtitles on Hoichoi.