Director: Kaushik Ganguly
Cast: Riddhi Sen, Ritwick Chakraborty, Shankari
It's not often that one comes across a film that makes you flinch from a scene unfolding before you. As Nagarkirtan hurtles towards its harrowing climax – over three sequences so powerful they are bound to shake you to the core – I found myself almost unwittingly avert my eyes from the screen, hoping against hope that there was some way one could rewind the last half-hour for a different denouement, thus providing its protagonists a more hopeful alternative, reinforcing your faith in the human condition. But of course, then Nagarkirtan would not be the film it is – unflinching, uncompromising, unforgettable.
Parimal (Riddhi Sen, all of nineteen, and in what could a career-defining role) is a woman trapped in a man's body. Unable to live the lie any more, and coping with the trauma of being 'betrayed' by his teacher Subhash-da, Parimal runs away from home and moves in with a community of eunuchs. Here he is named Puti – a name that lends itself to various connotations: a 'small fish' or, as a character in the film puts it, because, in the game of Ludo, he always comes up with 'one' or 'put', as it is called in Bangla, in a throw of the dice; in short a loser.
Though Puti goes around soliciting money at traffic signals as we see eunuchs do, he longs to undergo the sex-change operation that will enable the realization of his true/complete self – as he tells Madhu (Ritwick Chakraborty), a delivery boy with a Chinese restaurant, with whom he falls in love. Madhu, who also moonlights as a flautist in kirtans, not only reciprocates Puti's love but also makes it his life's mission to raise the money required for the procedure.
What unfolds is a tender love story that does away with all the norms of love stories we are accustomed to seeing in Indian cinema, set against an utterly compelling and authentic backdrop of what genteel society would call the 'lowlife'. In a casting coup of sorts, Ganguly even has Manabi Bandyopadhyay, India's first transgender college principal and Bengal's first transgender professor, play herself in the film.
While never shying away from its emotionally wrenching core, the film-maker displays a refreshing lightness of touch, a wry sense of humour which add a poignant touch to the proceedings. Consider the scene where Madhu is asked to play the flute at the eunuchs' community. Even as he wonders if he should play what he does at the kirtan soirees, and a eunuch taunts him, 'Who has ever heard of eunuchs listening to a kirtan?', he opts for Kuch Kuch Hota Hai's 'Tum pass aaye'. Or when hearing of the expenses for the operation, Madhu ventures to ask Manabi Ma'am whether they could do it in instalments, first the lower half and then the upper!
What also makes the film work is its non-linear structure, moving back and forth in time, which is disorienting but somehow in keeping with the nature of the relationship and the direction it is headed. That, coupled with two outstanding performances and one memorable sequence after another, makes Nagarkirtan a film almost as flawless as one can expect.
While Riddhi Sen is arguably the most audacious cinematic performance in recent times (one that not only fetched him the award for Best Actor at the 65th National Film Awards in 2018 but also drove jury chairperson Shekhar Kapur to hail it a 'world-beating performance'), Ritwick matches him note for note. There are few actors in Bengali cinema today who can make the simple act of looking up from a slum being razed to a plush high-rise that stands next to it so eloquent. Or who can bring such poignancy to dialogue as simple as 'Is it really possible – this thing about a man falling in love with a man?'
Coming back to the climax – the director makes a point to situate it in Nabadwip, home of Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, considered in the Hindu religious pantheon to be the incarnation of and combining in himself the attributes of both Lord Krishna and Radharani, thus reinforcing the bhakti roots behind androgyny and androgynous relationships. At the same time, in depicting the brutality of the film's most traumatic scene on a mobile phone, the director makes a brilliant social comment – on our sadistic fetish for capturing the most inhuman act on camera and presenting it as 'entertainment'.
This is not the first time that Kaushik Ganguly has addressed issues revolving around sexuality and gender in his films. In telefilms like Ushnatar Janye (2003) he explored lesbianism, and soon after the landmark 2009 judgment delivered by the Delhi High Court decriminalizing homosexuality, he directed Rituparno Ghosh in Arekti Premer Golpo (2010), hailed as much for its bold theme as for daring to tread on terrain few mainstream films do.
With Nagarkirtan, the director sets the bar even higher – and I would stick out my neck to go so far as to say that not only is this his best film to date, it is probably the finest Indian film dealing with transgender identity and our society's approach to it. There are films and performances that make you go 'wow'. Then, there are those that leave you spellbound and render you speechless. Nagarkirtan is one such film.
(This reviewer watched the film at the Indian Panorama screening at Siri Fort Auditorium, New Delhi. The film is slated for a public release in February.)