Bengali Film Review

Nagarkirtan

Nagarkirtan won multiple National Awards last year honouring the best of Indian cinema of 2017 but because of some tiff between the producers, the release has been delayed by two years. The film, produced by Acropolis Entertainment, bagged a Special Jury Award for a Feature film, Riddhi Sen bagged the Best Actor Award Gobinda Mandal was bestowed the award for Best Costume Design while Ram Rajak won it for Best Make-up. The film finally released on the 22nd of February, 2019.

Nagarkirtan has handled the delicate subject of a transgender struggling to find his identity in a kothi inhabited by like-minded people – the hijras or the eunuchs. But that too is a lone struggle because he is biologically male and has a female trapped within that body. Is it possible for Punti to fit in? Does he fit in by dressing up as a female, joining a hijra clan, and begging for alms at traffic signals with other hijras of his group?

Punti, who was born Parimal but loved to call himself Pari meaning ‘fairy’, was forced to run away from home. His father was scandalised by his love for dressing up as a girl and winning prizes at fancy dress contests. Punti fell in love with a young tutor, who later betrayed him by agreeing to marry Punti’s older sister. Finding his world collapse around him, Punti runs away and manages to find shelter in a kothi. He learns to dance like hijras do. His problems begin when he meets and falls in love with Madhu, short for Madhusudan, who works as a courier for a Chinese food supplier but also plays the flute beautifully at public keertana sabhas.

Since love and marriage and a normal married life are taboo in the kothis, the two run away to make a life together. Punti decides to go in for Sex Regeneration Surgery (SRS). The couple visit the real life transgender principal of a noted suburban college who has undergone SRS to become a woman. She explains that the struggle is a long and difficult one and gifts Punti with a small statuette of Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu and asks him to take care of it. She also says that the SRS will be a very expensive affair. Madhu says he will earn and save for the surgery and their journey goes on. The allegory drawn through Sri Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu has two different significances in the film. One of these is that Madhu belongs to a very ritual-bound, Goudiya Brahmin family, whose very life is dedicated to singing keertans in praise of the Lord Krishna. They are strict vegetarians and tradition-bound so much so that they do not accept Madhu’s walking away from his home to make a life as a food-carrier instead of following the family tradition.

The second significance is that the Gaudiyas claim allegiance to a Vaishnava tradition, in which the Supreme is envisioned as a male figure. However, growing to maturity in the Shakta dominated Bengali culture, it came to acknowledge the power of the feminine, and this is reflected in the cult of Radha and Krishna, a dual form of the Deity in which the masculine and feminine elements are seen as equal. In Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, these elements are united in one person. Looked at in this light, the disagreement in some circles about whether Mahaprabhu is ‘Radha and Krishna milita-tanu’ or ‘Krishna in the mood of Radha’ takes on certain significance..The entire song track of Nagarkirtan is embedded in the kirtana songs and recitals, which also establishes the Krishna-Radha harmony through the love of Madhu and Punti, whose journey is filled with one disappointment to the next. The music and songs are linked to the main story but also stands independently on its own to tell an allegorical story that belongs to our own mythology thousands of years before we learnt and recognized ‘alternative sexuality’. Prabuddha Banerjee’s unique musical score\adds a different dimension to the film without intruding into the narrative.

When Madhu’s family in Mayapur, the holy place where Lord Chaitanya is worshipped, learn of Punti’s true identity, they are about to throw the two out. Before that, Punti runs away from the Kirtana Sabha leaving behind his only way of communication – his cell phone and his only source of hope – the statuette of Lord Chaitanya Mahaprabhu. Madhu’s sister-in-law finds them and hands them over to Madhu who is frantically looking for the missing Punti. Punti, starving without food, joins another hijra group who are begging for alms for their special celebration of Holiwith mutton curry and rice. But this group comes to know that Punti is a man and is faking his gender to get alms. He gets bashed up, stripped naked and a bucket full of blue colour is showered on him by the hijras and is handed over to the police. The Holi connection brings us back to the Krishna parallel. The blue colour on Punti’s body is a link to Krishna. But instead of fragmenting the narrative, these links offer a different perspective on Punti, Madhu and their tragic love story.

Riddhi Sen’s magnificent, multi-layered performance with many shades including a beautifully conceived scene of love-making between Punti and Madhu with their attempts to overcome their awkwardness is a gift to cinema in general and to Nagarkirtan in particular. A tiny vignette of Punti’s childhood in his parental home is truly touching with his father rejecting his prize and his mother trying to placate the father.

Ritwick Chakraborty is excellent too with his obvious discomfort at Punti minus his wig and his female attire but the climax puts paid to an otherwise classic film. Bidipta Chakraborty sparkles in a small cameo adding a humane touch to Madhu’s family. Indrashish as Punti’s first boyfriend is not exactly a villain but a timid fellow who is afraid to take such a radical step. The metaphor of the cell phone and the statuette stand out very well in this complex film. Subhajit Singha has taken on the challenge of editing this very difficult film extremely well.

The film will find it mark in the cinema archive because Kaushik Ganguly has taken real hijras who have never faced a movie camera or acted ever to take part in this film. They are delightful especially when we see them shaving their hirsute appendages and putting on make-up quite content to have made peace with their in-between world and identity. They add to the fun and the joy of an otherwise sad film and lift our spirits in every which way.

Score72%

Bengali, Drama, Color

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