Negotiating an Androgynous Personhood: Life and Works of Rituparno Ghosh

“Androgyny is not trying to manage the relationship between the opposites; it is simply flowing between them.”
– June singer1

The human body has always been a site of constant struggle vis-à-vis the society the individual is part of and seeks acceptance from, with self-expression being the primary initiator of interaction between the two. However, the politics involved in the struggle for the autonomy, almost always manifests itself as power, especially when autonomy is actually gained. The consequent power equation may then complicate the socially accepted binary of the ‘male’ and the ‘female’, leading to further complications, especially when voices of dissent from people who refuse to adhere to predefined normative distinctions, are made conspicuous.

Moreover, the nature of human societies are such that much of an individual’s existence depends on the reaction of those they may surround themselves with, since, of course, a human being is also a ‘social being’ in him being social/sociable, and not entirely averse to communal associations. Indeed, and according to Judith Butler, every individual desires recognition and “if the schemes of recognition that are available to us are those that ‘undo’ the person by conferring recognition, or ‘undo’ the person by withholding recognition, then recognition becomes a source of power by which the human is differentially produced” (Butler, Undoing Gender 2). Deviating from the norms that people in general take as given, thus, would always be accompanied with anxiety concerning one’s survival in a world that has the tendency of putting people into compartments. Accordingly, ‘Androgyny’ is a much contested area, with worldviews demonstrating the divide between those who believe it to be acceptable, those who deem it abnormal and improper, and those who ignore it altogether.

Having said that, one may posit that there have always been people who question the accepted definitions of ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’. Of these, women are especially prominent since it is they who have been suppressed, and curtailed by the boundaries imposed on them since time immemorial. According to Mary Wollstonecraft, women are/were only “flattering their fascinating graces”, and seem “as if they were in a state of perpetual childhood, unable to stand alone”2. Simone de Beauvoir is another celebrated philosopher who wrote about the uncertainty around the definition of ‘woman’, which on examination she found remarkably inapt and hazy. Moreover, Virginia Woolf, towards the end of A Room of One’s Own, introduces the concept of androgyny as something embodied in every individual. This concept had been also discoursed upon by Samuel Taylor Coleridge who had said that all great minds are androgynous: “the mind is certainly a very mysterious organ…there are severances and oppositions in the mind as there are strains from obvious causes on the body…the mind is always altering its focus, and bringing the world into different perspectives” .

This paper, in thus considering the aforementioned theses on androgyny, intends to bring under scrutiny the life and struggle of the celebrated actor and director Rituparno Ghosh as an androgynous figure whose state of ‘androgyny’ was in constant limelight. The paper also endeavors to shed light on his works which are inclined towards androgynous and gay-centric themes, taking an especially grim and brooding tone in the movie, Chitrangada: The Crowning Wish.

Chitrangada of Mahabharata – The Actual Story

Chitrangada, in the ancient epic, was the princess of Manipur. Arjuna met her when he was on pilgrimage in penance for having barged into the private space of Draupadi and Yudhishthir. Enthralled by Chitrangada’s beauty, Arjun asks the king for her hand in marriage. The catch however was that that after marriage she and any children they had would have would not be allowed to leave Manipur. Arjuna agrees, marries Chitrangada and stays in Manipur till the birth of their son Babruvahana.

Rabindranath Tagore’s Chitrangada

Rabindranath Tagore in his famous dance-drama Chitrangada, took the story of this mythical princess and granted her an individuality of her own, with a remarkable personality to boot. The king of Manipur who had been granted a boon by Lord Shiva that only sons would be born in his clan, had decided to bring his erroneously born daughter up as a boy. Chitrangada was therefore dressed like a boy, educated like a boy, and trained in archery, in which she excels, and with time, is given the responsibility of the security of the kingdom.

Needless to say, she grows into a strong-willed woman, however she not beautiful. When Arjuna reaches her kingdom, she falls in love with him and prays to Kamdeva to grant her the weapons of femininity; to make her beautiful and ‘womanly’. Her wish is subsequently granted and Arjuna is enchanted when he beholds her beautiful form – so much so that he is distracted from his pilgrimage. Yet as their courtship progresses, Chitrangada misses her previous way of life and the lie she had created disturbs her to no end. Arjuna, meanwhile, is still besotted by the skilled warrior princess, and develops an earnest respect for her. Chitrangada, however, eventually realises the value of being her own self, and prays to Kamdeva to take back his boon of beauty. Her prayers are heard again and her true form is restored. She then goes and reveals her true self to Arjuna, who marries her just the same, and stays with her till their son Babruvahana is born.

Rituparno’s Chitrangada: The Crowning Wish

Rituparno’s Chitrangada: The Crowning Wish is a story about desire and choices of existence. It revolves around Rudy, an androgynous choreographer who stages Tagore’s Chitrangada. An actress from the play, Kasturi, introduces Rudy to Partha who is a great percussionist and a drug addict. A passionate relationship develops between the two and they think about adopting a child. That is, however, easier said than done, because two men living together hardly make for a serious application for the adoption agencies in India. Rudy therefore decides to undergo a sex reassignment surgery. The movie depicts the mental state of Rudy through the different stages of the operation, his parents’ reaction and the effect of it on his relationship with Partha. After Rudy’s refusal to become an engineer, his parents see his decision to go for a sex reassignment surgery as a further disappointment. Moreover, Partha is unhappy with the idea of a relationship with a “false woman” and moves on to Kasturi and gets her pregnant. With nobody to support him and help him with the mental trauma of the change that he goes through during the operation, Rudy’s psyche creates an imaginary friend. This hallucinatory friend sees him through most of his operation, till before the last major operation of a genital transplant.

Rituparno’s Chitrangada privileges Tagore’s version of the Arjuna-Chitrangada romance. There is an attempt at drawing parallels between the dilemma of existence and desire of Chitrangada and the character of Rudy. The film is said to complete Rituparno’s Queer trilogy, in which the first two movies were Arekti Premer Golpo (released in 2010) and Memories In March (released in 2010). All three films had autobiographical elements wherein Rituparno had tried to put on-screen what he had to face on a regular basis for his non-normative ways.

Rituparno’s exploration of expression of androgyny in his movies had started with Bariwali (released in 2000) starring Kirron Kher and Chiranjeet Chakraborty. Kirron Kher plays a widow who has a male servant who dresses and acts like a woman. In Arekti Premer Golpo, Rituparno plays the character of Roop, who sees himself as different from both ‘man’ and ‘woman’. The movie has two major autobiographical elements. In an interview about his acting debut Rituparno said that his character, Roop, is strongly influenced by his mother, a relationship which echoes the one he had with his own mother. Rituparno says, “Roop’s sexual fluidity…People find me mysterious (laughs). And I find it very amusing that people suspect my sexuality all the time and yet they are so curious to know about my sexual life!” (Sengupta)

The trajectory of society/family’ reaction to their child’s ‘deviant’ sexuality is also explored in Rituparno’s Queer Trilogy. In Arekti Premer Golpo, the mother of the character Roop has a strong influence on his life. In Memories in March, the mother (played by Deepti Naval) is unaware of her son’s sexual preference until after his death, and the movie portrays her struggle to come to terms with her dead son’s secret relationship with a male.

Chitrangada also covers the angle of parents/family’s reaction to androgyny and homosexuality. However, orthodoxy and a conservative way in grappling with their children’s deviant sexuality takes a much darker tone here than in Memories in March. Chitrangada portrays a dismayed and disappointed father, and a sad, helpless mother who tries to bridge the gap between the father and the androgynous son. Though there is a slow change in the outlook of the parents who are initially dismayed by their son’s decision to undergo sex reassignment surgery, there is an effort to understand Rudy’s frame of mind and what makes him so dissatisfied with a role that almost everyone expects him to fulfill. At one point in the movie Rudy’s mother asks him to tell her exactly what the operation would do. Rudy’s argument that she had no right to know what he was doing with his own body is strongly refuted by her. “I gave birth to this body, which is yours… I have a right to know, whatever goes on in this body. I have a right to know, if it is changing, transforming”.

Rituparno’s cinema may be called radical in the sense that he chose to embrace his ‘deviant’ identity and portray it in on screen. He believed in celebrating his sexuality. And as a cross dresser, he was comfortable going out in public decked with women’s jewellery. He was once quoted saying:

There’s always been a lot of speculation about me on approaching femininity…whether I am going in for a sex change or a breast augmentation. All kinds of speculation. But I was never embarrassed. If I want to change my identity by changing my sex, I would be the first person to let the world know about my new identity. I consider myself privileged because of my gender fluidity, the fact that I am in between. I don’t consider myself a woman and I don’t want to become a woman…The concept of unisex has been monopolised by women. Women can wear men’s clothes. The problem arises when men wear women’s clothes. Whatever I wear has always been worn by men. Wearing things like earrings and necklaces has always been a part of our sartorial history and tradition. These were tagged as feminine frills during colonial rule and I don’t see anything wrong in reinstating it. My point is why shouldn’t I celebrate my sexuality? (Sengar)

However, a closer look at his life gives ample hint that his choice of exercising his right to freedom of expression came at a price. One of the most obvious pointers is that his movies faced rejection from many people, ranging from actors who refused to be portrayed as gay or androgynous characters, to the general public who didn’t care to acknowledge what they didn’t find ‘normal’. Prosenjit Chatterjee, a celebrated Bengali actor and close friend of Rituparno, confessed his dissatisfaction with Rituparno’s scripts, which led to their alienation. A recent article in News East West by Subhash K. Jha reported this growing rift between the two celebrities.

Lately Prosenjit and Ritu had grown distant because of the latter’s insistence on undergoing potentially life-threatening hormonal operations. Prosenjit warned Ritu not to mess around with his body. But the director who was adamant on changing his gender wouldn’t listen. This issue created a rift between the two life-long friends. Rituparno also insisted on making gay-centric films which further distanced Prosenjit professionally and personally from the filmmaker who changed the career and life-course of Bangla cinema’s biggest superstar since Uttam Kumar. (Jha)

Another recent article by Subhash K. Jha in India Today states that Rituparno’s own brother Indranil distanced himself from him “leaving the filmmaker alone to grapple with his changing personality and the ensuing trauma”. Rudy’s alienation from Partha in Chitrangada can therefore be considered as another prominent example of an autobiographical depiction; it is the same story of alienation from someone close due to disagreement about choices regarding one’s sexuality.

Furthermore, apart from alienation, Rituparno has also been reported to be paranoid about his sexuality and about what his actions were perceived as. Subhash K. Jha has commented: “Rituparno Ghosh was paranoid about his sexuality. Through experience he had learnt to be cautious about sending out the wrong signals to actors. He was often afraid of reaching out to actors, especially in Bollywood who, he felt, would read a wrong signal” (Jha). Rituparno is said to have made a habit of leaving studios early and not meeting actors in hotel rooms because “his acceptance of his own sexuality had not got a similar acceptance from the Indian film industry” (Jha). Cassandra Clare’s description of homosexuality being “not like a stab wound [but] a million little paper cuts every day” (Clare 207), thus comes close to what Ritoparno’s life was like.

According to Butler:

The distinction between sex and gender has been crucial to the long-standing feminist effort to debunk the claim that anatomy is destiny; sex is understood to be the invariant, anatomically distinct, and factic aspects of the female body, whereas gender is the cultural meaning and form that that body acquires, the variable modes of that body’s acculturation. With the distinction intact, it is no longer possible to attribute the values or social functions of women to biological necessity, and neither can we refer meaningfully to natural or unnatural gendered behaviour: all gender is, by definition, unnatural. (Butler)

Rituparno’s refusal to stay behind closets, his celebration of his liminal sexuality, led a branch of Indian cinema to explore a theme (already) well experimented by their western counterpart, Hollywood. And Rituparno’s life and struggle is evidence of how stark the difference is between the two industries’ treatment of the same. Indeed, Rituparno is a good instance of how much space there really is left for understanding/accepting androgyny in the Indian society. There is a clear need for a broadening of horizons and for the realisation to sink in that to accept one’s actual identity, to be what one actually is, is essential for an individual’s mental peace, and fulfilling existence.

Despite societal inhibiting factors, liminality can actually be liberating as it frees an individual and allows them to experiment and go places where people bound by their respective gender roles hesitate to venture forth in. There is a need to expand the scope of our understanding of sexuality, of acknowledging people’s choices. Rituparno’s Chitrangada: The Crowning Wish ends with the doctor operating on Rudy advising him to relax and be what he wants to be – and that efficiently sums it all.

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Notes:

1 Androgyny Quotes. <http://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/keywords/androgyny.html>. Accessed July 14, 2013.
2 Quotes About Gender. <http://www.goodreads.com/quotes/tag/gender>.

Bibliography:

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Clare, Cassandra. The Mortal Instruments: The City of Lost Souls. N.p.: n.p., 2012. Print.
De Beauvoir, Simone. “Woman and the Other.” Literature in the Modern World. Ed. Dennis Walder. Oxford: OUP, 1990. Print.
Jha, Subhash K. “Filmmaker Rituparno Ghosh was adamant on changing his sex, says Prosenjit Chatterjee”. June 2013. Web. July 2, 2013. <http://newseastwest.com/filmmaker-rituparno-ghosh-was-adamant-on-changing-his-sex-says-prosenjit-chatterjee>.
Jha, Subhash K. “Rituparno Ghosh, a man paranoid about his own sexuality”. May 2013. Web. July 15, 2013. <http://indiatoday.intoday.in/story/rituparno-ghosh-paranoid-sexuality/1/277653.html>.
Quotes About Gender. Web. July 14, 2013. <http://www.goodreads.com/quotes/tag/gender>.
Sengar, Resham. “Rituparno Ghosh – A phenomenal movie maker who dared to bare!”. Web. 14 July 2013. <http://zeenews.india.com/exclusive/rituparno-ghosh-%E2%80%93-a-phenomenal-movie-maker-who-dared-to-bare_6379.html>.
Sengupta, Reshmi. “I Don’t Want to Become a Woman”. The Telegraph. December 2010. Web. July 14, 2013. <http://www.telegraphindia.com/1101222/jsp/entertainment/story_13330745.jsp>.
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Woolf, Virginia. A Room of One’s Own. N.p.: UBS Publishers’ Distributors Pvt. Ltd, 2004. Print.

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Arpita Roy is a third year English Honors student at Kamala Nehru college, University of Delhi. She is a member of the college creative writing society ‘Expressions’. She loves stories and spends a lot of her time reading fiction and watching movies. She has presented and published a few papers on social issues, like censorship and commodification of women, over the previous year. She may be contacted at arpitaroy923@gmail.com.

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