Chitrangada: The Crowning Wish (2012) is a film by the late Rituparno Ghosh which brings out, in a very nuanced manner the biggest ontological dilemma and anxiety perhaps, of the transperson to the world of cisgenders, of being an anomaly and being at the receiving end of what can best be described as an elaborate cultural malaise – the need to have categories for everything, the urge to classify everything into desirable and undesirable, normal and deviant, acceptable and unacceptable.
Who is a transperson for a cis man or cis woman informed by normative heteropatriarchy? There is never much clarity on that. Are they people with ‘mixed genitalia’, i.e. intersex people, are they women trapped in men’s bodies and vice versa but then what do one actually mean by the phrase, ‘a woman trapped in a man’s body’ if both man and woman in the end are constructs?
And this is precisely what the film explores.
The film shows the pain and the relative marginalisation of the protagonist Rudra Chatterjee who perhaps would be best to say, does not identify as a cisgender man. I say “relative marginalisation” as class plays a huge role in defining our identity and deciding our position in the societal ladder. Rudra clearly belongs to an upper middle class family and though his parents are not exactly happy with their ‘son’s’ trans-inclinations and “gender-different” personality, it wants us to infer that by the virtue of being upper caste and therefore by default at least middle class, Rudra is in a relatively advantageous position.
Rudra has to explain or justify his disposition to fewer people. He faces lesser threat of social ostracism. Another thing that works to his advantage is his choreographer profile. Being an artist, he has considerable cultural clout. He inhabits the world of art and artists and perhaps being gender-queer is excused as the eccentricity commonly associated and even considered a requirement to conveniently typecast artists as eccentrics so that they fit into the category of the archetypal eccentric artist. The same attitude can however also be a cause of considerable consternation if Rudra’s sexuality and gender is regarded as the eccentricities of an artist and thus dismissed.
In an artistic twist to Tagore’s Chitrangada, Rudra questions the dilemmas and ontological insecurities the mythical and fictionalised Chitrangada may have undergone, the exclusion and marginalisation she may have faced despite being the king’s child and ponders over the gaps in the narrative.
The whole narrative unfolds in the physical space of a hospital room with Rudra having imaginary conversations with his counsellor who does not exist. Interestingly, Rudra’s alter ego is a man. Rudra’s story, interspersed with snatches from the dramatised version of Chitrangada’s story as Tagore wrote it, stops at a point to reflect: What is it to feel like a woman? What is the one thing that makes you realise you are a woman?
In Chitrangada’s story, it is the moment when she sees Arjun and falls in love with him. That is precisely the moment the princess-raised-as-a-prince wants to transform into a woman because she wants to be loved by a man and love a man in return.
Does this mean that one’s realisation of being a woman inside, is triggered by the attraction one feels for a man, or the opposite sex? In doing this, isn’t one falling into the same trap of the social construct of heterosexual attraction? Why can’t one be a man and be attracted to another man? But that leads to another disturbing question. What is a man or rather who? And who for that matter is a woman? There is no such thing as the ideal man or the ideal woman; these are just ideas which we would like to conform to and live by and aspire to become. And yet the ideal man or woman is a point in the gender continuum that is constantly “deferred”, to use a very Derridean term.
You think you are the ideal woman if you have the perfect breasts or the perfect hips and perhaps a perfect vagina or the perfect voice or display some of the traits of femininity like compassion and grace but is there any end to it? To desiring? To chasing?
This is the dilemma that Rudra suffers which determines and defines his final decision – of not undergoing the last phase of the sex change surgery, his vaginal reconstruction, and deciding on removing his breast implants instead. In doing so, Rudra embraces his uniqueness, his difference. What is gender after all except a stylisation of the self and a series of performative actions, involuntarily staged as they have been internalised since formative years.
There is no end to that perfect standard, to chasing a mirage, to projecting one’s happiness and postponing one’s sense of completeness to an indefinite point in future time; basing one’s existence on a series of hypothetical ‘ifs’.
Chitrangada: The Crowning Wish is the journey of a being who finds solid ground in his own being, of someone who learns to love themself not because of, but despite having undergone a physical transformation to cross over to the other gender. It is the power to say ‘no’ to Chitrangada’s Madan, the god who gives her a woman’s body for a year, in other words, a cosmetic surgeon who can enable sex change. It is a ‘no’ that comes from a far deeper realisation perhaps of being what one is, of not trying to correct oneself of not internalising the hegemonic patterns of gender and sex identities and roles perpetrated by a heteropatriarchal and heteronormative society, of not being tied to one’s anatomy or the expected manifestation of it but of being free in one’s own being, of seeking liberation through accepting oneself, body and soul, of making peace between the two warring selves and giving space to both.
In biology, a flower with both male and female sexual organs is called the ‘perfect’ flower. Another word for it is also ‘bisexual’ and it is not taboo to use this term in the plant world by humans.
It is a shame that what constitutes perfection in the plant world should be treated as an anomaly, an aberration in the world of humans. But in the end both are linguistic attributions: perfection and imperfection exist because of language and culture, because of parameters that have been established and have gone to such immeasurable heights that they have blocked out the possibility of life and of an existence beyond what they project. Chitrangada: The Crowning Wish is an effort to look beyond and within…simultaneously.
Featured Image Source: Institute of Contemporary Arts