Sunday, September 01, 2013

'Rwituparno Ghosh'

Theatre, Sep '13
By Pawan Dhall

Rituparno Ghosh (1963-2013), the late filmmaker with a deft insight into women’s issues and who in the last few years before his untimely demise became increasingly expressive about his own sexuality through the films he acted in and interaction with the media continues to inspire other artistic efforts. On August 12, 2013, Dumdum Shabdomugdho Naatyakendra premiered their new play Rwituparno Ghosh (scripted and directed by Rakesh Ghosh, language Bengali, 55 minutes) named eponymously after the filmmaker at Muktangan auditorium in South Kolkata.

Photo credit:  Dumdum Shabdomugdho Naatyakendra

Drawing inspiration from the filmmaker’s life, the play also hints at some incidents of sexual harassment and violence faced by male-to-female transgender persons in a southern Kolkata public park a few years back. Apratim, the central character (played by Ranjan Bose), is gay and dresses in a gender ambiguous manner. He experiences a traumatic incident of sexual harassment in a public place (as revealed by the initial dialogues of the play). This unfortunate incident adds to the problems Apratim faces at home with his parents (played by Sanjay Mukherjee and Swati Chakraborty) – a brooding, grudging tolerance from his father, and a more vocal angst from his mother, who tries to adjust to Apratim’s sexuality, but is yet quite critical of the choices he makes in life, including his dress sense.

Fortunately for Apratim, his aunt Jhinukpishi (Sampa Dey), an independent-minded woman who lives separately from her husband, is more supportive and progressive in her ideas, and acts as a foil between Apratim and his mother during their heated arguments. His grandmother (Nupur Bandyopadhyay), who chooses to live in an old age home to avoid potential family tensions and only occasionally visits Apratim’s place, also loves Apratim a lot and in the end is perhaps the most accepting of his sexuality.

The starting and centre point of the play is the evening when there is a large public gathering at the Nandan cinema complex to bid adieu to Rituparno Ghosh before the filmmaker’s last rites. Apratim decides to go as well, accompanied by members of an NGO that helped him file a police complaint against his harassers. There is also a plan for Apratim to speak to the media gathered on the occasion about his recent experience and the help he received from the NGO. But his parents are dead set against the very idea, fearing for his safety as well as worried about the family name being sullied by his visibility in the public gathering and media.

Photo credit:  Dumdum Shabdomugdho Naatyakendra
The arguments that follow include his parents, aunt and grandmother, Arindam (Chandrasekhar Dey) from the NGO that helped him, and even his rather aggressive cousin Rudra (Abhishek Ray), Jhinukpishi’s son. The arguments not only reveal a few skeletons in the family cupboard, but also the hypocrisies in everyone’s position in relation to Apratim’s dilemma – should he go to the gathering or not? The play spares no one, and much to Apratim’s disgust, even the NGO has a hidden agenda of gaining mileage from his speaking to the media. When it turns out that Rudra had forced himself sexually on to Apratim when both were children, even Jhinukpishi feels guilty as to why she held herself back from supporting Apratim more unconditionally.

On the whole, even with modest production values, the play was enjoyable – as was also evident from the sizable audience and its reactions. All actors did justice to their roles. Ranjan Bose in particular was suitably understated and at no point of time came across as over-the-top or campy, thankfully not giving into any stereotypes of gay or transgender people. The props used on stage were innovative and the muted lighting went well with the story.

Rakesh Ghosh also needs to be commended for a script that tried to bring in multiple points of view, especially that of Apratim’s parents, and in particular his mother’s. While urban India has begun to give space to the voice of a gay or a transgender person, the story is not going to be complete without understanding what the parents of such a person go through and what support they need in their attempts to come to terms with their child’s sexuality. Even if not intended by the script, one’s heart goes out to Apratim’s mother who seems to be the one who needs to strike the toughest balance – not just with her son, but also the stance of other family members, each one of them quite fiercely independent. But her own stand as a woman and an individual seems to be lost somewhere.

Photo credit:  Dumdum Shabdomugdho Naatyakendra
A couple of other complexities in the script lead to some unanswered questions. Was it required for Arindam, the NGO representative, to be a married and closeted gay man? What was implied by the fact that Apratim was sexually abused by Rudra in childhood? The link between child sexual abuse and development of any kind of sexuality is a contested and complex subject, which possibly requires a separate play altogether. These aspects apart, the play is a welcome addition to the growing cultural expression around lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender issues in Bengal, and one hopes that Dumdum Shabdomugdho Naatyakendra’s search for more resources to stage the play again for diverse audiences is fruitful.

In the end, as Apratim’s grandmother tells him, it is only Apratim who can decide whether he should go to the public gathering or not and for what purpose. No one else can or should do that for him. And as Jhinukpishi remarks earlier in the play in response to Apratim’s father, not following social norms around gender and sexuality is not a matter of selfishness – it is about self-determination. For these are the values that Rituparno Ghosh and his work also stood for.

Pawan Dhall aspires to be a rainbow journalist and believes in taking a stand, even if it’s on the fence – the view is better from there!

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