Thursday, December 05, 2013

Reel dialogues

Cinemascope, Dec '13
Sanjib Basu was at ‘Dialogues: 7th Calcutta Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender Film and Video Festival’ held at Max Mueller Bhavan, Kolkata, November 21-24, 2013 and took a good hard look at some of the film fare on offer.

The pass said 5 pm. Around 6.15 pm, the lights finally dimmed, and ‘Dialogues: 7th Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender Film and Video Festival’ was inaugurated. To add to the delay that has become normal and prolonged at such events, the short memorial clip on Rituparno Ghosh that started the ball rolling had a terrible audio glitch. It was repeated, and fared not too much better.

Anindya Hajra and Subhagata Ghosh greet
Friso Maecker. Photo credit: Anwesha Mukherjee
The inaugural speakers Subhagata Ghosh from Sappho for Equality, Anindya Hajra from Pratyay Gender Trust and Friso Maecker, Director, Goethe-Institut were interesting fortunately, particularly Friso Maecker who provided a status update on the progress of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) issues internationally and where Germany fitted in. Subhagata Ghosh and Anindya Hajra between them gave an overview of the considerable efforts to bring together the many feature films, shorts and documentaries that the four-day festival would project. Indeed this film and video festival has become a truly outstanding feature on the cultural calendar of our city. Surprisingly though, I noticed there were fewer in the audience this year compared to last.

Congratulations to the organisers for their sustained efforts to give us a great time. The inaugural film brought all apprehensions to a close as we settled down to some really fine cinema.

In a way, the selection of Ghetu Putro Komola (feature, Bangladesh, 2012), directed by Humayun Ahmed, as the opening film was a curious choice. The story is an unmitigated tragedy, certainly not a celebration of LGBT life in any way whatsoever. Yet I heartily congratulate the organisers for showing this profoundly moving film, a depiction of institutionalised perversion, and a tale of how terribly awry human life can become under conditions of poverty, rigid social hierarchy, and the stifling of emotional life. It is this latter that connects deeply with the theme of ‘Dialogues’ – if only human beings can be free and equal in their expression of feelings for one another, there will be no place for the cruelty that masks as privilege or rests on power.

The story is of a boy in his early teens taken by his father as part of a musical troupe to entertain a Muslim zamindar (landlord) in one of the earlier variants of contemporary Bangladesh (East Pakistan? Pre-1947 Bengal?). Except for a motorised steamer in the beginning, there are no artefacts that give the period away, and the sense is of a petrified social structure that is as unyielding as the seasonal cycle. During a time when his palace becomes an island surrounded by flood waters, the middle-aged patriarch likes to be entertained by the musicians and the dancing boy who has to dress as a girl for the job. The boy is not enamoured of his dress, though he likes to dance, and misses his mother, sister and play. Far worse, he is made sexually available to the zamindar on call, with the full knowledge of everyone, including the zamindar's jealous wife, the household maulvi (expert in Islamic law), and the boy's father. None dare confront the hallowed pederast who funds all with his silver and gold coins. Indeed, his groom fantasizes his own accession to such a life of decadence! The wife, on her part, conspires to remove the contender for her husband's interest.

In this bleak scenario, that would be absurd if it were not so sad, two persons offer Komola, the ghetu chheley or pleasure boy, a ray of humanity. A resident artist sees the horrible emasculation under way and offers companionship, respect, and affection. So too, even as she slowly realizes what is going on, does the zamindar's young daughter near the boy's age. For everyone else, Komola is either villainous (not victim!) or the means of earnings and economic survival.

Tragedy brings the story but not the social structure to a close. There is a masterly integration of so many aspects in the story that shows how secure that structure is from any prospect of improvement. Religion, economics, gender imbalance, and social power completely insulate the zamindar, and simultaneously confine him to an emotional numbness. Except for the horror of his behaviour with Komola, and insensitivity towards his wife, he is not portrayed as a particularly evil monster. He is kind towards his daughter and other children, and other people he meets. One cannot help the thought that a human being within him feels as much helpless to emerge as the freedom of those whom he confines.

Photo credit: Anwesha Mukherjee
A single clue for redemption springs once in this morass. The daughter confronts her religious teacher angrily when he canes Komola for coming near. This burst of anger is cathartic, and the maulvi immediately gets an insight into his hypocritical and cruel ways. What therefore is the clue? For me, it is that the expression of genuine feelings sets humanity on the course of correction. Alas, it is too little in the film. Most of the feelings we see beyond Komola's anguish are not genuine but twisted. For all his character, even the adult artist friend fails to stand up for Komola when he needs him the most. It is a dark tale indeed.

For those of us who think that our own lives and times are more enlightened, the film gives us pause and an opportunity to reflect. Is the social structure of our own times quite free of the elements in the film? Perhaps not. Perhaps we need to express our feelings more when we experience injustice, as much to others as to ourselves.

Phoring (feature, India, 2013), directed by Indranil Roychowdhury, was a queer choice for ‘Dialogues’. Heterosexual in orientation, the story of a teenage school boy Phoring in a depressed family, school and town, who wakes up when a charming new school teacher appears, is not particularly new. The film would have been a cross between Taare Zameen Par (difficulty with studies and father) and Summer of 42 (older-younger involvement), but fortunately the lady teacher, though something of a flirt, has her own boyfriend. She disappears from her job for reasons of a sudden political or terrorist angle that depletes the story of its local frame. The school boy leaves home for the big, bad city in search of the one beautiful person who seemed to care for him. His romantic interest stimulates bravery and idealism, and lifts him to a fresh and optimistic assessment of his life and potential.

The Dooars landscape of North Bengal is stunningly beautiful. One wonders why the dwellers in such a scenic and unpolluted environment have to look so ill and toxic. Phoring's father is a drunk and sadist, and his mother is forever recriminating about the past. The local tea stall is the venue for a sample of idle, ageing and cynical folk and a symbol of the town's dead-end status. The teachers in school are a jealous and petty bunch and have no faith in their students or any interest in innovation. No wonder then that the kids grow up in amoral and precocious ways that leave them more destructive than happy.

An art installation at the film festival venue.
Photo credit: Anwesha Mukherjee
Doel, the fresh and smiling teacher from Presidency College, wakes everyone up. She is pretty and engages with her students easily and without any airs. Seeing something in Phoring, she invites him to her home for tuition. This excites a fierce rivalry between Phoring and his friend for claim to her affection, and a chain of events that are quite out of tune with the promise of her pedagogy. But Phoring is brave and true to his feelings, however much the audience may look askance at the sudden entry of gun-trafficking, policemen, and a political movement into what promised to be a local coming-of-age tale.

There is a tense conflict between innocence and realism in the film. Neither really dominates the story, with a kind of maturity finally making it to the finish line. Phoring is a bit wiser perhaps, and finds some good in his world, and vice versa. Yes, Phoring is boring, in parts, but good viewing overall under a kind of suspended evaluation! Except for one nagging question – why in an LGBT film festival?

Call Me Kuchu (documentary, Uganda / USA, 2012) by Katherine Fairfax Wright and Malika Zouhali-Worrall and Edie and Thea (documentary, USA, 2009) by Susan Muska and Greta Olafsdottir couldn't be more different from one another. The first is a horrific look at the situation in Uganda where a majoritarian hysteria against LGBT people has left them vulnerable to media and physical attacks and vicious state sanctions. Only pressures from the international aid-giving community have postponed the enactment of the deadly anti-homosexuality bill with its provisions of life imprisonment and execution for homosexual activity. In the process, David Kato, a modest and brave man whom we, the viewers, get to know so well, and who stakes his all for the LGBT community, and takes a powerful magazine to court for its hateful diatribe, is murdered. Even his funeral is not spared by attackers. The taunting magazine editor sounds like a worthy successor to Idi Amin. The really sad aspect is the seeming absence of a liberal community that can act as a buffer between the 'rhinoceroses' and those who are different. Made just one year back, the documentary reveals how near are the dangers of bigotry, and the vital importance of constitutional safeguards against 'sex fascism', sadly missing in this east African nation. Call Me Kuchu is a riveting tour across both sides of the barricades, such as they are on that battlefield.

In Edie and Thea, shown immediately afterwards, we see how different life can be! The film is a celebration of the partnership of a lesbian couple of the same names. As one of them refers to their wedding in Canada after being together for 42 years, "Many couples get married before their life together; we got married towards the end!" It is a life in relatively affluent, educated and liberal surroundings in USA, though with its own share of personal crises, especially Edie's physical disability that confines her to a wheelchair. But the high point sustained is their love and care for one another. The scene of Edie with Thea in her motorized wheelchair as Thea winds them around to the music on the dance floor is particularly memorable. It is an inspiring film, full of wisdom, maturity and good feelings. Incidentally, Thea dies two years after the wedding. Edie is required to pay a massive estate duty as her marriage is not recognized in USA. She takes the government to court, and wins!

Sanjib Basu is a counsellor, trainer and group facilitator. If reviews of his reviews are encouraging, he might consider becoming a film critic too! Email:

No comments:

Post a Comment