FIRST LOOK – AAR EKTI PREMER GALPO-Bengali Movie by Kaushik Ganguly
Aar Ekti Premer Galpo (Just Another Love Story) the first Bengali feature film to openly portray alternative sexual preferences and the struggles involved, has been picked for screening at the 60. Internationale Filmfestspiele, Berlin, next month. Produced Tapan Biswas, the biggest attraction of the film is its introduction of famous filmmaker Rituparno Ghosh as an actor. He plays the part of Abhiroop Sen, a documentary filmmaker based in Delhi, who comes down to Kolkata to make a documentary on the legendary jatra actor Chapal Bhaduri.
Chapal Bhaduri is 71 years old now. Till he was 60, he lived alone somewhere in a corner of Calcutta, cooked his own food, and kept body and soul together by dressing up and performing the role of the Goddess Shitala in different temples and street corners of the city. Chapal Bhaduri, alias Chapal Rani, or Queen Chapal, leading lady of Bengal’s traditional, travelling folk theatre-in-the-round, spent his life playing female roles. He feels, thinks and speaks like a woman. Though, to outward appearances, he remains a man. But history changed tradition. Women stepped out of their veils, then homes and into the stage. They began to play female roles themselves. This is precisely when actors like Chapal Bhaduri confined to playing women’s roles, found themselves at the wrong end of the bread-butter problem. They were without work, without money and without basic needs of survival. Out of work, Chapal Bhaduri turned a new page in the book of his life. He started playing Shitala, the poor person’s dreaded goddess of small pox and disease, in dramatized performances of the goddess’ sacred saga. This was made into a video film by Naveen Kishore of Seagull Books. Performing the Goddess – Chapal Bhaduri’s Story (1999), was the title of a 44-minute video film shot on Betacam. It brought us face-to-face with a single man who fought all battles of life alone, but refused to drown himself in the deep and wide ocean of self-pity. He also refused to live off charity. Today, at 70 plus, Bhaduri is a pathetic husk of his former self. Forsaken by destiny and forgotten by his fans, he is forced to live on sufferance of his kinfolk. His life is filled with memories of his former passions and his secret love-life off-stage. He is in fact a woman, biologically trapped in a man’s body.
Aar Ekti Premer Galpo, conceived of, written and directed by Kaushik Ganguly, is a strikingly original portrayal that links the life, struggles and alternative sexual orientation of Chapal Bhaduri, a man who belongs to a bygone era, with the life, struggles and similar sexual orientation of its contemporary protagonist, Abhiroop Sen, an openly gay filmmaker of Delhi. Abhiroop, intrigued by this man, lures him with big money for a foreign-sponsored documentary. Shooting begins, but the filmmaking does not remain a straightforward, simple affair. The two gay men, Chapal and Abhiroop, as actor and director, encounter a strange similarity in sexual preference. But Chapal, who was a closeted gay and could not express his sexual orientation for fear of social and professional ostracism envies Abhiroop’s openness about his relationship with his bisexual cameraman, Basu (Indraneil Sengupta). He feels envious of his self-confidence, and above all, his disregard for social taboos.
But when the media, within the film, learns the truth about the film’s content and stance, thanks to the brazen openness of director Abhiroop, it makes its wrath strongly felt. The film unit is forced to shift to another location generously given by the France-based Uday (Jisshu Sengupta), a wildlife Bengali photographer currently in India who offers his ancestral home for the shooting. Slowly, the focus shifts from the documentary format to the feature film format though Chapal Bhaduri is still the central character. The people involved in making the film double up at actors within the film because of its extra-ordinary nature. Roop steps into the role of Chapal. His cinematographer-lover Basu is chosen to play Kumar, Chapal’s real-life, Basu’s wife Rani (Churni Ganguly) becomes Kumar’s ailing wife Gopa and even Uday is made to play Tushar, another character. Chapal Bhaduri is also there as himself in the film.
The final fictional format Abhiroop chooses is not really Chapal’s story. It is rather, an imaginative reconstruction of a life that is virtually co-authored by the two marginalized androgynous males, the real Chapal Bhaduri and Abhiroop who is directing the film and is also playing the main character. The two parallel narratives begin to run side-by-side. The principal story of Roop making a documentary on Chapal Bhaduri is interspersed with fictional renditions of Chapal’s colourful life, as intriguing and as enigmatic as any tragic heroine of screen or stage. This strengthens the parallels between Roop’s and Chapal’s lives.
Rituparno Ghosh is creative director of Aar Ekti Premer Galpo and has also done the production designing though Ganguly remains technically, the director of the film. The music has been scored by Debjyoti Misra, sound design is by Anirban Sengupta and Dipankar Chaki and art direction is by Tanmay Sengupta. Samik Haldar is D.O.P. Incidentally, Ganguly did a tele-film called Ushno-taar Jonno (For Warmth/Warm for Her) that dealt with two women (Roopa Ganguly and Churni Ganguly) who fell in love and lived together till one of them, who was bisexual, married and moved away to lead a normal married life. The storyline was somewhat similar because it portrayed Roopa, a filmmaker, making a documentary on Chapal Bhaduri. The television audience accepted the film and some even liked it.
When asked what made him pick Rituparno Ghosh to play the pivotal role, Ganguly says, “I chose him because he would be able to understand the minute psychological, physical and social nuances of the character the best. He is very sensitive about gays and people with homosexual orientation. I have not typecast him as an effeminate character. He has changed the way he talks and walks for this character.” Raima Sen has done the role of a researcher in the film who first comes from Delhi with the foreign representative of the production company to find where Chapal lives. “One member of my team, a third gender person, died young. When he died, I realized he had died more out of loneliness than of anything else. Ritu-da was initially hesitant. Later, he said he would do the role,” Ganguly sums up.
The last word belongs to Rituparno Ghosh. “Time and space collapse into each other as the chronicler assumes the persona of his subject, creating a virtual reality that mirrors both their lives, one from the past, another happening in the present.. Similar complexities, divided loyalties weave themselves into each other and into the film and its actor/characters. The bonds of sisterhood with a lover’s suffering ‘legitimate’ wife are also similar, forcing Abhiroop to question his fake liberation, and face his essential solitude as a marginal being in society.” Closeted or open, the gay population remains alienated by the mainstream, marginalized and misunderstood simply because they have the guts to choose and to live by their choice.
Shoma A. Chatterji