“It is fatal to be a man or woman pure and simple: one must be a woman manly, or a man womanly.”—Virginia Woolf
Chapal Kumar Bhaduri—one of Bengal’s most renowned jatra (a form of folk theatre popular in Bangladesh and West Bengal) players—was widely known as Chapal Rani. In the rural Bengal of the 1950s and ’60s, he used to play the role of Devi Shitala (the Hindu goddess of diseases) and grew famous across the country as “the Queen of Jatra.” But this is only the rising part of his story. Kaushik Ganguly picked up the other part of Bhaduri’s story to make his 2010 film Just Another Love Story, which is one of the very few Bengali films where we fortunately come across the acclaimed director Rituparno Ghosh (1963-2013) as an astounding actor.
The opening of the film introduces a Delhi-based director Abhiroop Sen (Ghosh) who comes to Calcutta along with his team to start his new movie, largely a documentary on Chapal Bhaduri. At a certain moment, Bhaduri starts narrating his story from his childhood. On camera, he recollects several unpleasant memories including his mother’s untimely death and his complicated relationship with a ‘Bengali Babu’. Two plots move on simultaneously, and in the latter we notice director Sen is going through a more or less troublesome affair with his bisexual boyfriend, Basudev (Indraneil Sengupta), who is also his cinematographer.
And while listening to the great thespian unveiling his personal stories, the core team of the film, including the director and the cinematographer, find themselves entwined into the memories being recollected in front of them. The screen turns black and white but we discover a very colorful Rituparno glowing on the screen as he now plays the captivating stage-diva, Chapal Rani.
We find him sitting in front of the greenroom mirror just after a highly successful performance. He is still wearing a gorgeous sari and stunning golden jewelry. White jasmines are still blooming in his hair and a jewelry box is left wide open on the table. The moment he starts taking off the nose-ring, his boyfriend, Kumar Babu, enters and passionately embraces him from the back.
“How was the play?”
“How could I pay attention to it?’
In scenes like this, Chapal Rani is portrayed so successfully by Ghosh that it seems he must be a modern incarnation of the “jatra-diva.” Around the end of the movie, when Chapal is no more an actor and stays at his ex-lover’s place as merely a housekeeper, Rituparno wonderfully expresses the emotions and trauma of the beloved-turned-servant. He no more has the luxury to wear sari, jewelry, and flowers. Rather with a very pale face and in tattered clothes, he takes care of Kumar’s ailing wife. In a particular scene here, he tries to bring back life to the dying patient by dancing with her. Tagore’s song “Prano bhoriye, trisha horiye, more aaro aaro daao pran” is being played as the background score and we enjoy, with the song, a suddenly established divine friendship between them. Thus, Rituparno as an actor succeeds in creating a strong spiritual bond between an almost forgotten thespian from the past and today’s audience.
Through decades and centuries a great number of actors have played female roles on the stages across this part of the world. They have sung Radha’s songs, burst into Laila’s tears, and as Manasa the serpent goddess they laughed aloud. They were undoubtedly talented and competent. But patriarchy has deliberately failed to appreciate their overwhelming contribution. For ages, this male-dominated, conservative Bengali society has been neglecting and reducing them to an “inferior” group of performers, a “bunch of sissies”. These male-chauvinist people have somehow managed to mute these artistes’ voices and have been confidently deriding their life and works. These stage personalities like Bhaduri exhibit an "unusual" combination of masculine and feminine traits whereas our society has always been obsessed with the binary: manly man vs womanly woman.
Virginia Woolf’s famous book A Room of One’s Own (1929) expects that creative minds would always be androgynous. They would simultaneously carry and express both manly and womanly feelings. “Androgyny” hence should be considered a gift, a necessary deviation from so-called “normalcy.” But unfortunately, till now, this physical, psychological, and cultural blend of different genders is a “taboo” even though there are transparent examples of androgyny in our myths, history, and literature. Sri Chaitanya’s psyche contains both Radha and Krishna. Arjuna, in the great Hindu epic Mahabharata, spends one year of his exile as the female dancer Brihannala. The British queen Elizabeth I believed that her existence was masculine and feminine at the same time. Like them, Rituparno Ghosh, both as an actor and in real life, discovered a woman in his male body. And he was brave and strong enough not to hide what he had found. It was his androgynous mind which eventually helped him depict subtle human feelings in his films, of both men and women. He was a modern avatar of the medieval saint Sri Chaitanya, the queen of English renaissance, Elizabeth I, and most importantly, of the theatre-diva of the twentieth century Bengal, Chapal Kumar Bhaduri.
In a certain scene of Just Another Love Story, Abhiroop Sen is going to have a haircut at a local barber’s. Rituparno Ghosh, the modern embodiment of both Radha and Krishna, is so authentic in expressing the pain of the forced separation between the masculine and the feminine that we cannot but empathize with Chapal Rani, (or Abhiroop Sen), who has gone through years of struggle for survival. Ghosh silently takes off his glasses and necklace. We hear a song that expresses Radha’s unbearable agony and observe a melted ice of affliction flowing down his face. He wears the barber’s white apron. Against an all-white background, he just looks towards the ground beneath his feet.
Ankhi jole dwipo-alo nibhe gelo ore kala (My tears have extinguished the lamplight)
Raato Raato patho chahi, shararato patho chahi (Waiting for you all through the night, night after night)
Abirato kaanda (I shed tears and tears)
Bonomali tumi porojonomer hoio radha (Krishna, be born next time as Radha)
Abdullah Al Muktadir is a poet and fiction writer. He is assistant professor of English at Jatiyo Kabi Kazi Nazrul Islam University.