In Howrah in the late ’90s, Tathagata Ghosh, always the first student to arrive early morning at his Bangla tuition teacher’s home, would often see a male friend of his teacher emerge from the latter’s room, and remembers asking his mother, “Ma, why do tuition sir and his friend behave like you and Baba.” Some days later, he read in a Bengali daily, that some para (neighbourhood) boys had roughed his sir up, presumably because he was gay. Years later, a friend of Ghosh, 27, who he later found out was homosexual, was forcibly married off. The marriage was a disaster. These were some of the triggers for his 25-minute short film, Miss Man – an important product of the times.
It unsettles, even repulses, at the very start and then lets you unfurl the layers. An uneasiness churns, as if a polythene-tied face is trying to breathe, as the protagonist Manob (Arghya Adhikary) sets out to explore his identity, understand what he wants, and whether he will ever be able to break out of the fetters tying him to what he cannot be. After a world tour of 40-plus festivals, Miss Man is showing at Kashish 2020 Virtual (or Kashish Mumbai International Queer Film Festival, arguably South Asia’s biggest LGBTQIA+ film fest), in the Indian Masala Mix Part 1 section on July 25 at 7 pm online. It has also been selected for India’s only Oscar Academy Qualifying Festival, Bengaluru International Short Film Festival (BISFF), in August, and Wicked Queer Boston, Vancouver Queer and IFFSA Toronto festivals.
Approving smiles turn into walloping as cross-dressing children grow up and assert an identity not assigned to them. It’s déjà vu when Manob’s father chances on his adult son in a sari and tries to incinerate his very essence. Manob’s only redemption, his lover Bimal, spurns him, too, for not being a woman. Bimal, like Jisshu Sengupta’s character Partho in the late Rituparno Ghosh’s Chitrangada (2012), is sexually confused, living in denial.
Miss Man, in close-ups and big frames, in moments of silence and semiotics, poetically broaches complex emotions. The freedom to be closer to all that’s feminine in Manob’s world is trapped in memories of his past – his dressing up in a sari, jewels and make-up, and dancing, a loving mother (who’s now dead), and a father who comes down heavily on the caring, perceptibly male – but transwoman – tenant who inspires a young Manob to dance. Later, two females – a transwoman (Ratrish Saha) reassures Manob that he, too, can have a job like any cisgender person, and a sex-worker woman to whom he is attracted but who won’t marry a “eunuch” – take him closer or away from his true core, show him that “becoming” a woman also means entering a curse-laden life.
Finding the right cast was the biggest challenge for Ghosh. Miss Man is his second short after Doitto (The Demon, 2018). His disturbing lockdown short film Mangsho (The Meat), on anti-Muslim sentiment and reverse migration of daily wagers in lockdown, is showing at Dhaka International Youth Film Festival later this month. “There are Pride marches, big companies use tokenism – rainbow flags and logos – and feel their responsibility is over. But advertisements, music videos, web-series and films need to feature members from the community,” Ghosh says, adding, “I saw Brokeback Mountain (2005) as a love story, not of two men in love. Gender shouldn’t define emotions.”
While he appreciates Eddie Redmayne (The Danish Girl, 2015) and Vijay Sethupathi (Super Deluxe, 2019), he disapproves of negative, affectatious LGBTQIA+ portrayals, like in Dostana (2008), for “camera catches a lie”. He found it unsettling, was even “very angry”, that the same Kirron Kher who had worked with Rituparno Ghosh (in the National Award-winning Bariwali, 2000), who humanised same-sex relationships on screen, would do the caricaturish song Maa da ladla bigad gaya. He says, “Films shape society, and homophobia is born out of there. Rituparno Ghosh tried to change the narrative. We need him now more than ever.” For the same reasons, Ghosh is disappointed that Akshay Kumar plays a transgender in the upcoming Laxmmi Bomb, and says, “Involvement of people from the community is important, otherwise it kills the purpose, plus, they bring a lot to the film.”
He was lucky to find Adhikary, a gay man who’s a biology teacher in a school in West Bengal’s Shyamnagar, and the transwoman Saha, instrumental in getting her former company to build a unisex toilet in the office. “They added layers to my film and made it non-linear. Arghya taught me that gender is fluid,” says Ghosh.
Miss Man’s “unsettling viewing experience” moved contemporary avant-garde Bangladeshi filmmaker Mostofa Sarwar Farooqi. In a Facebook message to Ghosh, he praised him for making him “travel to some real incidents…in the past, (to) tormenting memories”, especially “the disturbing first scene with the dad, but then again when the reality is disturbing, a filmmaker can’t hide from it.”
A 2019 survey by Pew Research, released in June, found that India was divided on whether or not to accept homosexuality, at 37 per cent on either end. While the 2018 landmark judgment read down Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, and the fight for legalising same-sex marriages is on, the stigma around homosexuality hasn’t gone, says Ghosh. “The pandemic has made the situation worse, forcing members of the LGBTQIA+ community to live with their families, most of whom are homophobic and resort to violence. Even earlier, families would forcibly take them to shady conversion-therapy clinics for mogoj-dholayi (brainwashing),” adds Ghosh, who plans to take a projector and the film to villages.
Register for Kashish (July 22-30) festival pass for Rs 700 on Instamojo, or buy a Rs 50 pass to watch Miss Man (7 pm, July 25) on Xerb.tv. The film will be online for 24 hours.
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