Chitrangada and trans self-determination in Indian cinema

For September’s monthly theme, curator Ibtisam Ahmed looks back at the Bengali film ‘Chitrangada’ and its message of trans self-determination.


There is a pivotal scene in the Bengali film Chitrangada involving the central character Rudra Chatterjee speaking with her doctor. Rudra is determined for the medical profession to acknowledge her trans identity, particularly in recognising that it carries an innate femininity. But, as she is quick to point out, being recognised as a woman on medical records does not mean that she will suddenly start wearing saris or any conventionally female clothing, nor will she suddenly change how she behaves or appears. For Rudra, it is not the appearance of femininity that matters, but the ownership of it.

Chitrangada, an iconic Bengali navigation of trans identity and bisexuality, was released in 2012 – coincidentally the final year before anti-homosexuality law Section 377 was reinstated in India following a brief repeal in 2009. The title is derived from the tale of Chitrangada in the epic Mahabharata, which follows the titular character’s marriage and determination to carry on a matrilineal family in the face of opposition. That familial bond is central to director and actor Rituparno Ghosh’s vision, as the story tackles legal challenges to queerness and the lingering social stigma in a period of liberation.

Rudra (Ghosh) is a sexually fluid choreographer whose troupe is getting ready to put together a performance of the story of Chitrangada. For most of the opening, it is assumed that Rudra is an effeminate man, due in no small part to the gender neutrality of the Bengali language. (On that note, I will be shifting between “they” and “she” on occasion in this piece as a reflection of the nature of the character depending on the scene and as a testament to the difficulty in authentically translating from my native tongue.) They are shown to tackle many different roles on stage with equal comfort and skillfulness. They are also shown be exceptionally lonely in their personal life and have an uneasy relationship with their parents, who are perennially disappointed in their child.

For Rudra, it is not the appearance of femininity that matters, but the ownership of it.

As the stage production begins to take shape, Rudra develops an intimate relationship with the group’s percussionist, Partho (played by Jisshu Sengupta). The two use the liberating fluidity of theatre, where the gender of the performer is irrelevant to the gender of the character, to explore their burgeoning romance, with Rudra becoming increasingly comfortable in retaining Chitrangada’s feminine garb outside of rehearsal hours. Events come to a head when the two decide to adopt a child together.

In 2011, which is when the film went into production, India was at a critical phase in its legal navigation with queerness. Two year prior, the Delhi High Court had ruled that the anti-homosexuality Section 377 was unconstitutional due to its inherent inequality and prejudice. Despite the court not having full jurisdiction across the entire country – the technicality which would later allow 377 to return to the law books in 2013 – the 2009 ruling was seen as a victory for the entire LGBTQ+ community. The floodgates had opened and discussions around wider queer rights were finally taking place, including the adoption of children.

As shown in Chitrangada, same-sex couples are neither allowed to marry nor adopt. Rudra and Partho’s sexuality may have been accepted, at least legally, but they would not be allowed to start a family. With such an insurmountable obstacle in place, Rudra finally voices her true self. The various reactions to this revelation show a level of nuance that is sadly missing in many cinematic representations.

Partho, taken aback at first, grows not only to accept and support Rudra but, subsequently, also comes to terms with his own bisexuality. On the opposite end of the spectrum, Rudra’s parents try to discourage their “son” from making an impulsive decision, ignoring her many rational pleas to consider how she has always been their daughter. In the middle stands her doctor, sympathetic but inflexible in his protocol. The conversation between the two of them where Rudra has to defend her identity is what I chose to start this piece with and I think it delivers the most powerful message both within the narrative of the film and in the wider queer movement.

In 2011, which is when the film went into production, India was at a critical phase in its legal navigation with queerness. Two year prior, the Delhi High Court had ruled that the anti-homosexuality Section 377 was unconstitutional due to its inherent inequality and prejudice.

It is unsurprising that Rituparno Ghosh made such a powerful, authentic and often hearbreaking exploration of queerness. Though he used male pronouns for most of his life, the openly gay auteur had begun to challenge gender norms towards the end of his sadly-short life, including acknowledging that he may not have been strictly male in the months prior to his death. It is therefore fitting that his most iconic LGBTQ+ film pushes all the boundaries of queer understanding, acceptance and, most importantly, self-determination.

Follow Ibtisam on Twitter (@Ibzor)

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