On April 4 I had the honour to introduce the Indian movie “Chitrangada” by Rituparna Ghosh to the cinema visitors at Cinemasia film festival in Amsterdam. This is what I told them.
There is a lot that can be told about this movie, all its aspects. Both stories in this movie are about changing. About becoming what – they think – the other wants them to be. Out of love. Both, in the interpretation of Rituparna Ghosh, because a love between men cannot be, has no right of existence. The movie is also about a change of gender role and of the body.
I pick out a few quotes and will knit my talk around them and my daily business. That have by the way nothing to do with India, or only very slightly in the sense that Indian trans activists are also in the international expert group on the depathologisation of trans health care., where I form part of. And I have worked together with some trans and queer Indians on a few occasions. We are crazy, you know, we get a psychiatric diagnosis before we can access either transition related health care as hormones, facial surgery, beard depilation, chest reconstruction. We have the only psychiatric diagnosis in which altering the body is the solution for the mental problem. Kind of weird. I am not saying these medical interventions, this medical assistance is wrong. On the contrary, it is life saving for so many people. The psychiatric diagnosis however is a remainder of the not past and gone times that homosexuality was a mental disorder. Only since 1994 it is no more in the health classification of the World Health Organisation. So short ago. Where in huge parts of the medical world homosexuality is depathologised, just a human phenomenon, trans* has been created with the function to have a place to put gender variant behaviour. Like male femaling – that usually is worse than the other way round, women behaving as men. Yay for patriarchy and cis-hetero-normativity. That roughly means you have to be heterosexual and cannot be trans* or intersex. because even after all adaptations and changes that are humanely possible you will never get the same status as someone “born” a man or a woman. You are always second class. As cis women are already, see f.e. Rudi’s mother and father.
It is this needed psychiatric diagnosis that gives us the context for Rudi’s counselor when they physically transition. I keep talking of “he” although in general when someone transitions from male to female you of course address them with the pronouns going with that gender. You don’t address a woman by “he”. But here in this movie it is never completely clear how much Rudi transitions gender wise into a woman’s role and identity. So I keep it at “He”. That creates all the fuzz around his being different, all homo- and transphobia. There is not much typically Indian in that, Mostly the precise way it works out. And of course the context that only a few years before homosexuality go decriminalised and only a few months ago now, re-criminalised. Very recently the Indian Supreme Court canceled a decision by the Delhi High Court that homosexuality was OK. And where homosexuality is the talk of the town, male homosexuality, trans is just one door away. Because it is only partially about the sexuality, and for sure in former colonies, very much the feminine behaviour of people assigned male at birth. Who may identify as kothi, as gay men, as trans women, as Hijras or Aravani or any other of the many genders that India knows.
This talk is part of what I do. Gender Education. I try to enlighten people that there is nothing to win by adhering to the gender standards they’ve been told to attach to. Masculinity only in men and femininity only in women is to me first of all Utterly Boring. But more, it is plain dangerous for equality, justice and survival of the species. I radically strike at the roots of patriarchy and the cisgender hetero norm. Cisgender are most of you, who did not choose their gender registration nor had any reason to. And we all have learned to behave like real boys, men, girls, women. There are way more genders than just male and female. India knows at least 20 variations in gender identities.
We Westerners tend to think that gender and sexuality are completely discrete issues. Or we conflate them completely, thinking it is all the same. But in the not-so-Western world this is different. Not always so completely separated. Somehow, regardless of the rotting out of sexually and gender wise deviant behaviour by Christian missionaries and British homophobes, still somewhere somehow it survived. In most of the West culture is too uniform to have many differences, to have reminders of aboriginal cultures left.
This gender binary we live with, we continue to create, is way too rigid and that is what you will hear Rudra’s mother say halfway the movie, sitting at the family table, talking with her husband.
M: “He was born a boy and we insisted he acted like one.”
F: “Why shouldn’t we? Boys should be boys.It is only natural.”
M: “Nature dictates what is natural. It has its own desires.If we had been able to accept what was natural for him, he wouldn’t be lying there, under the surgeon’s knife”
This could relate to both gender variance and to homosexuality. and there is a thing you need to know now. I told you gender and sexuality aren’t always that separate. And the linking pin, the hinge, is gender expression. How you give form to your gender identity or anyway all the ways, mannerisms that you use to show gender. Femininity and masculinity are the two best known forms of gender expression. And Rudie shows very feminine ways of behaviour with a slightly more male than female-ish identity. Rudie is very graceful. Of course he is a dancer, but then again. A very graceful way of acting.
Just before that on Rudie talks about permanent. There also lies a connection, a hook to something important. How important is permanent? With physical changes a lot of course. But also identities can shift. And love relations can end. As Rudi says to their parents (paraphrasing “is it better to have loved and lost, than to never have loved? In a context where sexuality and gender are somewhat fluid, where the director makes a movie about his soul searching, where homophobia and transphobia (and misogyny) are very engrained … is it strange people jump from the love train on the gender train? Is it strange that Rudi “gives in” to hetero-normativity?
There is a lot to be said about the love, about how the transformational experience it was for the family, how Rudi’s father got in touch with his emotions. I think you will all be able to read that in the way it is meant. The emotions and the relations make the film beautiful. I consider it my task to school you a bit in some gender aspects that play a role, and to put different lenses in your glasses. I hope they fit you.