Nagarkirtan movie review: Kaushik Ganguly’s film offers scathing commentary on transgender life in Indian society
Kaushik Ganguly’s film Nagarkirtan is a near-perfect film that captures the essence of its subject in an all-encompassing manner.
Rating: 4.5 (out of 5 stars)
Kaushik Ganguly’s film Nagarkirtan is an example of near-perfect cinema. After a run of unimpressive directorial ventures over the last couple of years, the filmmaker gives us a movie that is powerful on one hand and sensitive on the other, a scathing commentary on the life of transgenders in contemporary Indian society on one hand and a beautiful love story on the other. I do not remember the last time a film had captured the very essence and soul of the subject it was trying to showcase in such an all-encompassing manner. And before I begin loading heaps of praises on the film’s principal cast, a few words about the story first.
In present-day Kolkata, Madhu is a delivery boy for a neighbourhood Chinese eatery, who also moonlights as a flautist for a kirtan party. The transgender Puti lives in a transgender community as Madhu’s friend. Madhu and Puti meet and the two fall in love, much to the chagrin of Puti’s guru-maa – the madam of the gang. Madhu and Puti decide to run away, but soon realise that there’s nowhere to go without raising eyebrows or drawing sniggers. I wouldn’t want to give away any more of the story because doing so would mean great disservice and disrespect to the film.
The film holds a mirror to us, reminding us of the hundreds of times we have turned our faces away from the discomforting sight of a trans person knocking on our car windows or clapping their hands for alms. They have always been seen as a bunch of shameless miscreants who can’t be trusted, their shadows considered inauspicious, their company considered highly undesirable for any respectable member of the civilised society. But Nagarkirtan reminds us that trans people are just that – people. Human beings, like the rest of us. It takes us deep into their world and their hearts and gives us an unforgiving glimpse into their plight, a sight that we cannot un-see. In a gut-wrenching scene that does not hesitate to poke us in the eye, the film tells us that every single day, in some gang of transgenders or the other in the city, there is always a new entrant. Where do they come from? No one knows. But they come – leaving their homes, shunned by family and friends, ostracised by society, and thrown out by the very people who were supposed to embrace them. All this, for no fault of theirs. All this, because of a simple whim of nature.
What I really liked about the film is that it never quite shows any direct witch-hunt of transgender people. They are never treated badly, in a direct manner. And yet, at every step, they are denied even the most basic human rights. The right to employment, for instance, or the right to dignity. In a scene involving an educated transgender who has built a successful life for herself, the lady laments that despite everything that she has achieved, she can’t even use the women’s toilet at her workplace without raising eyebrows. The social ostracisation is, thus, veiled – just under the surface of civil decorum. Nagarkirtan’s success lies in exposing this layer of hypocrisy.
Now for the performances. It is not without reason that young Riddhi Sen has won the National Award for best actor for his performance as Puti – making him the youngest actor to have won the prestigious award. Sen has completely transformed himself for the film, and the best part is that he has done so without making a garish effort to become a woman. Sen has proved that inside all of us – irrespective of who we are – there is part man, part woman, to varying degrees, and all that he has done is to bring forth his feminine side and place it in front of us. It is an inside-out performance, as opposed to imitating a woman, which would have looked cheap and fallen flat. One can only wonder what his director must have told him to be able to extract such a heart-warming performance from him. In a scene during which it is particularly difficult to hold back one’s tears, Puti asks her lover – you made love to me, did it seem to you that I am anything but a woman? The scene literally broke my heart. Here is a woman trapped in a man’s body, who is begging to break free, and seeking a sort of reassurance from a man that has made love to her, asking him if she is feminine enough. Writing at its very best, writing that made me bleed in my heart, writing that made me feel small.
Ritwick Chakraborty may not have won an award, but he is bound to win everyone’s hearts thanks to his impeccable portrayal of Madhu – a man who ends up falling in love with a transgender, and who has the guts to follow his decision through, against all odds. Hailing from Nabadwip, where Lord Krishna is worshipped, he finally finds his ‘Krishna’ in a highly symbolic scene at the end of the film. Irreverently street-smart, casually comic, and yet, deeply sensitive towards his lover’s feelings, he protects her with the embrace she deserves and demands. His Madhu is slightly ‘lost’ – he is not quite sure (or he does not care) about what his next step in life is going to be. He always arrives at the crossroads and takes the road that his heart guides him towards. And it is precisely in this capacity, that in him, director Kaushik Ganguly has found the quintessential Radha, reversing all conventionally known roles of so-called gender; Radha, who embraces her Lord despite all his faults; Radha, who fights the toughest of battles to be with her Lord. It is their tale of love that Nagarkirtan is all about.
The film has some brilliant cinematography by Shirsha Ray and a moving background score by Prabuddha Banerjee. The flashback scenes from Puti’s home are beautifully shot and scored, and one can almost feel the tension seeping out of the screen as Puti struggles to find peace with the way life is treating her. But particularly commendable is the writing. Right from the opening scene, all the way to the haunting final scene, it is Kaushik Ganguly’s writing that stands out. This is no ordinary filmmaking. This is a man who is assured of his craft, who knows, who has felt – in his own guts – every single twitch of agony that people like Puti experience all their lives. And every single moment of angst that men like Madhu witness when they want to listen to their hearts. All great art is born out of pain and rage. And it is in that sense, that Kaushik Ganguly’s Nagarkirtan is an example of near-perfect cinema.
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