Author Archives: Agnivo Niyogi

The Intolerance Debate – From the Perspective of a Gay Man

Over the past 48 hours the heavens have been breathing fire on India, all hell has broken loose on this country. During a one-on-one interaction at the Ramnath Goenka Awards for journalism, Aamir Khan decided to speak his mind on the topic that has been the topmost concern now in the country – intolerance.

For those interested, watch what Aamir said here (not for the outrage-happy generation that does not read beyond headlines)

This post is not to post a defense of Aamir’s stand – that’s done and dusted; Aamir himself has issued a statement. What compelled me to write this post were some thoughts that crossed my mind while reading the vitriol against Aamir online.

I was reminded of two dates – very significant ones, for a gay man in India – 2 July, 2009 and 11 December, 2013. The former was like a day of emancipation for the LGBT community in the country, freedom 63 years after independence. The latter when the highest judicial body of the country forced many like me into tears, ending the hopes of equality for many.

Having grown up in an environment where effeminate behaviour was mocked, laughed at and called an aberration, it was a welcome relief to finally breathe in free air. After July, 2009 a silent social revolution was brewing. There was open talk about alternate sexuality. Films, for a change, were taking the subject seriously. The population at large was coming to terms with the idea that some people may have different choices.

In 1950, the Constitution that was passed vouched to protect the diversity of India. We are a nation of myriad languages, cultures, traditions. We may be Bengali, Tamil, Punjabi or Marathi – ultimately we are all Indians. Similarly, we all have different biological make-up. I am a man who seeks love (and lust, if you may) in another man. I have friends who believe they are women trapped in a man’s body. I know others who are women who seek solace in females. Needless to say, vast majority of my friends are heterosexual (like the society is).

In 2009, we were successful in dispelling the notion that majoritarianism is “normal”. Justice AP Shah (God Bless Him) chose to uphold the diversity of India instead of giving in to those sought to establish uniformity in choices. Sadly, this was all undone in 2013. After the pronouncement of the deadly blow on 11 December, 2013, most political parties, barring one or two, supported the rights of LGBT community.

The party that stood out in its vociferous opposition to alternate sexuality is currently in power and the man who was mostly giving bytes against homosexuality is sadly the Home Minister of India now. And this is why I feel insecure in India. Living in India feels like Orwell’s worst nightmares coming true. You must hail the Führer or be doomed. It is stifling.

India celebrates Unity in Diversity. Uniformity would kill the spirit of India. If I do not like a channel on TV, I would switch to another one instead of throwing a stone at the TV set in a fit of rage. My personal choices – what I wear, what I eat, who I sleep with – are best left to me. We elect governments at the age of 18, surely we can handle these trivial decisions in life.

This is my country and I refuse to live here like a criminal. Love for country does not make one a blind nationalist. A true patriot would speak out when the State commits a wrong. Differences of opinion, like different choices of sexuality, must be allowed to exist freely, without fear. Stifling the voices who refuse to be counted in the majority (and I do not mean religion here) is against the idea of India.

Although I voted against the party in power now, 31% of my countrymen did; their verdict needs to be respected. The government must respect the office it holds. With so many issues facing the country, this mindless obsession over controlling personal liberties is baffling. Few call them the fringe; sadly the fringe has taken over while the mainstream is a mute spectator.

If things go this way, I am afraid the day is not far when IPC Section 377 will be used against us ruthlessly just like POTA was once used against the religious minority. Let us hope my fears are unfounded and the leader of the nation takes over the reins with renewed zeal and lives up to the erudite speeches he makes abroad.

Rebuttal to Rajkahini review on Bangla Live

The problem with a class of Bengalis is the blatant intellectual snobbery, the condescending attitude that they know more than the rest, that they are superior. Clearly they have not heard how knowledge brings with it a sense of humility. These select few are so accustomed to living in their bubble of ‘know-it-all’ that they sacrifice their creative side at the alter of ego. This exactly is the case with the writer of a review of the film ‘Rajkahini’ on a website called ‘Bangla Live’.

Criticism is always healthy but to tom-tom a ‘holier-than-thou’ air and scathingly pour out “emotions” for having watched the film sitting on the stairs of the theatre is taking things a bit too far. A not-very-fine line separates the personal from professional, the Bangla Live review was much of the former; it was evident.

In the very beginning the writer makes the assumption that most viewers of the film may not be very “knowledgeable” and only few “learned” people (like him, of course) would be privy to the fact that the opening sequence of the film was “ripped off” from a Manto story. Clearly, he does not have the patience to read the opening credits where the director clearly outlined the sequence was an adaptation of “Khol Do”. In fact, Manto’s name figured in the list of acknowledgements too.

He also has a problem with the portrayal of the prostitutes. Too elitist and classy, he thinks. Of course, why not. Brothels have to be like Sonagachhi – delinquent, dark, dingy, dirty. How dare a lady who was raised in Bengal and became a kothewali in Lucknow speak Urdu interspersed with Bangla (with north Indian accent)? How can a prostitute trained in Lucknow have class? How dare prostitutes have fair skin?!

The third problem the knowledgeable reviewer had with the film was the overt depiction of sexuality. Clearly, Srijit Mukherjee is at fault here. How dare Mr Director think that he can depict the sexual desires of women? Women can NOT have any desire. They must only serve. That too prostitutes? How dare they. They must only sell their bodies in lieu of money. Women do NOT masturbate; it is the fiefdom of men. To even suggest they do is sacrilege.

Might I add here the bone of contention – lesbian relationship. Even another friend of mine said it was useless sub-plot that was left in the cold. While I agree the relationship had enormous scope, it was not justified on screen. But useless? No. This film is all about people in minority. Fringe. ‘Prantik manush’ as I understand it. The lesbian love is symbolic. People of all castes, creed, sexuality were affected by partition and everyone’s story needed to be told.

Then there was reference to a scene (which was one of my favourites in the film) between Zoya Ahsan and Rudranil Ghosh. He thought it was useless sexualisation of women. I thought it was oft-told tragedy of women with a touch of empathy. There lies difference of opinion. Despite having limited knowledge of film craft, I loved the sequence for its camera angles, use of colours, the setting and above all the heart-wrenching performances.

The reviewer also wondered why Rudranil’s cremation was shot on a huge rock in the middle of the river, so away from the kotha… Agree. But then, what if Rubina wanted Sujan’s last rites to be held at the spot where they spent many afternoons in each other’s company?

Having said that, the knowledgeable reviewer did point out some minor inconsistencies. Like the setting. Haldibari is not arid and neither does it have hillocks as shown in the film. But to discredit an entire narrative for this flaw? I would not do so. There was no continuity in the scenes between Mountbatten and Radcliffe. But then again, these are minor aberrations – highlighting these would be missing the larger picture.

The chase sequence at the butcher market also raised eyebrows. Why were carcasses and goat meat hanging in the middle of night in a closed market? I had the same question. The most logical explanation to me was they were metaphorical to make the tragedy that was about to unfold even more gruesome! In a way those carcasses depict how mercilessly butchers slice innocent animals, just like Kabir was about to do with Sujan.

Finally the burning question – how a bunch of prostitutes who were the champions of feminism throughout the film decided to perform Jauhar in the end. I was perplexed. The look on Begum Jaan’s face as she shut the door of the kotha was that of pride and victory. Feminism had won. Where is the paradox? Begum Jaan or her girls did not surrender to the enemy. They breathed their last in the very house they fought for. Again, Aban Thakur’s Rajkahini was a metaphor here. What perturbed me was that Thamma was alive and well to read passages from a book as fire raged on. But then, cinema is all about taking liberties.

In the end, my humble submission to everyone who reads this piece would be to learn more about film craft, definitely. Yours truly himself loves reading. But never let your knowledge get the better of you. Debate, discuss, deliberate. Never condescend. Comprehend, instead. Filmmaking after all is a director’s personal art. You may have different ideas but that does not necessitate spewing canards.

Thus, when the reviewer on Bangla Live contends Rajkahini is Srijit Mukherjee’s “nikrishto tomo” film, I object. In terms of scope, subject, writing and overall performances, the growth of Srijit Da as a director was evident. A film of this scale needed to be made in Bengal. This story needed to be told.


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