Recently, three different Bengali films, almost simultaneously released have taken path-breaking strides in bending and breaking the gender stereotype within their films, each one tracking a different area of the gender-bender problem. Two of these films, namely, Conditions Apply and Jenana have been made by first-time directors and irrespective of the quality of these films, it has been an extremely courageous step they have taken. Conditions Apply has been directed by Amitava Bhattacharya and Jenana is directed by Barshali Chatterjee.

The third film Maya Mridanga has been directed by Raja Sen who has already bagged National Awards for some of his feature films and is a veteran in Bengali cinema. Conditions Apply and Maya Mridanga have been entered in the feature films section in the 63rd National Awards list the results of which will be declared any minute now.

Jenana studies the hidden corners of Kolkata where a man joins the transgender community for his livelihood and that community is called Jenanas. My film begins with Somu aka Sumona, a jenana, narrating his story to an aspiring young director Riya, The film revolves around the transgender community resulting from extensive research,” says the sprightly Chatterjee. Not everyone is aware that the eunuchs waiting at traffic signals to catch cars passing by, or walkers crossing the road for alms are not all eunuchs but belong to different categories of the gender divide with blurred lines not clearly drawn, either by intention or by nature or through circumstances beyond their control.

According to Chatterjee, “the gender divide contains some people ‘in the middle’ who do not fall strictly within either sex – male or female. “These ‘beggars’ are divided into four groups – the Akua who is a man but has emphatic effeminate qualities in manner and behaviour, the Jenana who is a complete male in every sense but dresses up like a woman for purely financial reasons, the Chimni which is the female of the community and the Chibdi who is genetically a eunuch.” The man in this film pretending to be a woman is happily married to a woman. He unfolds the story of his life and the reasons behind his way of life and livelihood. Jenana is a tale of the flourishing 'industry' that exists at the traffic signals, the male community who change their socio-sexual identity to run their livelihood but only in the public domain. Once they are back home, they shed their female disguise, make-up and hair and become male again.

Conditions Apply revolves around Chitrangada, a famous film star of Bengali cinema whose fame is based purely on her talents as an actress and who has managed to evade every attempt at bagging roles through the infamous casting couch. Her live-in close friend Stella, who she befriends during an interview is lesbian and is attracted to the actress who does not return her feelings but takes her as a close friend all the same. A serious affair with an artist, who uses her body as his canvas and falls deeply in love with her, discovers with shock the secret Chitranganda has been hiding all along – she is transgender.

The minute the media goes viral with this scandal, Chitranganda is dropped by the entire film industry, no producer considers her for any film and her carefully built up stardom collapses around her. Her problem escalates when she spurns the sexual advances of a filmmaker, an old friend who shuns her the minute she rejects him and picks a young starlet Panchali, a bisexual ready to compromise with his casting couch demands. The questions Chitrangada raises are – does a talented artist’s contribution to cinema get cancelled by virtue of her sexual identity? Are a person’s sexual identity and sexual orientation the exclusive measuring rods to social and professional acceptance and recognition? Why? The considerable research by the debutant director comes across powerfully in the way he has explored different manifestations of alternate sexual orientation and identity.

Raja Sen’s Maya Mridanga is a different cup of tea. It presents a fast-fading folk performance art form of different districts in Bengal called the Alkaap that has more music and song in it than drama and is led by a reputed performer called Jhanksu Ustad who wanders from place to place with his group of instrumentalists, singers and performers to perform to a village audience. The film is based on a novel by noted Bengali littérateur the late Syed Mustafa Siraj. Jhanksu Ustad is considered the king of 'the Alkaap form in the Radh-Bagdi region that lies between the Padma and the Ganga rivers. One major attraction of an Alkaap performance is the chhokra who performs the song and dance dressed like a female and forms the sensual attraction of every performance and no Alkaap performance can succeed without the chhokra performing in it.

But the tragedy of the chhokra is something that Raja Sen has safely sidetracked except with reference to the story of Jhansku Ustad. The chhokra is biologically born a male child. But an Ustad takes in this boy when he is eight or ten and carefully grooms him not only in the art of song and dance but more importantly, as a female with the seductive traits, beautiful make-up, chintzy ghaghras and lovely song-dance numbers till the chhokra imbibes female traits, body language, voice and pitch and body language like any beautiful girl and practically forgets that biologically, he is male and has rights of a naturally born male. He gets very close to the Ustad who is so possessive of he chhokra that he does not let him out of his sight even when he goes home to his family.

These chhokras begin to look so beautiful and dance so gracefully that it is difficult to detect that they are really male. The chhokra has no family to go back to. Nor does he have any alternate livelihood to fall back on when and if the Ustad discards his services. He is not even aware of his sexual rights because he almost begins to believe that he is female! So, one finds that the chhokra who has outlived his use by reason of age, lives on with the group and sits with the instrumentalists and singers in female attire, coy manner sometimes getting up to join the younger dancer. But as the two chhokras are not a part of the main film that centers on Jhanksu and his tragedy, the ultimate humiliation of the chhokras and the violation of their sexual rights and right to liberty remains unquestioned, unexplored and ignored. What a sad reality of cinema!