Why Can't "Third Gender" Be an Identity?
Ekti Osamajik Premer Golpo raised questions few dare to ask even now
Placing a third gender group we generally address as 'hijras' at the centre of any play, film or television serial is a radical and bold step. Curtain Call, a veteran theatre group of Kolkata, has taken this step through its new play Ekti Osamajik Premer Golpo staged currently at different theatre platforms in the city.
The play is a Bengali adaptation by Piyali Chatterjee of Mahesh Dattani's Seven Steps Round the Fire which, the Bengali production says, is a "musical thriller". The play is directed by Tirthankar Chatterjee.
Seven Steps Around the Fire was a radio play first broadcast by BBC Radio 4 on January 9 1999, and performed later that year at the Museum Theatre at Chennai on August 6. The Bengali play remains faithful to the original Dattani creation with some linguistic and region-specific adjustments. Dattani makes a bold attempt to give central space in the mainstream drama to the community of eunuchs in the play, Seven Steps around the Fire.
Dattani investigates the human aspect of eunuchs who are socially neglected and humiliated. They are not permitted to share normal life conditions and are often identified with their obscene patterns of behaviour including their speech, clapping and singing.
The term 'hijra' is of Urdu origin, a combination of Hindu, Persian and Arabic, literally meaning 'neither male nor female'. There is a legend tracing their ancestry to the Ramayana. According to the legend Lord Rama was going to cross the river in order to go into exile in the forest. All the people of the city wanted to follow him. He ordered men and women to turn back.
Some of his male followers did not know what to do. They could not disobey him. So, they "sacrificed their masculinity", to become neither men nor women, and followed him to the forest. Rama was pleased with their devotion and blessed them. There are transsexual, and transgender people all over the world and India is no exception.
Dattani in Seven Steps… tried to show their position in society. Perceived as the lowest of the low, they yearn for family and love. The two events in mainstream Hindu culture where their presence is acceptable, marriage and birth, are the very privileges denied to them by man and nature. (10-11). They do not marry and cannot bear children.
The structure, the setting and the use of spaces, are elaborately orchestrated to move as the characters do, or remain static or both, and this adds to the dynamic nature of the performance. The play opens with the entry of Adrita (Monalisa Chatterjee Dasgupta), a professor engaged in research on the third gender who steps into the local prison to interview one of the members of this group held in custody for having murdered a peer of hers, Bijlee (Amrita Dutta).
The sub-inspector Chaubey (Tarun Kundu) does not permit her though he knows that Adrita is the wife of the local ACP Suman Kumar Roy (Atanu Chatterjee) and when she does manage to gain an interview, the captive hijra Phulki refuses to grant her an interview.
Adrita gets very angry at the way Chaubey and Roy use the pronoun "it" to define Bijlee and Phulki and points out that they are basically as much human beings as we are and we have no right to insult them. Ironically however, though the jail and other authorities address Phulki and Bijlee as "it" Phulki is placed in the male ward and is therefore, subjected to sexual exploitation by the male inmates.
Why? Asks the furious Adrita and finds no answer as no one really understands what she is hinting at or trying to prove.
The play is set up as a series of questions raised by Adrita about the injustice meted out to the community of these marginalised people not because they are poor but because they lack a definite gender identity. "But why can't "third gender" itself be their identity?" she asks but finds no answer. Adrita often sings out her angst through beautifully written and composed songs enriched by the live music on stage and this adds to the quality of the performance.
The set is filled with a number of rectangular frames for the third gender, and other members, to step in and out of, or remain framed within. But Aditra is not a part of these frames and remains beyond them. Why? Perhaps because she belongs to the questioning mainstream.
Or, because, as a woman, she gathers strength from within to question the legal and judicial system which includes her own husband, and demands justice for both Bijlee and Phulki? She gets life-threats too, for trying to uncover the reality of the murder by the local politician and his henchmen. But she is not to be cowed down though she is scared at times.
The costume design is very good and marks out the class and status difference between the third gender group and Adrita, between the politician and his security guard. The performances are brilliant and special mention must be made of Monalisa as Adrita, Piyali Chatterjee as the fiery Champa, the head of the third gender ghetto in the small town and Tirthankar Chatterjee as the smooth-talking politician. Sourav Bhattacharya as Brata, the politician's son, is physically a misfit for the role.
The lighting, with sparks of fire suggesting the setting of Bijlee's body on fire behind a translucent screen at the rear of the stage, the steps and stools placed across the performing space; the rectangular frames within which the actors perform and the live music and the songs make Ekti Osamajik Premer Golpo a commanding play that keeps one engaged till the end.
There are a few hiccups that if taken care of, may make the play sharper and concise. The first is the length of the play with a running time of two hours. The second is Adrita's addressing the audience directly, in the beginning, the end, and at points in between which cuts into the democratic stance of any performance.
This assumes that the audience is hierarchically placed below the actors on the stage and is a bit egoistic. Then there are the frequent intellectual and legal references to Gayatri Chakravarty Spivak's definition of the subaltern, the legal statutes that grant equal rights to the third gender all of which tend to drag the play and become too pedagogical.
Ekti Osamajik Premer Golpo raises questions through Adrita who gives up her research. But, for people like Bijlee, Phulki, Champa and their tribe, there are no answers. Bijlee's murder remains unsolved, the local politician goes to Delhi and so does Adrita's husband who is now a millionaire. Adrita is left alone to find out the answers to her questions on the marginalised, the oppressed and the tortured people of the third gender.
The play is scathing in its indictment against the mainstream – we – who are as much implicated in the crimes committed on the third gender as are the legal, justice and political machinery of the country.