Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Common Gender: The First Queer Feature in Bangladesh

Making film on sexually marginalized people is almost a revolutionary attempt by a filmmaker in Bangladesh. Noman Robin’s debut feature Common Gender: The Film portrays the struggle and deprivation of Hijras, the transgender community in Bangladesh. It is a movie version of a television drama of the same title. Queer films are regularly produced in some other countries which depict the psycho-social struggle of homosexual, transgender or transvestites. Directors like Derek Jarman or Gregg Araki have addressed the queer issues in their films. Some of the films made by Pedro Almodovar, Rainer Warner Fassbinder, Chen Kaige, Ang Lee or Wong Kar-Wai also dealt with the issue. In Bangladesh, the study of identity politics focuses on the rights of women in a patriarchal society. But other sexual identities are generally ignored in the art forms. Common Gender is one if the first artistic expressions that deals with the issues of Hijras, a marginalized community with transgender sexual identity.

Though Hijras have several forms in sexual identities, in Common Gender, they are described as children born as males but as they grow up, internal hormonal change compels them to act like females; they wear female dresses, behave like women; at a stage, they are rejected by their family and the society they used to live in. After leaving the family, they are raised within a Hijra community, under the supervision of a Masi. In the new derived community their names are changed – Susmoy turns into Susmita or Babu into Bubli. These two are two prominent characters in the film Common Gender but they have some other friends named as Tuli, Shakiba, Shakira, Pori and Tushi. They have a common friend Tota Mia with regular male identity residing nearby their slum. In a wedding, a Hindu young man Sanjoy proposed Susmita to be his friend. Through mobile phone conversations they become intimate. Sanjoy often says if Susmita were a woman. Sanjoy’s expectation increases femininity within Susmita. She falls in love with Sanjoy. Sanjoy introduces Susmita with his parents but they scolded their son for having a Hijra friend. After being ill-treated by Sanjoy’s parents, Susmita committed suicide. The very day of Susmita’s death, her mother visited the slum. Bubli started missing her mother after seeing Susmita’s mother. She visited her home in the midnight. Her brother scolded and beat her for entering home. This incident also provoked Bubli to commit suicide. In the last imaginary scene of the film, Susmita and Bubli met in the heaven.

The brief storyline reveals that the director’s intention was not to tell a prolonged story in a classical narrative style. His focus was to portray how dominant sexual politics marginalized Hijra community and which resulted a horrible living for them. Consequently, in one way, some plain and primary information regarding Hijras are given in the film – how they collect money from the markets and households, what slang they use in their conversation and how typically they move and walk with their unique mannerism and style. But the film also emphasizes on the undiscovered crude reality. According to the film, born as a male, because of internal hormonal activity, the child gradually starts acting like a female and then the child is thrown out from the family. She might be born in an affluent family, but after being rejected from the family she might have to live in a slum with other Hijra friends. While living a Hijra life, she is humiliated in every step she crosses in the world dominated by heterosexuals. She is pushed back from both male and female corners in a public toilet. After death, she doesn’t get a room in a graveyard; she has to conceal her identity if wanted to be buried. Because of discriminations, they might be desperate in their attitudes – they embarrass people by obscene words and insist them to donate money. But the film also shows the other part of the coin; like other marginalized people, their lives are also full of fun – they often dance, sing songs, gossip and play together. Moreover they have a common understanding of helping each other. Though they always bully each other but they have intimate friendly relations comprising with deep love and affection.  

The human relationship at one end and the discrimination from sexually dominant majority from other – the chemistry of these two components has developed the narrative which would make any sensible audience involved with the film. The deep passion of Susmita for Sanjoy or the love of Bubli for her mother has created a humanist story that transcends the border of sexual identity. This humanist approach perhaps will make the audience understand the social abuse and the hegemony of dominant sexual identity have compelled Susmita and Bubli to kill theirselves. After watching the film the audience will achieve a different look towards the Hijras. There needed an emotional arousal to bring this change in perception and the director is successful to make a poignant humanist story. 

However, the seriousness of the plot has been flawed by the popular approach of the director. He has incorporated a lot of commercial elements to ensure audience presence in the theatres. Tota Mia, the character set in the plot as a bridge between Hijra community and mainstream society. Being a heterosexual male, he is closely connected with the Hijras, especially with Susmita. He brought the news of a show of a Jatra Pala, the popular play form in Bangladesh, and all Hijras joined him to watch the play. But we don’t see any Jatra play in the film rather the dance number of a Princess was picturized which is an item song borrowed from contemporary Bollywood formula. The film also added some song numbers to attract the audience; however there was a blunder in the film where a Kawali song is sung in a Hindu wedding ceremony. Some conventional approaches have made the film abstaining to be a radical one. Though there was a reference of mullahs to be hostile to the Hijras, but the mullahs we see in the film were very considerate, sensible and reasonable to them. Even after experiencing humiliation in everyday life, Hijras in the film have full faith in God and they frequently remember God.

The most emotional sequence of the film was Bubli’s attempt to meet her mother. She was beaten and humiliated by her brother in the midnight. While coming back, she found a mother was feeding her child in a slum. She requested to the mother to consider her as elder son who has come back from his daily job. Bubli gives the mother some money as a gift from the son and requests her to pretend as her mother. Then she fantasizes the imagined incident of meeting mother – she draws a picture of her house on air; she remains outside of her house and the slum mother inside; she knocks the door, the mother replied and offered the son a warm meal; this fantasizing process ends with Bubli’s huge cry of her failure of meeting mother. The whole sequence is acted very skillfully. The quality drama sequence with sound montage of recitation from holly scriptures, groaning Bubli’s clap mannerism in slow motion ensure audience involved emotionally and shed tears, just as the slum mother cried after listening the misery of Bubli’s life.  The sound of the film was recorded by Rahul Anand who also composed the background music. In both of the roles he did well. Dilip Chakrabarti was the best performer in the film in the role of Bubli, as he carried the whole film to the end with his stunning acting. Dolly Zahur was excellent in the small role of the slum mother. Saju Khadem’s performance in Susmita’s role was also good; other actors in the Hijra characters were also satisfactory. But Rashed Mamun’s acting in Tota’s role should be especially mentioned. The character was always a relief in the narrative and he performed really well with his types acting. Rozi Siddiqui in the role of Susmita’s mother and Sohel Khan in the role of the Masi were failures.

After Susmita’s burial everybody went drunk to forget the death of Susmita. This scene was also an important part of the film. Tota drew attention to everybody and mentioned how rich was Susmita’s mother. He also raised the question why they sent Susmita to the slum – they could send Susmita abroad. Tota said his mother died when he was young, after seeing Susmita’s mother he remembered his own mother. Bubli asked Tota to keep mum as she told in anguish that Hijras did not have any mother or father and they had fallen from the sky to the earth. The scene was nicely taken by the cinematographer Jahed Nannu. As everybody was drunk, the images in the scene went out of focus several times and the camera moved with hand-held jerks. However, the film included an exceptional example of owning a Hijra child. The Susmita and others went to take away an androgyne child from a family; but in spite of being a low income family, the parents refused to give their child to the Hijra community. This is a positive indication in the storyline that persistent parents could keep their child with them, no mater from which income group the family is.        

The opening sequence describes the city life in the early morning – buses are running, cleaners are sweeping the roads, garments workers are going to their workplace, passersby are walking, the main road is getting full of traffic, the street hawker boy is selling stuffs in the traffic signal, people are having breakfast at the restaurant, and a restaurant worker is throwing rubbish at one side of the road. At this stage, the narrative enters to the plot from the non-diegetic city life – Bubli’s mother looks down from the rooftop to the thrown rubbish, her elder son Raju crosses the rubbish and the DVD salesman calls Raju to complain against his brother Babu (Bubli) who snatched some DVDs yesterday without payment. Heated Raju disowned his brother and refuses to payback as the salesman claimed the money. Bubli’s mother saw the whole incident from the roof. Usually Bangladeshi filmmakers do not describe the life around the characters; instead they directly focus on the characters. Sometimes the non-diegetic elements can increase the beauty of the diegesis. The sketchy presentation of city life at the beginning of the film has proven the cinematic senses of the director.

The second sequence of the film was also presented in an interesting way. Two small stories are described here in parallel cut editing by Hasan Mahadi – the first story is about the comments of policeman, rickshaw puller, truck conductor and carom players as well as the comments of Muslim Moulavi, Hindu Brahmin, Buddhist Monk and Christian Priest towards the Hijras; the second story describes the transvestite acts of the Hijras – wearing ornaments and female artifacts. 

The cinematographer of the film heavily depended on top angle shots especially in the dramatic scenes. A few dolly shots also have been taken from top of the heads of the characters. In most cases, this subjective camera angle signifies the appeal of the characters to the almighty to resolve their problems. Excess of top angles could be reduced with the use of some regular shots as sometimes it seemed unnecessary.

The film was shot in Sony Cine Ultra camera and was exhibited through 2K digital projection system. The digital format has ensured completing such a film with exceptional content in a relatively low budget. However, the quality of the image in the theatre was found satisfactory. With the help of the format the director tried to add some effects in post production phase. The animation of the title card was just a failure. But the last scene was nicely manipulated where we see Bubli and Susmita meet in the heaven. But, perhaps, it was not necessary to end the film with such a scene where Susmita raised a question regarding the ultimate identity after resurrection – male or female? The fantasizing sequence of Bubli could be a good choice to end the film.

The attempt of Noman Robin to work with a marginalized community has made the film an exceptional initiative with alternative content. The film also fills the quota of queer cinema from a country which has a long tradition of filmmaking. The film indicates that several issues are there in Bangladesh society which are yet to be explored and which can enrich the cinematic endeavour of the new time.   

24 July, 2012

First Published in Celluloid, a Dhaka based film journal..


Noman Robin said...

The team of Common Gender-The Film
is great full to you.

Nahid Islam said...
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manzur alam Siddiki said...
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manzur alam Siddiki said...
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