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I’ll admit it. When I stood at the ticket counter of Priya Cinema in Kolkata to buy tickets for “Aar Ekti Premer Golpo” (“Just Another Love Story”), directed by a chap called Kaushik Ganguly and starring Rituparno Ghosh, I was prepared to be the one who would be weirdly embarrassed at Ghosh’s acting debut. Ghosh is well known as a arty film director, perhaps the first one after the holy trio of Satyajit Ray-Mrinal Sen-Ritwik Ghatak to make it really big. His debut as an actor was the subject of much chatter because Ritu, as Ghosh is nicknamed, was going to cross-dress for his role. In fact, whispered Calcutta’s intellectuals, he’s actually had operations to become a woman and the movie was his coming-out vehicle. Pictures don’t lie and when Ritu was spotted at a film festival in Goa last year, there was no doubt that he wasn’t entirely as masculine in his appearance as he had been before. The posters of “Aar Ekti Premer Golpo” show Ritu in two looks: an androgynous-ish, modern Ritu with the hunky actor Indraneil nestled close to him, and Ritu in a sari, with flowers in his hair, lipstick and the whole shebang. There’s no mistaking there’s a lot of gender hanky-panky going on in this film. If any of these posters had gone up at a cinema in Bombay, I’m reasonably certain there would have been someone or the other feeling offended, creating a stir, an FIR and certainly some snarling and stone-throwing by Shiv Sena/MNS. In Calcutta, the film released, people queued to get tickets without a fuss and the film has stayed in theatres without any growl of protests from anyone. When I saw it, it had been around for weeks but the weekend show I went to see was still packed; and the audience had aunties, uncles, grandparents, jhola-carriers of indeterminable age and teenagers. I’m sure many came out of curiosity to see Ritu but they clearly had also come to see a film, because over the next 2-odd hours, there were no sniggers or snorts at the sight of him putting on make-up, wearing a sari, having sex or wrapping a turban around his head. The only time there were guffaws was when the actors went into a melodrama overdrive, like when men started whimpering or that utterly unnecessary dancing to Rabindra Sangeet sequence near the end of the film. If there was ever an occasion to feel proud of being Bengali, it was while sitting in a cinema, watching Ritu and Indraneil’s pre- and post-coital cuddle (credibly performed, I might add), and not sensing any awkwardness in the audience.

In the credits, Ritu is there as an actor and also as a story consultant. Rumour has it that director Kaushik Ganguly had come to Ritu with a story about Chapal Bhaduri, perhaps the first actor from the Bengali stage to be openly gay. Ritu added to it a modern parallel that seems tantalisingly autobiographical. So what you have in “Aar Ekti Premer Golpo” is this. A film crew comes to Calcutta to film a documentary on Chapal Bhaduri. The director is Abhiroop Sen, a transgender director from Delhi who doesn’t seem to have ever seen a closet, let alone been in it. He’s comfortable peeing in the field as he is wearing make-up and he positively delights in the confusion his third gender causes in those who haven’t met him. At first it seems Abhi is drawn to Chapal’s story because it has some obvious parallels to his own. They’re both unabashedly gay, close to their mothers, and involved with married men. Abhi’s lover is his cinematographer, Vasu. Vasu makes no secret of his relationship with Abhi but he is married and he does take pains to make sure his wife doesn’t know about him and Abhi.

Rituparno Ghosh as Abhi

It makes for a great parallel with Chapal, who had one particularly serious relationship with a married Bengali aristocrat. Because Abhi starts relating so closely to Chapal, when he listens to the actor talking about his life, Abhi starts imagining the scenes with himself as the young Chapal and Vasu as the lover. These flashbacks or imaginary scenes are all shown in sepia, and the people Chapal knew are cast using people in Abhi’s life. It’s a decent device and interestingly, what emerges from this is how different Chapal and Abhi are despite their similarities. It gets summed up in one scene where Chapal asks Abhi, “Don’t you feel that God made a mistake, that while fashioning us, at the last moment he put us in the wrong body?” Abhi’s replies, “No. There are men, there are women and then there’s us. We’re not wrong the way we are. This is us.”

For all the things that are wrong with “Aar Ekti Premer Golpo” (and there are many flaws), there’s a lot that’s right about it too. Like in so many of Ritu’s films (the beautiful “Dosar”, for example, or even the somewhat ghastly “Chokher Bali”), there’s a strange sensitivity he has when it comes to the unhappy middle class marriage. It’s here in “Aar Ekti Premer Golpo” too, and one of the stronger aspects to the story although I don’t think the possibilities of the script were realised as well as they could have been. There are numerous scenes dealing with the triangle between Vasu, Abhi and Vasu’s wife that could have been far more impact-ful than they ended up being. Ultimately, the sweetest of the love stories in the film are perhaps the ones between the husband’s lover and the wife.

One of the major problems in “Aar Ekti Premer Golpo” is that there’s too little time given to Chapal’s story in the first half of the film and consequently when they cram the Chapal episodes in the second part, it feels badly paced. There are also some issues with the uneven acting and nothing in the film explains why everyone is convinced of Abhi’s brilliance. Also, for someone who is so expert with the eyeliner, Abhi really needed to tone down on the bronze tones because really, he looks like he sleeps in a tanning bed. “Aar Ekti Premer Golpo” is not a brilliant film but it does hold your attention and it has some incredibly poignant, thought-provoking moments. Like when an aged Chapal, dressed up as a goddess, sits in his green room, thick-rimmed glasses perched on his nose-ringed nose, reading a letter from his lover’s wife. Or the bit where Abhi talks about Chaitanya being both man and woman. And the way we’re introduced to Abhi: there’s a semi-naked Vasu lolling in bed and there’s Abhi fixing his make-up in the attached bath. Simple, straightforward and in your face. Or the soft, gentle cruelty with which Abhi responds to Vasu’s wife when she tells him she’s often thought of leaving Vasu so that he can freely be in his relationship with Abhi — “Just out of curiosity, why didn’t you?” Abhi asks her, with a smile.

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