Someone who read the post I’d written about Rituparno Ghosh and his (mis)handling of a gay relationship in Chitrangada told me that I’m hopelessly straight. That’s me paraphrasing, “What is it about you straight people that makes you think your way is the way?” They found Chitrangada a poignant representation of a romantic relationship between men and they felt that it was my heterosexuality that was making me see the romance as melodramatic.
This could be my cue to say, “I have gay friends. I know“, but I’m not even going to pretend that I understand the complexities of a queer relationship. I don’t understand heterosexual romance, despite lifetime membership of that club, so where do I get off saying I know what’s going on elsewhere? But here’s one thing that I do believe — whatever the details and nuances that texture the dynamics of a particular relationship, there are some emotional tugs that aren’t specific to your sexual preferences. The central relationship in Chitrangada is a mess. A man and a woman, two women, a hobbit and an elf — there’s no combination that would have improved matters. Why? Because it’s written in a way that doesn’t bother to involve the audience. Instead, you have to work at coming up with explanations for the two men’s behaviour. The operatic screechiness and hamminess of the acting doesn’t help.
In contrast, consider the relationship in Behind the Candelabra. It’s between two men, it’s romantic and despite my heterosexuality, it didn’t alienate me at all. It’s a beautifully-told story that takes the viewer into a relationship that is unlike anything I will personally know but this didn’t make the film and its characters seem bizarre or absurd. Quickly into the film, the characters felt familiar rather than like stereotypes though the credit for this has to go to the superb acting in the film. The central difference between Behind the Candelabra and Chitrangada is that the former feels more honest while the latter is drenched in sympathy for Rudy. Behind the Candelabra shows the two men being both kind and abusive, caring and cruel, generous and manipulative. In Chitrangada every scene has one agenda: establish Rudy as wonderful.
There are a lot of similarities between Chitrangada and Behind the Candelabra. In the film, Liberace (Michael Douglas, brilliant) meets Scott (Matt Damon, excellent) and is immediately taken by the good-looking young man. The relationship becomes romantic and sexual very quickly and soon enough, Scott seems to be Liberace’s emotional anchor. Much like in Chitrangada, the romance in Behind the Candelabra is in a cloistered, private world. The older man is flamboyant and his younger lover’s attitude goes from self-serving to genuinely involved. The relationship, however, isn’t enough for one of them and it ends abruptly at one point because one of them wants something else from the world around them. (See how delicately I’m tiptoeing around spoilers?)
Unlike Chitrangada however, at no point do you find yourself going “Huh?” in Behind the Candelabra. The script, the direction and the performances all come together to make Scott and Liberace’s love affair seem entirely credible. Richard La Gravenese has written romantic movies like PS I Love You (which really wasn’t that good) and maybe that’s what makes his storytelling in Behind the Candelabra work. It’s firmly and unreservedly two gay men’s love story and it wouldn’t have panned out the way it did if it wasn’t between two men, but the film is first and foremost a love story. You feel it in little things, like the lead pair kissing each other sometimes tenderly, sometimes forcefully; with the awkwardness or ease that comes from where the relationship is at that moment. Contrast that to the kisses in Chitrangada, which are a violent mashing of two pairs of lips. That’s actually something I’ve noticed in most on-screen kisses between two Indian men. It’s as though Indian gay men can’t kiss each other unless they’re furious. Now, I’m not unfamiliar with the heat-of-the-moment lip lock — I read Mills & Boons, for chrissakes — but surely it can be done in a way that doesn’t make me wonder if the sound of two pairs of teeth gnashing against each other is audible in the raw soundtrack.
Coming back to Behind the Candelabra, neither the story nor the actors are hung up on the fact that the two characters are homosexual. They treat it as something natural, a crucial aspect of their characters but not a trait that makes them unrelatable. It’s as though Rituparno wrote Chitrangada thinking, “No one understands” while Behind the Candelabra‘s guiding principle seems to be, “Who doesn’t love a love story?”
Behind the Candelabra is gloriously kitschy in parts and there’s some outlandish stuff that happens, but it doesn’t feel absurd because the emphasis is upon the emotional logic of the story. Director Steven Soderbergh was apparently told by studios that Behind the Candelabra was too gay, which is why it’s an HBO production for television. This makes Bengal’s film industry look more progressive. Both Arekti Premer Golpo and Chitrangada got funding and widespread release in Kolkata (and presumably West Bengal) and I know for a fact that the first did well at the box office.
But coming back to my supposed inability to appreciate difference because I’m rendered incapable by my hetereosexuality of appreciating queer relationships. I humbly protest, your honour and would like to present the above 880-odd words as my defense along with the statement that I absolutely loved Behind the Candelabra.