June 4 2015
A UK DVD release of a near 20-year-old Indian movie is prompted by the changing debate around sexuality and gender conditioning – and is all the more topical now with interest in the ‘sex’ change of Bruce Jenner to Caitlyn…
CHALLENGING gender stereotypes and appreciating a less fixed notion of what constitutes a man and a woman (in the most basic of forms) has hit the headlines around the world, just recently.
A couple of days ago, one-time celebrated Olympic athlete and now more US reality TV star Bruce Jenner, step father to The Kardashians, unveiled himself as Caitlyn, after many years as a man.
In India, just a little before, it was announced that an openly transgender person by the name of Manabi Banerjee had become a principal for a women’s college in West Bengal. She was appointed by a civil service commission which had long known about her status.
The two things taken together can be seen as an important moment for equal rights and has re-opened the debate about gender conditioning/stereotyping and sexuality.
In 1996, painter and filmmaker Amol Palekar’s film, “The Square Circle” challenged the prevailing stigma of being neither firmly this, nor conclusively that, and championed a more compassionate and inclusive view of how people relate to each other on a more complex and far more fluid male-female continuum.
In the film, a young bride to be (Sonali Kulkarni), runs away only to be rescued by a man (the late Nirmal Pandey), who prefers to be thought of as a woman and outwardly takes the form of one (as in the label, transvestism). To escape capture, the girl dresses like a man to avoid detection.
The film was screened at the London Film Festival and garnered much critical acclaim and enjoyed a decent run in the UK and has been seen some as a landmark film that still speaks to us today.
In this Q&A, www.asianculturevulture.com’s Khakan Qureshi asked Palekar what had inspired him to make the film and how nearly 20 years on – with the release of the DVD – does he believe the world has changed… (The answers were given before news of Caitlyn and Manabi).
www.asianculturevulture.com (ACV): This film touched on several strands of sexual identity, gender types and orientation. In the climate at the time, what inspired you to make this film?
Amol Palekar (AP): Looking back, it does seem to be ‘way ahead of its time’! The issues pertaining to sexuality and identity occupy the contemporary sensibilities in a major way, hence are extremely relevant even 20 years later.
Issues relating to sexuality are social taboos which remain unspoken, untouched upon.
A cumulative social silence leads to irrational fears born out of ignorance; individual awkwardness transforms into collective prejudices and biases. Transvestism is one such abandoned theme that we prefer to keep closeted. We consider transvestism as unnatural deviation from what is ‘normal’. Transvestites are often equated with eunuchs which are subjects of social ridicule/hatred/ostracism, all of which often instigate intolerance and violence.
The male chauvinist culture and patriarchal dominance lead to their subjugation. Refusal to accept transvestites is the standard practice across cultures. Thus ‘The Square Circle’ is relevant not only in India but all over the world.
The main inspiration behind my exploration of this theme was the question – why do we react so vehemently towards something which is not in conformity with that of the majority?
Is it because ‘their’ choices are different from ‘ours’; is it a war between majority and minority – a sheer game of numbers? Or does it threaten the core of human existence? I also feel that ‘The Square Circle’ not only explores the questions of transvestism but also examines the man-woman relationship.
I made the film with a sincere hope that we will respect the rich diversity of identities and alternative ways of being, rather than unleashing ostracism and condemnation; that we will not just tolerate, but accept differences; that we will offer empathy and not just pity or mercy!
ACV: The identities or roles of the two main protagonists were interchangeable, was it difficult to have a heterosexual male actor to take on the feminine role and why not have a person from the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender) community to portray the same role instead?
AP: A similar question was asked to Jim Sheridan when he cast Daniel Day-Lewis to play a character with cerebral palsy in ‘My Left Foot’ or to Abdellatif Kechiche when he had chosen the actors for ‘Blue is the warmest colour’.
It’s extraneous to ask such questions as we hire good actors who perform a required role so well. Moreover, the issue in ‘The Square Circle’ is different. Neither the male nor the female protagonists is a transgender. The male is a folk dancer traditionally trained to perform female roles who eventually develops a genuine liking to be a transvestite. The female protagonist is forced by her circumstances to be in the male attire to shield behind the masculinity. In other words, the patriarchal structure apparently protects the weaker gender, i.e. the female.
ACV: When you were directing this film, did you have a specific target audience in mind and if it was shown in the mainstream, how did you gauge audience reaction?
AP: I never have a specific target audience in mind as I believe that even some portion of the mainstream audience like to see off beat cinema because of its content. The audience patronage and success of recent films like ‘Kahani’ ‘Pansing Tomar’, ‘The Lunchbox’ ‘Lootera’, ‘Margarita with a straw’ and many others reconfirm my belief. if this film was released in India with its due grandeur, it would have had the same luminous fate as it received in international festivals and in France and the UK.
ACV: There was a multiple rape scene – which was very difficult to watch, why did you feel it was necessary?
AP: I wanted to bring out the stark physicality of any rape through the initial and the only rape scene. If i were to do it today, i would have done it in a different, stylised way without being direct. I have not shot the said scene in a sensational or offensive manner.
ACV: ‘The Square Circle’ is a ground breaking film. If you could do it again, what would you have changed and what have you learned about people’s notions or expectations of the LGBT Community?
AP: This question needs a lengthier answer which also needs more in depth thinking on my part. As any creative person will think of many newer possibilities of expression, I would have also explored fresh possibilities if I were to make this film now.
Due to some rights issues, there was a long gap before its current UK DVD April release.
‘The Square Circle’ to buy: http://www.amazon.co.uk/Square-Circle-DVD-Sonali-Kulkarni/dp/B00U7K74V6
If you’re looking for advice or support with regards to any of these subjects, or knows someone who does, you can contact Birmingham South Asians LGBT – Finding A Voice. Can be found on FB: www.facebook.com/findingavoice
There is also Dosti Leicester: www.facebook.com/DostiLeicester
Persian LGBT Advisory Centre, Birmingham which offers advice and support to LGBT asylum seekers and refugees : www.persianlgbt.org.uk
Equity Partnership in Bradford: www.equitypartnership.org.uk