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May 27, 1997


Manjula Padmanabhan

Adventures in gender-land

Nirmal Pandey and Sonali Kulkarni in Daayraa
Nirmal Pandey and Sonali
Kulkarni in Daayraa

Recently, I attended a screening in Madras of Timeri Murari's Daayraa. Initially, it was impossible to understand why the film was named by Time as one of the 10 best in 1996. From the coy Tribal Virgin (Sonali Kulkarni) in her ikat sari to the paan-chewing Madam who tries to abduct her, it seemed utterly trashy. Then the Virgin escapes, swims to freedom across a convenient river and, as she catches her breath on the far bank, a character appears who boosts the film beyond the reach of its own tired clichés.

He is The Transvestite, played with exquisite poise and fine humour by Nirmal Pandey (Vikram Malla, and Phoolan's lover, in Bandit Queen). Rising from the waves like a beetle-browed Aphrodite, he shows scant sympathy for the damsel-in-distress dripping nearby. "I'm all alone too," he murmurs, when she protests at his indifference, then asks if she has any perfume to spare.

Contemptuous of this singular lack of chivalry, the heroine flounces off and is promptly raped on the sands of some nameless beach by three motorcycle rowdies. But there's no song-toting hero to defend her honour. Instead, there's the transvestite again, tenderly sympathetic this time.

Observing that our ex-virgin will be "raped every 10 minutes", so long as she dangles about the countryside topless and winsome in her designer saris, he suggests that she disguise herself as a man. She is too dazed to resist this somewhat extreme form of trauma therapy and submits to being decked out in male drag. Her hair is cut short and a false mustache pasted under her nose. Presto! A man is born. She's taught the protocol at a local country-liquor bar, learns to cope with hangovers and struggles to walk with a manly strut. In a day or two, she's wearing her pants with ease and they set off, She-man and He-woman, adventurers in gender-land.

The bizarre nature of their interaction reaches flash-point when the two seek shelter in the home of a beautiful widow. Topless herself and clad in billowing white silk, she is soon aflame with desire for this alluring young "man" despite "his" hirsute female companion. In a scene so chastely perverse that it might have been funny, if it hadn't been grotesquely insensitive to the plight of real widows in rural India, the lady attempts in vain to seduce the heroine.

Nirmal Pandey and Sonali Kulkarni in Daayraa
Pandey and Kulkarni face a
hostile reception in Daayraa

The episode kindles in the heroine her latent sexuality. At long last, she rebels against the incongruity of her masculine appearance. By a quirk of cinematic fate, she is right at the doorstep of her ancestral village. Donning yet another stunning ikat sari, she grows back her mane of hair in the space of one instant and rushes to embrace her parents -- only to be spurned as a whore! The village hounds her out! Her childhood fiancé threatens to lynch the transvestite! And finally the hapless duo must flee once more, this time for good.

Just then, a waterfall looms up. Before our astonished eyes, romance of the common or Bollywood variety is suddenly throbbing in every direction. The transvestite sacrifices his flowing tresses at the altar of true love to enable him to romp in depilated splendour with the heroine. The sheer volume of water thundering down the hillside assures us that he is certainly man enough to quench a wench.

But in Indian films, real men are either rapists or avengers of rape. Inevitably, therefore, the motorcycle hooligans reappear. They have apparently been rampaging tirelessly for weeks on end, all three astride the same long-suffering bike. In minutes, they demonstrate their superior potency by outraging the heroine yet again with the same old waves from the earlier rape-scene pounding the hackneyed shore. They stab the ex-transvestite with his own knife and dash off just in time for the sun to set over the heroine and her dying loverette.

According to Murari, the film's garbled messages are the result of his bitter conflicts with director Amol Palekar. That, if it is true, is real shame. In its own weird way, the film makes genuinely interesting gender statements. It tries to suggest that a woman must take responsibility for the assaults which come her way; that, even when they do, she can choose not to let them define her existence. Rather than parody the condition of a man who wants to be womanly, it convincingly demonstrates that he can maintain
Nirmal Pandey
Nirmal Pandey
his dignity even as he buttons his little black blouse.

But, most of all, it shows us an actor investing his character with such amazing sweetness that conventional heroes seem rough and clodlike by contrast. In his ambiguity and touching reverence for femininity, he is more truly romantic than many of the rock-jawed testerone-loaded hunks who inhabit our screens today.

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Manjula Padmanabhan