February 24, 2011

Giving Shape to New Expressions


Usha Zacharias




“Shape of the Shapeless,” poet and film-maker Jayan Cherian’s brilliant documentary, is a memorable experience of the Signs film festival held in Thiruvananthapuram recently. A graduate in cinema from City University of New York, Jayan scripted, directed and shot the film himself. Following Rose Wood, a transvestite performer in New York’s nightclubs, through 150 hours of footage shot over three years, “Shape of the Shapeless” touches extraordinary new levels in the character-driven documentary genre. The intimacy and the depth of the treatment reveal the painstaking, meticulous, care and rigor with which the documentary has been executed. Without voice-over narration, explanatory commentary, or talking heads other than the central character, the documentary subtly weaves around us the inner world of Rose Wood and his/her play with sexuality.


Jayan, who is now based in New York City, was born in Moovattupuzha, Kerala, and is perhaps better known here for his volumes of poetry including “Ayodhanathinte Achuthandu” (Axis of Combat, 1996) Ayanam Vachana Rekhayil(1999, which won Kerala Sahitya Academy Kanaka Shree  Award), Polymorphism (2002), and Pachakku (Like it is, 2006). Jayan says he deliberately avoided gender theory or expert commentary in the film. “I wanted to find a form of story-telling that would include ordinary people.” This meant hard work in terms of letting the inner world of the character grow into its universal dimensions through the protagonist’s own means of expression.


“The body is a costume,” says Rose Wood aka Jon Corey, who lives by day as a “male” craftsperson who runs a successful business in New York City.  Late nights, Jon performs in clubs around New York City as a burlesque dancer under the name Rose Wood. Transcending both lives, Jon is a yogi and a diligent devotee of the Guru from whom s/he received her ascetic name, Premdas. The film, as its synopsis states, “explores the spiritual quest of the performer, yogi, and artisan who transgresses the boundaries of traditional notions of body, gender, creed, and sexuality.”


Through Rose Wood’s art, “Shape of the Shapeless” unravels the body as a series of myriad masks. The performer constructs, takes apart, and reconstructs his/her own body: off stage, in the make-up room; and on stage, through burlesque sexual acts. Fake penises, false vaginas and injection pumped breasts match the cosmetic product of the face with its lustrous eyelashes and luscious lipstick. This assemblage creates the illusion that is the outward, apparent manifestation of flesh whose meaning can be manipulated by changing the alphabets. On stage, Rose uses the multiple organs to create an inseparable mosaic: half man, half woman, each half craving and battling the other. In Jon/ Rose’s hands, the body becomes clay, and the expressive movements of the body that is the enactment of one’s sexuality becomes unreal. The sexual acts, in their hyperbolic excess, become a spiritual statement.


In 30 minutes of condensed storytelling, the film achieves an incredibly deep meditation on the meaning of the body and its expression of sexuality. The strange sight of the fierce desire and struggle within the same self and body in Rose’s performance elevates us to a detachment from our identification with either sex. Jon/Rose’s inner peace and spirituality remains untouched like a silent pool in the midst of the varied plumes of the body’s manifold drives and desires. The scenes of sexuality are handled with a delicacy that avoids voyeurism but with an appetite for truth without filters. The cinematography is truly extraordinary for its heartbeat closeness to life as it unravels raw.


“A documentary film-maker has to be ten times more vigilant, smarter, and quicker in making decisions than a feature film-maker,” says Jayan, who has also made short fiction films. The simple scene of Jon with his mother showing her the video of his striptease is stunning for the quality of intimacy that the director has succeeded in establishing with his subject. “Shape of the Shapeless” is an example for daring guerilla film-making, shot as it is in police-haunted New York subways and even in a Philadelphia hospital where Jon undergoes surgery to enhance his/her breasts. Jayan is one of the first poets in Malayalam to take up the subject of multiple sexualities (in his volume, “Polymorphism”), and his cinematic work flies this theme to new heights. Jayan says he has been inspired by several of his professors, including Iranian film-maker Abbas Kiarostami, who used to say, “Cinema is happening around you 24 hours a day. Just go out and shoot it.”


The film is on the international festival circuit, and has been screened at Oaxaca, Mexico, the International Film Festival of South Africa, as well as several festivals in North America. It won the Silver Jury Prize at the San Francisco shorts festival 2010, the Eastman Kodak award for Best Cinematography, and City Visions 2010 award for Best Documentary. The film has also been selected for screening at the British Film Institute’s upcoming Gay and Lesbian Film Festival.  Jayan’s previous films include Holy Mass (2007), Tree of Life (2007), Inner Silence of the Tumult (2007), and Soul of Solomon (2008). This is an extraordinary work by a Malayalee director living in New York city, one whose future films are sure to break new paths for cinema.