Indian American’s film questions gender politics

By Supriya Tiwari | May 12, 2011 2:33 PM HKT
Filmmakers Jayan Cherian (right) and Sebastiano d'Ayala Valva (center) answer questions from the audience after the screening of their movies at the BFI festival in London recently.
LONDON: Indian American filmmaker Jayan Cherian’s Shape of the Shapeless, a
powerful critique of sexuality and gender, is scheduled to be screened at the Short Film
Corner of the Cannes Film Festival, which starts on Thursday.
This is the second film of the Kerala-born director to be screened at Cannes. His Inner
Silence of the Tumult, a film that traces spirituality and human identification to the
nature, was also screened at the Short Film Corner in 2008.
Shape of the Shapeless was one of the attractions on the closing night of the 25th BFI
London Lesbian and Gay Film Festival, which concluded last month. The documentary,
which portrays the spiritual journey of a New York transvestite performer, was paired
along with Sebastiano d'Ayala Valva’s new movie Angel.
In Shape of the Shapeless, Cherian relays the everyday life of Rose Wood, who was born
Jon Corey. A man during the day, running his own business, every evening, he assumes
the persona of Rose, a woman performing the burlesque in New York’s nightlife and has
her own stage show. The gender transformation, using props such as breasts and vagina,
has been depicted in a matter-of-fact manner.
As may be expected from Cherian, a poet and experimental filmmaker whose movies
attempt to convey the story in a (sometimes) dramatic yet (mostly) realistic manner, his
subject is not just two dimensional: she is also a yogi. Rose’s spiritual name, given to her
by her guru, is “Prem Das,” which means servant of love.
Watching the film makes one appreciate Rose for the person she is, and for the various
personas she does. The shape referred to essentially is that of the body. The shapeless is
the ability of Rose to transcend this shape given to her.
In less than a decade, the New York-based Cherian, a critically acclaimed poet in
Malayalam, has carved his own path in films with his cinematic storytelling, as is evident
in his body of work. He has the ability to show uncomfortable subjects and present them
in almost a nonchalant manner, creating a certain restlessness among audiences.
Speaking in London on the sidelines of the British Film Institute festival, the filmmaker
said he intended to unsettle people through his works. True to his words, like Shape of
the Shapeless, most Cherian works unsettle, provoke and challenge. Tree of Life depicts
religious bigotry and intolerance in the U.S. society; Love in the Times of Foreclosure
documents a relationship crumbling under the financial struggle during recession;
Tandava -- a Dance of Dissolution portrays the destruction all around us due to war; Soul
of Solomon tells the story of a relationship between a gay priest and a sex worker; and
Capturing the signs of God portrays an artist struggling to leave behind suffering which
she has previously experienced whilst trying to capture the image of God.
In Shape of the Shapeless, Cherian questions the traditional notions about rigid gender
identities and its politics. “Gender identity is the most visible binary vision,” he said.
“people are required to behave in such a way that is defined by their ‘biological
interface.’ Just because you are born a male with a penis does not mean you are forced to
behave in such a way that is defined as ‘male.'”
Cherian has explored the multiplicity of sexual identities in his writings, as well. His
2002 anthology Polymorphism addresses the polyphonic nature of sexual expressions and
its manifestations. Since 1996, when his first collection was published, Cherian has
written several anthologies.
Cherian, who came to New York in early’90s, graduated with honors from Hunter
College in BA in film and creative writing, and MFA from The City College of New
York in writing, directing film and cinematography.
Cherian said he started make films because he wanted to convey his ideas and thoughts to
a wider audience. He felt that, being a poet in Malayalam, he had a limited voice, and as
someone who rejects boundaries, film was a natural medium to switch to.
Indeed, the switch has worked very well, judging from just the number of reputed
festivals he was invited to screen. Within the United States, he has screened works at the
Rhode Island International Film Festival, Austin Gay and Lesbian International Film
Festival, San Francisco Shorts International Film Festival, Big apple Film Festival,
Coney Island Film Festival, and many others. Last week, the film was selected as a
finalist for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ 38th Annual Student
Academy Awards competition,
Internationally, besides the Cannes and BFI festivals, Cherian’s movies have been shown
in festivals in India, South Africa and Kenya.
Cherian’s subject matter is a reflection of his instinctive leaning towards what the
mainstream world of cinema would see as “marginal.” However, he rejected such
categorization outright. The determination of what was marginal and on the fringes and
what’s not was every individual’s interpretation of themselves, he added. Nobody could
set these brackets and for him they did not exist.
Cherian, who is inspired by post-structuralist philosopher Judith Butler and her theory of
gender performativity, is almost an activist in his work, which propounds what he calls is
a kind of “post-modern relativism.” Butler wrote in her seminal 1990 work Gender
Trouble, “There is no gender identity behind the expressions of gender… identity is
performatively constituted by the very “expressions” that are said to be its results.”
Shape of Shapeless illustrates that here is no such thing called “gender identity” and that
this “identity” only exists in performance. In our society we perform everyday as “males”
or “females,” and the society expect or demands certain gender performances according
to our biological interfaces. Rose the subject of the documentary refuses to conform to
this binaristic duality of men and women; for her, gender is something that she could
write, erase, rewrite and perform with her body.
Another of Cherian’s influence is the noted Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami, who
used to say in his class, “Film is the life happening all around you. Go shoot it.”
Indeed, which is what Cherian has been doing, without himself to be bound by
boundaries of any sort, and challenging some of the most entrenched societal boundaries.
(Global India Newswire)