Sensuously shot in India’s green coastal regions, Chronicles of Hari tells the story of a young actor who performs female roles in the traditional all-male theater of Karnataka, only to feel himself trapped between two sexual identities and belonging to neither. Mysterious and poetic if a bit static and sad, with very little dialogue to support the narrative, the film is an exotic mood piece tailor-made for festivals (it has already played in Busan and Mumbai.) It marks a noteworthy debut for director Ananya Kasaravalli, who co-wrote the screenplay with writer Gopalakrisna Pai and her father, the acclaimed Kannada language filmmaker Girish Kasaravalli.
From the brief glimpses afforded of Yakshagana theater, it’s as formal and abstract as Kabuki or Kathakali, which also feature male performers wearing elaborate face paint and costumes in female roles. The plays combine music, dance and dialog in stories avidly followed by local audiences but not so easy for outsiders to assimilate. But as colorful background, it’s highly effective.
Western audiences will latch on to the sensitively treated transgender theme, which proves an enormous source of conflict for the young hero, Hari. Played with great sensitivity by Shrunga Vasudevan, he’s a star in his rural theater troupe. He’d like to try his hand at male roles, but his soft looks and melting eyes typecast him. After years of performing as a woman at night, he finds it harder and harder to turn back into a man in the morning. Marriageable girls avoid him, and when a willing lady approaches him for a night’s entertainment, he’s too confused to have any kind of sex life at all.
Though he’s honored and even revered for his stage roles, as soon as he wears a skirt to town, it’s all shock and disapproval. Society looks askance while men make unwelcome passes at the pretty boy in drag. His family is aghast at his eccentric choice to dress as a woman all the time. In a fit of anguish, he quits the troupe and cuts his long hair, but can’t put aside his sari. When he hooks up with a kindly, aging actor in the Yakshagana tradition, they are accused of homosexuality because of his cross-dressing and threatened by a dangerous, bigoted mob.
In the main role, Vasudevan has a strong screen presence and his troubled eyes add nuance and emotional impact to each slow-burning scene. In full makeup, he recalls Leslie Cheung in Farewell My Concubine, a more complex film that also dealt with men playing women onstage. The spare dialog boosts the poetic intensity of the tale, but also makes Hari difficult to get a handle on, and he ends up as an anxious, one-problem character.
The one false note in this essential narrative is the insertion of two annoying journalists who stumble around the villages on the tracks of a legendary Yakshagana actor. It might be Hari, or someone else as the name keeps changing; in any case, no one cares.
Production company: Basant Productions
Cast: Shrunga Vasudevan, K. G. Krishanamurthy
Director: Ananya Kasaravalli
Screenwriters: Girish Kasaravalli, Gopalakrishna Pai, Ananya Kasaravalli based on Pai’s short story
Producers: Amrita Patil, Basanth Kumar Patil
Directors of photography: Udit Khurana, Balaji Manohar
Editor: Mohan Kamakshi
Music: Bindumalini Narayanaswami
Venue: Mumbai Jio MAMI Film Festival (India Story)
105 minutes, in