Harikatha Prasanga: Gender Fluidity in a Gender Rigid World

Harikatha Prasanga by Mumbai Film Fest

Harikatha Prasanga or Chronicles of Hari is a Kannada film directed by Ananya Kasaravalli. Set in Udipi, a coastal town in Karnataka, it chronicles the journey of Hari, who is a Yakshagana dancer.  The film brings important questions to the forefront such as what happens when the gender we are assigned at birth does not align with the gender we wish to identify with? What does it mean to be gender fluid in a gender rigid, heteronormative society?

The movie showcases the journey of  Hari’s struggle with his gender identity. He is biologically a male and he is expected to play the assigned gender role. But the gender Hari identifies with is that of female and he starts to dress like one. While dressing like a woman is acceptable on stage, as an extension of his art, dressing like one in everyday life makes him an object of ridicule and social stigma.

Gender Fluidity and Social Perception

In the film, one aspect that is consistently showed is the wide acceptance of Hari’s feminine movements and expressions while on stage. People from across villages gather to watch him perform the female parts in a play because he is a “natural”. However, the moment Hari is off stage, leading a mundane daily life, he is expected to act like a man and play the traditionally masculine roles.

This is where the tussle begins, as Hari continues to “act” like a woman, dressing up in a saree. In those scenes, the very people who applauded his performance now ridicule him for being feminine. He is cut off from his biological family and thus has to lead an isolated life on the fringes of his village. This is symbolic, as the fringe or margin is the space that he has allocated in the social setting, because of his overt portrayal of gender fluidity.

The Narrative Technique

There are two parallel stories running in the film. The first is the story of Hari shown through the eyes of Hari. The second is a parallel narrative shown through two journalists trying to locate Hari, the man, the artist and how he keeps slipping by not having a defined identity. The second story is crucial to the narrative as it shows how the society at large perceives Hari.  The film grows beyond a narration of a single man’s story into the story of the society itself as it grapples with Hari’s gender fluidity- for the ‘Chronicles of Hari’ are not just his chronicles.

It is the chronicle of men who give ultimatum to Hari in the film, “To stay in our troupe, you’ve to play woman.” It is the story of women, portrayed in the film, who say, “You are truly a woman, not merely in performance.” Even in its hyper local setting and context, it has the universal tone of all individuals who experience gender dysphoria  and think to themselves, “Am I a man playing a woman or a woman playing a man?”

The film manages to bring to the fore Hari’s struggles in different spheres of his life, with biological family and his life as an artist. Much like the identity of its protagonist which shifts, the narrative of Hari also shifts depending on who is narrating the story of Hari.

Also Read: Bulbul Review: A Feminist Fairytale Masquerading As A Horror Movie 

Why this film matters?

The film is directed by debutante director Ananya Kasaravalli who picked the challenging subject of gender and identity for a debut film. The film has been critically acclaimed and competed for the Centenary award at IFFI Film Festival, held in Goa. It raises important questions on gender and identity within regional cinema.

In the conversation around LGBT issues, the films and literature from rural towns and semi-urban spaces are absent. Narratives that take the forefront are urban and privileged. This creates an incomplete and distorted view of the LGBT characters. This film brings to the forefront the story of a small town, in regional language immersed in the traditional art form of Yakshagana. This allows for a local audience specifically based in Karnataka to access the world of gender and sexuality through their mother tongue.

Priyanka Chakrabarty is an intern at SheThePeople