Figuring out one’s gender and sexual orientation can prove to be a confounding business, and especially so when the two seem to be at odds for some people. Like the many films preceding it, Miss Man dares to step into such murky psychological territory and yet―unlike most other productions―staunchly refuses to dilute the myriad complexities and contradictions involved into any straightforward plot with easy conflict resolution. Instead, the film goes from strength to strength within its often-dreamlike web of desires―thriving through an examination of its trans protagonist’s overlapping moods and memories, as he undergoes a tumultuous identity crisis within a hopelessly regressive society.
Miss Man opens with a montage of faces and visions and soft caresses, following which we find our protagonist Manob sitting alone inside his room. He begins draping a saree around his body―a body that seems to be in open revolt against his sexual being―and sits looking into the mirror, perhaps the only place that allows him a glimpse into his real self. As Manob sits basking within memories of his childhood, and his loving mother, his reverie is abruptly broken by his father entering the room. The background musical score breaks off to be instantly replaced by the din of everyday life, punctuated by the squabbling voices of two neighbours, anticipating the inevitable conflict between father and son which soon follows.
Manob has realized that his conservative father will never be able to accept him and his deviant sexuality, and so has his lover. Unfortunately, the latter demands that he undergo sex reassignment surgery if they are to live together in a society that shuns same-sex relations. Manob leaves for the city, faced with the uphill task of raising money for his operation while navigating the urban jungle of Kolkata all on his own. He must eke out a living while flitting between his dual identities, even as his mind goes back and forth between past and present, harbouring dreams for the future. As Manob is tossed around by the tides of fate, he meets a couple of strangers whom he seems to bond with and tries to re-anchor his life and identity through them.
Writer-director Tathagata Ghosh meticulously creates an intimate study of sexual desire, longing for acceptance, and repressed souls within trapped bodies: all within a 25-minute package that is likely his most masterful work till date. We spend almost as much time inside Manob’s headspace as we do outside, sifting through the fragmented dreams and ghosts that haunt him, as his various doubts and misgivings keep trying to smother any semblance of happiness he finds. Very aptly Miss Man‘s editing keeps moving abruptly across spaces real and fantasized, memories and the present, as a counterpoint to the ever-widening split between the ‘Miss’ and the ‘Man’ within Manob who desperately tries to reclaim a unity of being.
Manob indulges in fantasies where he is walking down in a saree, all decked up in make-up and jewellery, with his head held high ― a utopian dream that’s always accompanied by a montage of faces looking, and laughing, at his appearance. His childhood memories remind him of a man―a homosexual artist―who once resided with his family as a tenant. Being perhaps the only soul to truly understand and accept Manob unconditionally―apart from his mother―he holds a special place in his heart. Yet as fate would have it, they were forced to part ways owing to the same ills plaguing our society that now victimize Manob: a sheer inability to accept forms of love that deviate from our archaic norms.
As much as it is evident that Miss Man is the culmination of an entire ensemble’s collective labour, much of its brilliance is undoubtedly owed to Arghya Adhikary as Manob. Effortlessly transitioning between confident and vulnerable, delicate and forceful, Adhikary expertly channels the appearance of a man trying his best to stay afloat in a world that seems hell-bent on drowning out his real identity, as the recurring shots of his partially-submerged head can confirm. Ultimately, through Miss Man, Tathagata manages to force the viewer to confront a number of difficult questions and the unacceptable realities leading to them, much like Kaushik Ganguly’s Nagarkirtan (2017) which grappled with similar problems. In lieu of answers, we only have the quotation opening the film: