The film begins with a series of Yakshagana artists readying themselves for the show. They sit still and silent as makeup is applied to their faces, and rituals are performed to bless their performances. In an interview, a man backstage explains that in a Yakshagana performance, men play the female roles. He extols that some performers’ movements are so feminine that they are mistaken for women. He is questioned off-camera about a particular performer who might or might not have worn women’s clothing at all times, and committed suicide. After a few more questions, the camera gives us the reverse shot, showing two young filmmakers huddled over a camera, listening to the interview subject.
These early sequences depict the film’s strengths and also its limitations: its fascination with these performers and their pathologies is earnest and often illuminating, but the film layers on a critical distance which feels unproductive and tacked on, rather than organic in approach. It posits the main character, Hari (Shrunga Vasudevan), as a sort of enigma – the film’s narrative does a great job of shading in the detail of this particular person, but the film’s conception casts him as a host of contradicting details and stories, reduced to what might or might not have happened to him.
Hari is a young star in his rural theater troupe who specializes in playing female roles. However, after his request to play male roles is rebuffed, he becomes more unsure about who he is. He begins to wear a skirt which causes trouble at home (his younger’s brother marriage proposal is laughed off because of Hari’s reputation). He finds himself sharing a house with another man so the neighbors threaten to take them to the authorities. His struggles with his identity haunt him and Vasudevan’s performance is wonderfully mopey, but more often than not the film sits there on the screen, its dynamics and conclusions set in stone.
This is the first film of Ananya Kasaravalli, the daughter of famous Kannada filmmaker Girish Kasaravalli, and she acquits herself well for the most part. Most of the interest here is in Vasudevan’s performance, the slow rhythms of the rural villages of Karnataka, and the strange, stylized rituals of the Yakshagana art. But the film truly sabotages itself with the frankly useless conceit of the filmmakers trying to find out more about Hari and his life. The ending is as ill-judged as I’ve seen in a long time, essentially commenting on the film’s emotional high point (a long shot of a character walking into the middle of a lake, followed by a stunning look at the camera) and rendering the emotional fallout of these images as meaningless. The film’s failures are crystallized in its final image: two useless characters stare out at the ocean, deflating the drama, and putting the whole thing in quotation marks. Why wasn’t Hari’s story enough?