(Daayra, Hindi & French title).
Writer/Producer. Timeri N Murari
UK Premiere at the Haymarket Cinema. Distributor Blue Dolphin.
Premiered at Toronto Film Festival 1996, then London FF.
France: Distributor Avanti Films.
Reviews, Making of the Film, Interviews.
TIME MAGAZINE: One of the ten
best films of the year 1997.
The first 20 minutes of this Hindi- language panegyric packs sufficient
incident for a dozen Hollywood movies. On the eve of her wedding
day, a young woman (call her X) is mistakenly kidnapped by a brothel
madam-the madam was supposed to pick up the woman's sister, but
never mind. Their car smashes into a tree, and X escapes her pursuers.
She promptly meets a man (call him Y) dressed as a woman; he was
once a prominent singer of female roles in music drama, but now
that the form has been sexually integrated, he's out of a job.
After X is raped by a motorcycle gang, Y convinces her that she
will be safe only if she too becomes a cross-dresser. Some stolen
khakis, a haircut, a fake moustache and voila! He's a woman, she's
a man. Tootsie times two.
The Square Circle was, alas, shown with 20 minutes of songs cut
out. But the film's pulse and generosity are still evident. The
singer (played with poignancy by Bandit Queen's Nirmal Pandey)
gets drawn into romance but never has to renounce his gayness.
The coming of age of the young woman is limned with wit and affection.
Hats off to screenwriter Timeri Murari. - Richard Corliss, TIME
On this evidence, rural India isn't exactly a cosseting environment
for single women. Sonali Kulkarni's unnamed protagonist has the
misfortune to be kidnapped into prostitution by a Madame and her
henchmen, then gang-raped by a trio of macho louts when she's
plucky enough to escape. Unlikely salvation is at hand, however,
in the form of transvestite Nirmal Pandey, a wandering entertainer
who has himself obviously been around. Having found his own identity
through dressing as a woman, he comes up with the idea of putting
her in men's clothes so that they can pass as a 'straight' couple
and travel the country roads in relative safety on the return
trek to her home village.
Certainly, screenwriter Timeri N. Murari has come up with a richly
resonant central conceit, but the real excitement is that you
simply don't expect to see it in popular Indian cinema, an area
thus far off limits for UK distributors and audiences alike
Amol Palekar's direction is relatively restrained for Bollywood
(the dance number has been cut for this print), but pretty rough
and ready to Western eyes, though once you adjust it's easy to
get caught up in the way it plays every emotion to the hilt. It's
the film's thematic daring that's scintillating, though, as it
explores the tension between sexual identity and social circumstance
in a staunchly traditional society which offers little room for
manoeuvre. While Kulkarni draws our sympathy, it's Pandey's caring,
pragmatic, worldly-wise performance as the resourceful tranny
that really draws you into the film's imaginative sphere. Forget
your preconceptions about Hindi cinema; this takes us on a touching,
witty, always surprising journey through terrain that's unfamiliar
and human dilemmas that aren't. Quite an achievement, in any language.
Trevor Johnston TIME OUT (London)
. - Writer Timeri N. Murari offers an Indian film that does constitute
some kind of break through, examining sexual identity and gender
stereotyping. This strange, sad road movie of sorts delicately
probes complex issues, showing that marriage, can be a blessing
and a trap, and that relationships are often forged at the intersection
of romance, duty and companionship. THE OBSERVER.
-" this is an intriguing film when Murari's script is allowed
to take wing..." Derek Malcolm, THE GUARDIAN.
-" Timeri Murari's film puts the melos back into melodrama
and the sense (and sensitivity) into sensationalism." Nigel
Andrews, THE FINANCIAL TIMES.
-The film's triumphs are its brilliant script - written by Timeri
N. Murari- and its actors. Nirmal Pandey though uncomfortable
in the love scenes is witty and feminine. Sonali Kulkarni, with
a Smita Patel-like sensuousness, is equally moving. -INDIA
- The beauty of the film is a mixture of the story's simplicity
and the more complex issues it draws upon. what does it mean to
be a man or a woman? Can we quell sexual longing in favour of
companionship? A moving and meditative film, The Square Circle
plays quiet testimony to the talents of filmmakers on the fringes
of commercial cinema. ASIAN ENTERTAINMENT.
- But this is mostly a sensitive exploration of sexual identity
in a country where such issues aren't open to negotiation. Special
mention goes to the delightful Nirmal Pandey, it takes an actor
of considerable talent to elicit sympathy. THE INDEPENDENT.
-One fears that the writer Timeri N. Murari is going to backtrack,
but, although the conclusion involves a death, the film rights
itself in a last scene, which, reassessing the truth the film-makers
wish to convey, is handled with dignity and conviction. THE
Opened at Curzon, West End, distributor Blue Dolphin. Opened Paris,
Distributor Avanti. Sold to Denmark, Australia, Sweden, Nippon
FESTIVALS: Winner of Grand Prix at Festival de Valenciennes, France.
Also shown at Toronto, The Hamptons, London, Melbourne, Copenhagen,
Oslo, New York, Vancouver film festivals.
MAKING AN INDIAN MOVIE. By TIMERI N. MURARI. (for The Guardian)
I had always meant THE SQUARE CIRCLE ('Daayra') to be a love story
between two people trapped in opposite identities.
I can't pin point exactly when an idea is born. I'd like to attribute
this film to a pretty girl I saw years ago. She was a villager,
herding goats along the roadside near Mysore, in South India.
I was travelling with my wife and sister and got out of the car
to take the girl's photograph. Her reaction was startling. She
ran screaming and crying to her village and in a moment we were
surrounded by her hostile people. We calmed them down and explained
the camera, and in return told us why she was frightened. There
had been a spate of kidnappings, all girls, who had disappeared
forever. No doubt sold into prostitution.
I wrote the first draft story and screenplay of her back in 1992.
She neither became a prostitute nor remained a village girl. She
is STOLEN (my original title) by strangers in a car but managed
to escape her kidnappers many, many miles from her small village.
She had to get home and that was when her adventure began. It
is dangerous for a woman alone to travel the rural roads of India.
Rape, especially gang rape, is, tragically, a common crime. Indians
are the most sexually suppressed people in the world and I doubt
whether many men have even seen their own wives totally nude.
As there's no such custom as dating before most marriages, rape
seems to be a form of entertainment for the Indian male when he
finds a woman alone.
My heroine was raped and beaten. She was forced to disguise herself
for the long journey, so she changed her appearance to a man's
- a short hair cut, men's clothes, the male strut- to reach home
without further attacks. And through her change, she discovered
the freedom of being a man in a male chauvinistic society. I wanted
to use her to explore the role of an Indian rural woman, with
little education and limited experience, in our society, experiencing
life through her new identity. Indian women are feisty, charismatic,
strong and have long emasculated the Indian male through their
spoiling and over indulgence. In that they deserve the men they
So my girl was going to have
an adventure along a subject I love - the Indian roads and all
that happens along them. She would meet people who would change
her and she would discover her strengths and explore her character.
I gave her a freedom which she would otherwise not experienced
in real life. She was going to become a totally different person.
I thought she should also fall in love but as I couldn't figure
out who she should fall in love with, I left that part out in
the first draft. She was going to return home and marry the man
she was meant to marry before she was kidnapped. I saw a couple
of problems in that. Can a village girl, after many weeks alone
on the roads, return to her home and be greeted with open arms
by her husband-to-be? Certainly not in backward village India.
She'd be stoned to death, lynched or driven out, probably gang
raped in the bargain for good measure. Village males are mega
MCPs. They assume the worst. She'd just have to meet another eligible
I wrote the script for myself as the director. It wasn't going
to be a high budget film. I calculated it could be done for around
60 lakhs. Still it was more than I had. I went to London to raise
While waiting, I re-wrote the script. A quite wonderful thing
happened. A wise, witty man literally appeared on the page at
the right moment in time as if he'd been waiting all along in
the wings of my subconscious. He literally rose out of the river
like a spirit. He was also a transvestite. So the Girl played
the male, he the female. It wasn't going to be an instant love-at-first-sight
but as he wrote himself into the story I guessed he was the man
my heroine would eventually fall in love with as they both travelled
on the road back to her village.
Of course, I had seen transvestites on the roads as well as in
the cities. I had seen them dancing and singing along the road
and in villages. My neighbour's cook cross dresses at four in
the afternoon and sashays down the street wearing a saree with
fresh flowers in his hair. In New York I regularly took visitors
to The Pink Parrot (now closed) a wonderful club for transvestites.
I was once even picked up by the most stunning blonde I'd ever
My village Girl was naturally
bitter and angry at what had happened to her. Like an Alice, she'd
fallen down a hole into an alien world. But as my transvestite
remarked: 'Look at the hole I've fallen into. A beautiful woman,
trapped in this man's body.' He plays the role of her mentor,
giving her the courage to continue on their journey. Gradually
as they grew closer together, they fell in love. I saw no problems
with them becoming lovers. We're all, men and women, bi-sexual.
Through custom, society's rules, cowardice even, we remain trapped
in the physical roles nature has cast for us. I have friends who
are bi-sexual ('switch hitters'). They seem to enjoy their dual
roles but it has caused havoc in their personal lives. So, my
transvestite character could become her lover without betraying
anything within himself.
Gender-bender films have long been part of the international cinema.
Whether it's Dustin Hoffman in 'Tootsie' or Cary Grant in a skirt
in 'I was a Male War Bride'. But the stars have always quickly
reverted to their male identities on screen and shown themselves
as the macho hero. I guess only Terence Stamp in 'Priscilla, Queen
of the Desert' was brave enough to remain in his transvestite
character right to the end.
In Indian cinema, sex is all titillation. It's the wet sarees,
the gyrating belly button of our female stars, the roll down the
hill in each other's arms. We still haven't even progressed to
a passionate, lingering on screen kiss, even as we near the 21st
century. Our censors remain entrenched in Victorian prudery. Obviously,
there's a lot of sex going on, our demographics prove that something
is happening behind the closed doors and in the darkness of village
homes. On screen, we have always portrayed sex as romantic love
without any of the consequences. While on Khajuraho and Konarak
every possible sexual change is rung for even the smallest child
In London, everyone loved the script but wouldn't write the check.
They thought it too Indian but love stories are universal, whatever
dress the lovers wear. When I decided to write and produce it
instead, I had originally wanted a particular woman director.
I sent her the script but she never responded.
I found a producer-partner in Bollywood and we raised the money
from friends, tennis partners, our pockets and an investment company.
Bollywood 'works to a rigid formula: six songs and six dance numbers
or no deal. I negotiated the money men down to one dance and four
songs. They don't bother about Scripts as they "copy' the
latest Hollywood hit, a complete original screenplay; with dialogue,
was an aberration. In India, one person writes the action and
another writes the dialogue. They don't meet. My English dialogue
was translated into Hindi by the dialogue expert, and he was damn
The Square Circle was shot in Orissa, a neglected state, sparsely
populated by Indian standards. We were based in Konorak; a one-temple
hamlet with one phone line to the outside world which didn't always
work, so organising rushes and finding lost crew and actors gave
our production manager ulcers. The crew was multi-lingual -
Hindi, Marathi, English, Tamil, Telugu, Oriya - and screamed instructions
were often wildly misunderstood. Indian films are as popular as
'Hindu mythology; and village children can sing every movie hit
song. On remote beaches, even before the tripod had hit the ground,
people drifted in, all knowing two English phrases: "film
shooting", "art film". As we didn't have any superstars
and dishum-dishums (fight sequences), they muttered 'art film"
and drifted out again, disappointed.
It was a good shoot, apart from the normal hazards. In Bollywood
contracts are worthless, so in mid-shoot my director demanded
screenwriting credits for his wife! We bestowed an 'additional
screenplay', very reluctantly, as otherwise Palekar threatened
to stop the shoot. ' Uncontracted Wives' even co-directed and
called the cuts; for all I know, Mrs Spielberg and Mrs De Pa1ma
do the same. And the film went way over budget. Hollywood and
Bollywood aren't that far apart.
A postscript: the film was invited to the Toronto Film Festival,
the Hampton FF, and the Berlin FF next year. But for unexplained
reasons the committee of the 1997, International Film Festival
of India (IFFI) has chosen to ignore it, a1ong , with every other
Hindi language film.
Timeri N. Murari wrote the story and screenplay and was co-producer
of The Square Circle, which is to be shown at the London Film
TIME OUT (London) interview by Trevor Johnston.
It may be the second largest movie Industry in the world, but
Indian popular cinema doesn't reflect Indian society. That's the
message from writer-producer Timeri N. Murari, whose first move
into film-making, a mould-breaking saga of sexual ambiguity entitled
'The Square Circle', remains far too contentious for an Indian
release to seem likely in the foreseeable future. Instead, his
film, which made it on to Time magazine's 1996 Ten Best list,
has won acclaim on the International festival circuit, and Britain
will be the first country in the world to release Murari's remarkable
hybrid of gender-swapping psychodrama and populist Hindi storytelling.
That's our good fortune, for its courageous, compassionate, imaginative
play with masculine and feminine stereotypes within the cultural
framework of Indian traditionalism makes for a genuinely exciting
celluloid discovery. You think you're getting a typical Bollywood
melo, but suddenly all the rules have changed and the real issues
are on the agenda -sexual abuse of women, the repression of gay
desire in arranged marriages, unfulfilled female desire in a society
that pays little attention to it. Hot stuff indeed.
And, of course, the sort of material that never appears on Indian
'The typical Bollywood formula is two brothers, one good, one
bad, fighting over the same girl who eventually goes to the good
one after about four hours and six extended dance routines, ,
explains Madras-based 'Tim' Murari, a former Guardian feature-writer,
TV documentarist and author of ten novels. 'The Indian distributors
simply couldn't cope with a story like ours, where a male transvestite
and a lone young woman change identities to protect her from the
threat of rape or prostitution. The popular image in India is
that men are men and women are women. There are a lot of gay men
there, who aren't represented in the cinema because they don't
fit the macho role. The increasing sexual abuse of women isn't
treated seriously, either. We've tried to address these issues,
but the response from Indian distributors was that the film should
have been two hours longer and had five more dance sequences.
And if you don't go with them, there are no art- house cinemas
in India. You won't see a Satyajit Ray film there.'
In fact, one thing that makes 'The Square Circle' so fascinating
is the tension between the contemporary, international perspective
of Murari's script, and the tried-and-tested direction of Amol
Palekar, which struggles to contain the myriad liberating ideas
within a saleable popular format. Though sexual candour is almost
a given in our own film and TV output, we're here witnessing an
attempt to express things previously unsaid -at some cost to on-set
relations, it turns out.
'What you see is the conflict between writer and director, which
has currently reached the stage where we're barely speaking to
each other,' admits Murari, who rustled up much of the finance
for the film from his network of tennis friends. 'I wrote it with
my sensibility and thought he'd understood all our discussions,
but he'd spent his career in commercial Hindi cinema and he's
the man with the camera. His wife, a theatre person, also turned
up and started co- directing, which was problematic for the actors,
since I'd already spent , three evenings trying to persuade Nirmal
Pandey to play the transvestite. He had to be convinced that the
guy also slept with women. The American concept of the "switch-
hitter" came in useful for winning him over.'
In the event, Pandey's resourceful performance as the wise bisexual
transvestite who's experienced life from both a male and a female
perspective gives the film its real thematic kick. The Bollywood
trappings may sometimes seem rudimentary to Western eyes, but
the central conceit in the screenplay proves indestructible.
'The first version I wrote was mainly about the girl,' he recalls.
' But then this transvestite character just came up out of the
water beside her and the script almost rewrote itself. Let's face
it, all men and women have a bit of each other in them. Some men
are obviously more female than others, some women more male. It
was a device that allowed me to explore issues that weren't just
Indian. Wherever they're watching it, viewers will be able to
find their way into the film.'
'The Square Circle' opens Fri at the Curzon West End. See West
End listings for details.
INDIAN EXPRESS interview by Mukund Padmanabhan.
TIMER N. MURARI, author of The Square Circle, defies genre, like
the director who's made his 1993 screenplay into a winner of a
film. Although he's sometimes inexplicably described as a Raj
novelist, only a couple of his many books fall squarely in this
category. In a sense, even the term Indo-Anglian author appears
misplaced. For instance, three of his novels -which are set abroad
-have no Indian reference points and are written with a completely
Western sensibility. A former journalist- he worked with The Guardian
in the early '70s - Murari hasn't been economical with his output:
he's both diverse and prodigious. In a little over two decades,
he has written ten novels, two non- fictional works, three plays
and a couple of screenplays that have dealt with subjects as varied
as the Raj, historical romance, crime and social drama. His best-known
book, of course, is Taj, the historical novel that was translated
in nine European languages.
When Murari wrote The Square Circle (originally titled Stolen),
he was unsuccessful in raising money for the screenplay soon after
he had finished it. It was after a friend introduced him to Pravesh
Sippy(he's co-producing the film along with Murari) that the proposal
to film it (using Amol Palekar as director) took shape.
A tragi-comic love story where the key characters are a young
abducted and girl and a transvestite. The Square Circle may well
evoke comparisons with Bandit Queen. It is transparently feminist
(perhaps unwittingly anti-male) and its raw, blunt dialogue is
peppered with four letter words. Like Phoolan Devi Murari's girl
seeks vengeance after being abducted and raped.
Beneath the hard and bitter carapace of The Square Circle, however,
lies an underbelly of wit and tenderness. Despite its profanity
and violence, Murari's (hitherto unpublished} script appears intended
not so much to shock but to undermine our notions of normality.
'Natural' is the love between the young girl and the transvestite;
'abnormal' is the malevolent, male-dominated, misogynistic society
they inhabit. The script succeeds in weaving a web of empathy
for the couple as their relationship-which seems founded on a
shared loneliness and a sense of being unloved and unwanted -blossoms
into an odd but convincing love.
The Madras-based author says he's "90 per cent happy"
with Palekar's rendering of his screenplay and thinks that Nirmal
Pandey and Sonali Kulkarni were "brilliant" in the lead
roles. The residual "10 per cent" unhappiness relates
mainly to the film's end.
Murari, meanwhile, has written another screenplay. He's reluctant
to talk about, beyond saying that the story is based in Madras
and that the film will constitute his next project. He has also
recently sold the rights of one of his novels, Lovers Are Not
People, to a Hollywood producer. His latest novel, Steps From
Paradise, was published by Hodder and Stoughton earlier this year
As executive producer, Murari was present when The Square Circle
was filmed in Orissa between December 1995 and February this year.
Although a low-budget film, he's unsure how much the film will
recoup financially. "I'll be happy," he says, "if
all those who invested in this film get their money back."
PREMIERE interview by Sara Wallace.
INDIAN WRITERS MAYBE ENJOYING acclaim on the global literary scene,
but aside from Satyajit Ray, Indian filmmakers have tended to
neglect international markets in favour of entertaining 90million
viewers back home with popular Hindi spectaculars A rare crossover
is The Square Circle, which charts the relationship between a
village girl who is sold into prostitution; and the male transsexual
who persuades her to live as a man.
"A film like mine would be hard pushed to gain distribution
in India," says Square Circle screenwriter Timeri Murari.
'Bollywood is absolutely formulaic. Films have to be three hours
long and contain no less than six song and dance routines. Bollywood
is in such a rut, it is looking to Hollywood for inspiration rather
than drawing on Indian experience."
Despite celebrating 50 years of independence India, according
to Murari, "is in a state of crisis. We've had 50 years of
corrupt politicians, AIDS has reached epidemic proportions; infanticide
of girl babies takes place on a real scale; and yet India is culturally
unable to look at these problems."
In The Square Circle, the heroine is sold into prostitution; as
she travels as a man, her horizons expand. Things are slowly changing
for the better for some Indian women, but on the whole life is
very hard. So, what impact can a film like The Square Circle have?
Murari simply hopes the reaction will be like "a stone in
a pond creating a ripple effect".
Murari is currently in production on his next film, about a racist
London cop who travels to India and discovers that his own father
was an Indian. It will star Indira Varma (also seen in Kama Sutra,
another Indian film that opens in London this month but had a
huge struggle to get Indian distribution). "I want to show
the world," says Murari, "a little piece of India that
it rarely gets to see."