Synopsis

 

THE SQUARE CIRCLE
(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.
REVIEWS
    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 magazine.
    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 TODAY
- 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 GAY TIMES.
Opened at Curzon, West End, distributor Blue Dolphin. Opened Paris, Distributor Avanti. Sold to Denmark, Australia, Sweden, Nippon TV. BBC-TV.
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.
ARTICLE
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 get.

    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 male. Somewhere.
    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 the finance.
    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 seen!

    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 to see.
    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 faithful.
    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 Festival tomorrow.

INTERVIEWS
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 screens.
'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."