There’s much treasure to behold in Amol Palekar’s The Square Circle (1996), an Indian film that has aged incredibly well. Its a searing indictment against masculine hegemony as well as a beautifully told portrait of female friendship amidst a search for establishment of identity. It’s an empowering road movie of the highest order, where the women here speak plainly and openly about the woes and wonders of womanhood. As they come to understand each other and help each other grow, they work together against the staunch regulations of image and gender that Indian society seems eager to cast them into. It’s a powerful piece of cinema that arguably feels more relevant than ever before.
When The Girl (Sonali Kulkarni) is abducted to be used as a sex worker, she manges to escape only to cross paths with The Transvestite (Nirmal Pandey). A travelling performer who shuns her male exterior, The Transvestite consciously chooses to embrace her identity and publicly live as a woman. They embark on a journey, both metaphorical and literal, experiencing life in the constraints of the male-dominated society. The Girl is forced to mature faster than expected, in a far more difficult circumstance than she could have imagined. The Transvestite becomes a mentor and protector, impressing upon The Girl the need to become self-reliant while honing her own, newly formed identity. This is a film unlike any other in terms of how it tackles gender construction and female identity.
Both of the women are notably nameless, as if to impress upon viewers that the women on-screen could be stand-ins for any real-life counterparts. The society these women live in – replete with experiences of catcalling, sex trafficking, expectations of arranged marriages and even rape – is almost cruelly masculine. But it exposes the harsh reality of the female experience. The fact that it takes place within the infamously and ferociously gendered boundaries of Indian society makes it all the more impactful. Yet the protagonists, while sometimes victimised, learn to lean on each other to never become victims. Rather, their subversion of expectations is what adds so powerfully to the film. The Square Circle feels like a time-capsule of a film but its themes are still quite relevant today. It rolls through the beautiful Indian countryside, juxtaposing the beauty and mysticism so embedded within the land with the harsh realities of societal norms.
One incredibly powerful sequence takes aim at popular Bollywood culture while taking aim simultaneously at rape culture: The Girl finds herself cornered by three leering men who take turns pursuing and attacking her. Inter-cut with this sequence, The Transvestite sings, wandering across the land and pouring her heart out. The pairing of these moments is no mistake; its a call for acknowledgement and reparations. Palekar has crafted an exquisite film. Not only is The Square Circle a finely crafted picture, it’s a much-needed addition to the realm Indian neorealist films. Thematically engaging, heartbreaking and heartfelt, this is a film that will continue to maintain its power and relevance through empowerment.
Allie Gemmill | @alliegem