Reconstruction Vol. 16, No. 2

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When the Subaltern Screams: Pedophilia and Patriarchy in Humayun Ahmed's Pleasure Boy Kômola (2012) [1]

ABSTRACT: This paper aims to analyze the depiction of pedophilia in Humayun Ahmed's film Pleasure Boy Kômola and concentrates on the social and psychological reasons of this rarely existing sexual practice or perversion and the oppressive consequences it causes on the subalterns in Bangladesh during the colonial period.

KEYWORDS: pedophilia, patriarchy, subaltern

<1> In "Shua Urilo," Shitalong Shah writes and Ram Kanai Das sets his words to music:

The bird has its flight as if it has its life back.
It celebrated love in its cage,
But now is no longer in agony as it flies away.

The particular lyrics of this regional ghetu song [2] celebrate love, but it is a love within the limits of a cage. In his Pleasure Boy Kômola ( Ghetu Putro Kômola, 2012), the Bangladeshi film director and novelist Humayun Ahmed [3] subverts the original meaning of such "love." He places the folk song at the beginning of the film and in doing so draws an inherent connection from a contemporary perspective with the practice of pedophilia. It is generally accepted that some feudal lords practiced pedophilia in sixteenth-century Bengal under British rule. [4]

<2> In her Understanding and Addressing Adult Sexual Attraction to Children, Sarah D. Goode clarifies that pedophilia is a psychological state concentrating on the "adult sexual attraction to children" and includes such topics as "child sexual abuse, child pornography, sexology, sexual disorders and sexual deviance, children's sexuality and sexual politics" (2010: 2). Elsewhere, in Paedophiles in Society, she explains that those who practice such behaviors are "adults" who are sexually attracted to minors below the legal age of sexual consent (2011: 1). This attraction to children may be part of a much larger sexual desire, and pedophiles may be sexually attracted to girls, to boys or to both genders. The great majority of adults who self‐define as pedophiles are men (2011: 1). A sexual inclination characterized by the practice of sexual perversion, research into the subject is both limited in scope and ambiguous. Recent treatments in media are likewise riddled with "confusion and bafflement" (2010: 2; 2011: ix). In Pleasure Boy Kômola, the jamidar (or landlord) Chowdhury Shaheb is portrayed as such a perverse character whose abuses of the ghetu boy Kômola are, at least initially, accepted by those around him.

<3> It is important to note that there is little evidence to support the practice of pedophilia until the British colonial period, and as such, the film opens with a general caveat that it "existed," but fails to provide historical documentation. [5] Be that as it may, the director Humayun had had numerous opportunities to travel throughout Bangladesh-as a child, his family enjoyed governmental placement across the country, and these experiences provided him materials aplenty to inform his understanding of local folklore. He likely based his film on a tale overheard in Jalshukha village and adapted it with his short story, "Ekjon Shoukhindar Manush" (A Man with Delicate Tastes), the basis for his 2012 film (Figure 1). Central to the plot is a young boy who, in the wake of the flood season, is dressed as an enticing young girl, the ghetu Kômola, and dances before local audience and wealthy patrons who, in turn, support the entire group of performers and musicians. Jahir's father "owns" the troupe and forces his son into the profession in order that he might ply his trade and earn money and food enough for the entire group. During their stay in the Landlord's palace Chowdhury treats them lavishly with food and drink and sets about "seducing" Jahir. A rural space conforming to the dictates of larger issues of patriarchy prevalent in all such feudal settings, those within are equally constrained. The wife of the landlord lacks any voice by which to protest and, in fact, has little to no social standing in the larger family. Although she threatens that she will leave the palace and return to her father should the dancer remain under the same roof, the landlord needs mention a single word, "divorce" to remind her of her absence of power and her "lack" of place. Later, she exercises the only power she has, from behind the scenes, and bribes her housemaid with a gift of gold ornaments. In return, the maid agrees to kill Jahir. As he plays on the rooftop, she pushes him over the edge in what is meant to appear as "an accident." Jahir's father Fazlu departs in tears, and in the final scene we witness the wife, a sense of happiness momentarily restored, dining alone with her husband.

Figure 1. Movie Poster

<4> The nature of the complex exchange in the plot begs further reading. The wife views the dancer as "expendable" and superfluous to the continued happiness at the palace, she does nonetheless place a very high value on both his performances and on his inadvertent role in sowing discord among those in her once‐uneventful home. But in the absence of any real power herself, she herself must resort to using her husband's wealth-in effect, making her complicit in the performer's violations. Put differently, in the absence of any tangible power or currency, she can do no more than circulate, make use of the household wealth, and in doing so manipulate events from a distance. In this respect, she becomes herself a vehicle for promoting the patriarchal hierarchy.

<5> Though the story and the struggle of the subaltern may seem sentimental, the film paints a distorted picture of the wealthy and their place in rural folk culture in Bangladesh. During the colonial period, as Ahmed Wakil goes so far as to argue in Banglar Loko Shangskriti (Folk Culture in Bangladesh), few native landlords would have engaged in such an overt act of violating their subjects. Unlike many of their British overlords, most contributed in the enrichment of folk cultures and found other ways to support ghetu performers (2001: 137). That is not to suggest that no such abuses took place, for the wicked misuse of power is itself a recurrent theme in regional folklore. It is to say, however, that such behaviors were not commonplace and that when they did occur, they were so very egregious as to be worthy of remark and result in widespread disenfranchisement and public outcry, ostracism and humiliation.

<6> As the film opens, we see a black pigeon light atop Chowdhury Shaheb, thereby disturbing the ceremony and formality on the roof as Shah Alam paints the landlord's portrait. That the black pigeon symbolizes bad luck and is, therefore, an unwelcomed entity would be obvious to the audience, but we need take further notice of positioning: the bird comes in from "beyond" and descends to light on "top" of Chowdhury. Immediately a sense of uneasiness is set into place: the black pigeon is every bit as unwanted as a ghetu performer like Kômola, whose life is rendered worthless and seen as no better than filth to others. But equally disturbing, the bird holds a privileged position to and over the landlord. Mirroring its arrival is the excitement he expresses as he spots the arrival of the the bajra, or large boat, through the monocular. The boat is the vehicle that transports the performers in precisely the same way that the lens delivers a voyeuristic glimpse of the troupe. The image of the bajra through the monocular is clearly phallic, an image of misplaced desire as it arrives upon his shore. More to the point, the monocular ostensibly substitutes Chowdhury's penis at precisely the moment he witnesses Kômola's arrival. It also foreshadows symbolically the degree of violation that the dancer must endure later as he is seduced. In much the same way as his body is injured, he is torn from the realm of the aesthetic and reduced in value as no more than a discernable and discarded sexual commodity. In precisely the same manner in which the unwanted black pigeon momentarily becomes the object of desire of the feudal lord, so too does the phallic imagery suggest his pedophilic intent to denigrate through violation.

<7> Similarly, his wonton desires corrupt the artistic presentation of the dance. Chowdhury complains that Kômola's hips do not "move properly" in a manner quite as satisfying as his hands and legs do. In the background, we hear a song celebrating the dance of the peacock, itself identified with male sexual prowess and performance, as well as the arts of seduction betrayed in its own dance as it establishes territory and selects and appropriate mate. Queering the image, however, the object of desire is the male Jahir in the transgressive guise of his female side as Kômola. The landlord's insistence on more movement in the hips makes obvious his lust as he disfigures and thereby warps, perverts any aesthetic value of the dance form in favor of the highly sexualized. His pedophilic gaze betrays his physical attractions and his sexual intent. From off‐camera we are left to overhear the rape of the young dancer and his painful, pitiable screams. Kômola's father remains unmoved, silent, and does nothing more than insist that his group rehearse loudly to the music. Juxtaposed to the rape is the use of the pishani, a heavy earthen grinder with a thick, rounded head, used to press lentils and other beans. The housemaids grind lentils in time with the painful screams, signifying both the penetration and their tacit awareness of it. Beyond the overt phallic imagery-the grinder as a substitute in a very real sense for Chowdhury's erect penis as it thrusts repeatedly deep into the dancer—on a far more basic level, we cannot fail to note that the heavy grinder with every swing destroys everything it comes into contact with, in much the same way that the oppressive landlord does, and in the same manner, the lentils define the vulnerability of Kômola's identity as it is suppressed by, falls victim to the onslaught of the powerful lord.

<8> Put differently, the ongoing exploitation and oppression of the subaltern are taken to an extreme in such scenes wherein feudalism seduces rural innocence and steals away the aesthetic values of rural culture. If we consider the ghetu self and the boy Jahir in tandem as "sexed subaltern subjects" (Morris and Spivak 2010: 43), it is obvious that both the boy and his transformed female self are rendered unable to "speak" as subalterns. The men around him—Chowdhury, the father and the accompanying musicians all—are "great male gods" intent on the "destructions of [the] female body" (43). Chowdhury, himself possessed of a complicated psycho‐sexual nature, annihilates the ghetu self as he brutally rapes the child, the subject of his desire. Rape, in combination with an aggressive act of self‐punishment and the means toward fulfilling his unbridled passions, becomes beyond an egregious violation, an impudent act of perversion.

<9> Not even the subject of religion goes unquestioned, for it, too, is the imposition of patriarchal dominance. Because the landlord prays, others must pray, as well. But Chowdhury's position of power allows him to alter the religious tenets. He has no qualms with seducing a child-in this instance, a male child-but he chides his daughter for not saying "bismillah" before she eats sweets. [6] Such superficial approaches to religion reflect the constructions of patriarchal power for its own benefits. At the subaltern level, however, there is the significant practice of secularism. Additionally, among the troupe, there are two Hindis. They, too, participate in the strong bonding with the Muslim members of their group.

<10> In their essay, "Execution of the Libido: A Critical Study on 'Sex' and 'Gender' in Ghetuputra Komola," Md. Mohiul Islam and Israt Taslim explore the gendered identities constructed by patriarchal masculinity in the film. [7] In a world ordered by sexual imbalance, they reiterate, the "pleasure of looking has been split between active/male and passive/female, and the determining male gaze projects its phantasy on the female figure which is styled accordingly" (2016; Mulvey 1999: 837). Whenever the submissive female is accessible as its customary "exhibitionist role" (Islam and Israt 2016: 5), she is simultaneously looked at/upon and put on display. With her overall appearance contrived for the strongest possible visual and erotic impact, she is turned into an object of pleasure (1999: 837). Seeking pleasure from a male child, the landlord nonetheless wants the ghetu performer attired as a female. If we ponder on the psychological factors involved in such a fantasy from Lacan's understanding of inter‐subjectivity, we recognize that Kômola's behavior arises not from what he actually wants but from what he believes others prefer to see in him (Figure 2). Hence, the child's dress, in accordance with societal expectations, is necessarily transgressive, if for no other reason than it allows the perpetrator/penetrator to justify his pleasure in the psychological violation and the physical penetration before his wife and others. As Islam and Israt assert, "people … like to see a strong man in a position where he will be attracted to his opposite gender" (6).

Figure 2. Kômola and the Director

<11> Nor is it a surprise that the wife and the housemaid consider Jahir as "one of them from the gender perspective only for the way the ghetu was treated by the Jamidar" (Islam and Israt 2016: 7). As female, the other female characters ought to have been more understanding towards him and his unenviable position, and in that sense they could have ignored Chowdhury's impulses and attraction "towards the 'ghetuputra' who does not have any female identity in reality" (7). But reality is otherwise: they fail to empathize with Jahir. Worse, they posit themselves in an antagonistic role for fear of losing their proper place and position within the household and their proximity to the landlord and structures of discernible power. Certainly, the daughter of the landlord attempts to make sense of his situation, so much so that dressed as a female child at their first meeting, Kômola feels shame as the "weaker sex" before a girl of his own age (8). As a result, he expresses his need to present himself as Jahir. Still, regardless of her own attempts at autonomy, she, too, remains powerless as a female child and is by definition controlled byinternalizing the identifications given by others (8).

<12> On the subaltern level, however, we need remember that the effeminate is not necessarily equated with a weaker existence; rather it represents one aspect of an artistic presentation. We see both the daughter and the members of the group accept the effeminate existence as an artistic form. And from the beginning, certain movements in the dance, whether deemed effeminate by contemporary standards, beg the question. For in the tradition of ghetu songs, such moves are part and parcel of the natural expressions of art in the absence of any gender politics.

<13> When read in this manner, Pleasure Boy Kômola is very nearly unique in its portrayal of pedophilia and the historical struggle of the subaltern in rural Bangladesh. Clearly, an overarching ideology of patriarchy prevails the end, as Jahir is killed. What is perhaps not quite so clear from one spectacle that women who participate in-rather than mount any opposition to patriarchy-benefit the most. The English translation of ghetuputro, however, is not "pleasure boy," although it may well carry that connotation in the film. By having altered the nuance of the meaning, Humayun Ahmed is in effect doing a grave injustice by degrading a significant tradition of Bangladeshi folk culture. Such is the price of indicting the perversions of Colonial British rule.

Principal Cast and Crew of Pleasure Boy Kômola (2012)

Director: Humayun Ahmed
Kômola (Mamun)
The Landlord (Tarik Anam Khan)
Kômola's Father (Jayanto Chattopadhyay)
The Landlord's Wife (Munmun Ahmed)
The Artist Shah Alam (Agun)
Mayna (Shamima Nazeen)

Acknowledgement: Unless otherwise noted, all images were acquired under a Creative Commons license.


[1] Ghetu Putro Kômola (Pleasure Boy Kômola) is the last film directed by Bangladesh author and film director, Humayun Ahmed (1948‐2012). Made between 2010 and 2011, it received government approval and was released in 2012 without censorship. The film represented Bangladeshi in the best foreign film category at the 85th Academy Awards.

[2] Ghetu songs are the traditional folk songs heard along the river‐bank districts (usually flooded during the rainy season) of Bangladesh and were performed on at river's edge. The river bank is known as ghat in Bengali, considered by many as the origin of the term ghetu. It is worth noting a connection with the term ghamata (घामता), in Hindi meaning the "heat of the sun" and in Marathi, "bilge‐water." The term may be traced back to early Arabic uses in ghamada ("to sheathe a sword in its scabbard") or ghamata ("to immerse in water"), both of which add to our contemporary understanding of the term as it appears in this film. Nandolal Shwarma suggests that the tradition in music and folklore originated at the beginning of the sixteenth century, and subject matters of the songs were originally focused in some way on the love of Lord Krishna (1999: 2). Over the course of time, the subject of the songs concentrated on the different issues of shared merriment and struggle common to rural areas. Typically, a young boy dressed as Radha, Lord Krishna's lover, and would perform as a ghetu boy. Such dancers dressed head to toe as a female child while dancing, in most cases, their identities were considered sacred and artistic (2).

[3] Humayun Ahmed (1948‐2012) is considered perhaps the finest novelist of 20th‐century Bangladesh. He was also extremely popular as a director of films and television dramas.

[4] At this point, it should be noted that incidences of pedophilia, as well as prostitution and sex trafficking rose considerably under British rule. The so‐called "mega‐brothel," Daulatdia, built by the British during the colonial period and now owned by the family of local politicos, boasts a bustling business and is "home" to some 2,000 sex workers, most of them young girls, and many of them forced into sexual slavery. It is illegal for young women under the age of 18 to work as prostitutes, but thousands are forced by dalal (traffickers) to work in the trade against their will or do so in order to survive.

[5] Concomitantly complicating the veracity of this claim and calling everything into question-thereby prompting a further queer reading of folklore and film alike—are at least two elements in the film, the village as an indisputable location, a known entity that can be verified, and the named artist, Shah Alam, a problematic entity. As an artist, he "fashions" reality. He also shares in common his name with the historical figure of the Mughal Emperor, Shah Alam II (1928‐1806), himself involved in court intrigues as he initiated a campaign to regain the Eastern Subahs-Bengal, Bihar and Odisha-that caused the British East India Company to intervene in the region.

[6] Bismillah (in Arabic, ﷲﺍ ﻢﺴﺑ or "in the name of Allah") is the opening word to the Q'uran and the incipit form of the basmāla, the name given to the opening phrase of the Q'uran in Arabic, "In the name of Allah, the Most Gracious, the most Merciful."

[7] My use of the term patriarchy does not necessarily preclude the use of heteronormative, for the latter is clearly informed by the former. But they need not be interchangeable in usage. In certain instances, patriarchy precludes the homonormative subject, although when the head of a group (Chowdhury or the father, for example), by virtue of a position of power and control, benefits from the constraints of patriarchal power, the homosocial and homosexual may take their definition, ironically enough, in behaviors that otherwise might not ordinarily be sanctioned within the rigid adherence to the prevailing ideological construct.

Works Cited

Goode, Sarah D. Understanding and Addressing Adult Sexual Attraction to Children: A Study of Paedophiles in Contemporary Society. London: Routledge, 2010.

—‐. Paedophiles in Society: Reflecting on Sexuality, Abuse, and Hope. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011.

Ghetu Putro Kômola (Pleasure Boy Kômola). Dir. Humayun Ahmed. 2012. Film.

Islam, Mohiul Md.. and Israt Taslim. "Execution of the Libido: A Critical Study on 'Sex' and 'Gender' in Ghetu Putro Komola." Bangladesh Film Archive Journal 10 (2016): 1-11.

Morris, Rosalind C., and Gayatri C. Spivak. Can the Subaltern Speak? Reflections on the History of an Idea. New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 2010.

Mulvey, Laura. "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema." In Film Theory and Criticism: Introductory Readings. Eds. Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999. Pp. 833‐844.

Shwarma, Nandolal. Foklor charchay Sylhet (Sylhet in the Practice of Folklore). Dhaka: Bangla Academy, 1999.

Wakil, Ahmed. Bangladesher Loko Shangskriti (Folk Culture in Bangladesh). Dhaka: Gotidhara, 1974.

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