Cinematographers-turned-directors always have a special delicate, indrawn way of looking at life - and this isn't the first time Santosh Sivan looks at a fringe community.
His lyrical, enchanting excursion into the heart and mind of a female terrorist in "The Terrorist" yielded many questions and some answers about the equations that distinguish and govern the darker recesses of the human mind, heart and soul.
Like "The Terrorist", Sivan's "Navarasa" is also about a journey undertaken by a dark dusky inquisitive and bright-eyed young woman trying to probe her way out of an existential crisis.
One of the many pleasures of watching "Navarasa" is to see the way Sivan uses his actors. Most of the peripheral players are so authentic you forget you're watching them in the sublime subterfuge of cinema.
As for the protagonist Swetha, she's a prized child discovery. So natural in her inbuilt impishness and instinctive wisdom, she seems to forget the presence of the camera.
Little Swetha's journey of terror and discovery isn't quite the one that Ayesha Dharker undertook in "The Terrorist". More instrinsic than political, "Navarasa" records with timorous sensitivity the little girl's responses to the process of sexual awakening.
It's no coincidence that Swetha attains puberty just when she discovers that her timid, effeminate uncle in the shadows loves to wear the family jewels.
Sivan plays with the concepts of light and dark, shadow and sunlight to depict the ambiguities that underline human sexuality. Swetha's shock and incredulity at the idea of her beloved uncle being a woman in a man's body is a clever device to distance and familiarize the audience with the third sex.
In Swetha's journey from revulsion to acceptance of her uncle's sexual ambivalence lies the film's integrity and sensitivity.
Sivan leads us gently into the world of eunuchs as they gather at the annual festival in Koovagam in Tamil Nadu. By the time the crowd colour and quirkiness of the mela hit our senses, we're well prepared for the culture shock.
Often, the director's camera tends to flirt with exotica, but not at the cost of the plot. There are long passages of soulful visuals, for example the eunuchs huddled in a dreamy blur at the fair dressed in widows' whites after marrying the deity Aravan...here the cinematographer in Sivan coalesces with a gentle jolt in the director.
The narrative fuses art and documentary in a partnership that's passionate and articulate. True, some passages ring disturbingly false. The way the narrative stands still while the eunuchs at the mela come on-camera to speak about their plight, isn't quite cinematic in the true sense.
And yet, the truth about docu-portions in the narrative cannot sweep away the incisive look at a community that mourns to be embraced by the mainstream of society (a rather quaint metaphor for a film like "Navarasa" begging acceptance from mainstream cinema).
As Swetha travels to find and retrieve her gender-confused uncle, the narrative takes us into untouched garish-green landscapes in Tamil Nadu where the nature-tampered creatures of the third sex appear tragic grotesque and yet real in their vain efforts to appear feminine.
The friendship that grows between Swetha and a kind and funny cross-dresser Bobby Darling (played by the actor of the name) is punctuated by warmth and solidarity. Bobby dancing in drag to the tune of Sridevi's "Hawa Hawaii" to cheer up Swetha in a dingy hotel room at the venue of the eunuch's mela, is done in a style that's unselfconsciously lyr