Call Me By My Name: A Reclamation of Name and Identity in Valli

By Rhea Chalak


In the 2023 Marathi-language film Valli, the titular character has many names: Valli, Valya, Jogta, Jogtya, Mata. As the film progresses, the dissonance between our protagonist’s many names become increasingly blatant and clear-cut. What is less evident, however, is the way this dissonance stretches out, both radial and rhizomatic, across his life and identity. Rather than augmenting or connecting the different aspects of Valli’s identity, these names present jarring chasms. Additionally, those around Valli refer to him not by his name but by his role within society—a Jogta, customarily one who is a biological male forced to symbolically marry the Goddess and, after which, must give up everything in service of her including their assigned gender at birth and present outwardly as a woman.

As we know it, a name is a marker of one’s identity. In a name, the map of a person unfolds, and their family tree branches out. It carries one’s religion, race, excitement, and aspiration. This role Valli is asked to perform overshadows his sense of self. Instead of Valli, he is ‘the Jogta’.

Writer-director Manoj Shinde’s empathetic direction rejects the public names of ‘Jogta’ and ‘Mata’—the latter of which means ‘Mother’ and is used associatively with the Goddess—to bring us on a journey inward. His camera allows us to crawl into a place more vulnerable and obscured, where names disappear and are replaced with the personal, inward identity markers of ‘Valya’ and ‘Valli’. Yet, as we are led to these more private spaces, the question emerges: is this intimate proximity invasive?

The first time the audience sees Valli, his back faces towards the camera. He is placed within the center of the frame, clad in a gaudy, glittering sari, singing aloud a homage to the Goddess. Situated behind him, the audience is far from intervening. This is Valli’s public self as Jogta and Mata, stripped of his preferred gender and identity, instead imposed with the deity’s. But when the camera switches to face him, he stares straight into it, at us; his eyes are imploring, as if praying for intervention. Here, in the private sphere of his room, the audience sees Valli as himself as well as his suppressed emotions. As he dresses and undresses, there is a faded vintage poster of the famous Bollywood actor Sanjay Dutt on the wall of Valli’s room. Clad in a black tank top and blue jeans, boasting bare biceps, Dutt is a paragon of male desirability. It begs the question: does this stem from a place of infatuation, part and parcel of a celebrity crush; or idolization, a feverish desire to resemble?

On their own, names are words, and words seem gender neutral. Within this community, the names of Jogta and Mata eradicate this neutrality, going so far as to imposing a gender onto one who adopts (or is forced to adopt) this name. Actor Deva Gadekar approaches his portrayal of Valli performing the role of the Jogta with tender nuances; as Jogta, he is forgiving, tolerant, submissive, as Valli, he must hide his emotional repulsion, something visible only through the camera’s proximity.

Valli runs for 143 minutes and, throughout the film, Valli is shown in waiting. He sits around; breaks into the gym; visits his friend Tara; runs away from other men harassing him; rehearses with musicians and performs for stony-faced crowds. He is approached when people want or need something from him. His identity as a Jogta leaves him isolated and in constant anticipation of something. Dreaming of a world faraway, Valli is detached from his present reality and fantasizes his escape. At times, the film feels arduous; the pacing is slow and lethargic without even music to distract the audience.

Despite this, Shinde successfully negotiates the precarious position between invasion and intimacy. The Jogta tradition has a long history and only remnants of it are preserved in very rural parts of India. Valli takes this almost-forgotten practice and places it before us respectfully, not as an exhibit in a museum, but rather as a love letter to the community. For a film that could easily present a sensationalized or exploitative narrative about an already under-represented community, Shinde gracefully treads the line. Valli is not presented as a victim to pity, but a fellow human on a journey of self-exploration. As the audience, we are not left as passive onlookers filled with vague sympathy. Instead, the film’s immersive quality forces us to look Valli in the eye. We are also onlookers of the village, a community governed by complex sociopolitical rules and religious dogma. We can hold hands with Valli, quietly watching Valli and recognizing him by his name.