Cinema in India is like brushing your teeth in the morning. You can’t escape it.
Shah Rukh Khan
Two male characters sit in a dark room talking to each other. Someone has died, yesteryear actress Nazneen Begum (played by Nadira), who had faded into oblivion and succumbed to an ignoble death. One character asks, “Uska ek beta bhi hai na, jo hijra hai (She has a son, no, a hijra)?” Thus begins Mahesh Bhatt’s National Award-winning 1997 film Tamanna. Back then, the film was lauded for sensitively depicting a transgender individual. Paresh Rawal had dived into the role of a transgender, Tiku, with a measured understanding of the humanity behind the word. The film also stood out as through most of it Tiku does not show, in his outer appearance, the trappings of a hijra. Yet, the very word ‘hijra’ is a catch-all term that can mean either a transgender or a transsexual person.
More often than not, the transgender community makes only a perfunctory appearance in Bollywood films. To them falls the job of hounding wedding parties or the birth of a child and fleecing the groom or the parents, respectively. Or you can see them trying to cosy up to the hero who recoils in disgust — scenes supposed to provide “comic relief”. Decade after decade, this has been a casually accepted trope leveraged to evoke laughter and revulsion in equal measure.
Granted the political right to vote last year, transpeople are no longer willing to put up with such dehumanising stock stereotypes on celluloid. In January, a group of transpeople raised their voice against what they saw as their “humiliating” portrayal in Shankar’s Tamil film I. They took exception to a scene where two male characters, including the film’s hero, dance and sing around a transgender character while s/he suggestively eats a sausage. The protest was held outside the censor board’s regional office in Chennai as the censors — otherwise quick to find objectionable content in the most innocuous potrayal of sexuality — had cleared the film despite the scene that many transpeople found insulting and misleading.
“I watched I,” wrote Dalit transwoman actor and activist Living Smile Vidya in her open letter to Shankar. “While the critics have ridiculed your script, it seems to be beyond them to criticise your ridiculing the ‘nine’ (trans) character in your movie… You are, after all, the epic director! You are free to depict us, trans people as sex freaks, sociopaths, second class citizens, or in any way you want to… If the appalling denigration of transwomen in Shivaji (when Vivek says ‘It has just come back from surgery,’ and our superstar moves away, disgusted) was at one level, you have surpassed yourself by taking transphobia to a whole new level in I… Shankar, how are we, the pottai of the world, any less dignified than your masculine ideal? Is that ideal bigger than our realisation that our being is filled with femininity and we yearn to live the truth of our gender? Is your ideal much bigger than the courage to be honest and leave the safety of our home and the comfort of our families? Is your ideal nobler than us losing our basic rights as citizens, when we run away and become refugees, second class citizens, in our own country? Is it more magnificent than the scorching pyre of starting life afresh as a woman, without economic or social support? Is it any grander than us bearing with fortitude the violence of your masculine ideal on our bodies every day of our lives? Or, Shankar, do you simply think we do not feel at all? That we cannot realise our dignity is assaulted? It’s fine that you wanted five villains… But then, you wanted one villain among them to be plush and grand and at the same time comical. I am appalled that you chose to have a transwoman as that villain.”
In a land where films are censored or don’t see the light of day when leaders of one or the other religious, caste or regional group take offence, or if they depict sexual intimacy, no one loses sleep over transpeople feeling insulted by a film.
While the films that deal sensitively with transpeople are few and far between, one wonders why, a year after they were granted legal status as citizens of India, they are still brushed aside to the margins.
The Indian film industry gloats about its status of being among the largest producers of films in the world. With almost 1,200 releases annually, it makes Indians the biggest consumers of films.
Even so, the scaffolding on which most popular cinema rests is built on convenient though increasingly redundant binaries: Hero versus Villain; Right versus Wrong; Male or Female. It leaves no room for transgenders with their fluid gender identity.
Mumbai-based independent filmmaker and writer Paromita Vohra observes, “Mainstream Hindi films need a lot of figures besides the hero and the heroine to fill the plot. But, unlike the hero and the heroine, these characters are not given an inner life. Transpeople are already marginalised and so they are relegated to being the funny element in the plot. Through this the mainstream can conveniently invalidate their identities so as to not let them pose a threat to their heteronormative space.”
Commercial cinema has never looked at a transgender character as a figure that could be central to the main plot as s/he is seen to be socially irrelevant. “In the past, actors like Mehmood would cross-dress in films to bring a comic effect. As a rule, popular cinema works with stereotypes and does not challenge them. If a film does not conform, there would be enough people who won’t allow it to be popular,” says Shyam Benegal, one of the pioneers of the parallel cinema movement in India in the 1980s and the filmmaker who included a transgender character in a non-peripheral role in one of his mainstream forays, Welcome to Sajjanpur (2008).