Four years ago, when India’s census added an option for a third gender/an “other” category, the results revealed that almost 5,00,000 people of those surveyed identified as transgender. While activists estimate the real count to be 6 or 7 times higher, this data finally allowed the Indian government to establish the legal existence of this community – one that has been deeply stigmatised, ostracised and subjected to horrific violence throughout the history of India. Legal victories are no doubt important, but without a subsequent cultural and social shift, the everyday realities of discrimination will barely change. One way to spearhead those shifts and open up candid dialogue is by presenting these narratives sincerely and accurately in mainstream film and television, mediums that have incredible pull in Indian society.
But Indian cinema still has a long way to go. The director of Sisak – an award-winning short film hailed as India’s first LGBTQ love story – Faraz Arif Ansari spoke to Homegrown about the almost-insurmountable challenges he is facing to cast an older transgender woman for his first feature film, Sabr. A young, queer writer and director, Faraz’s work is visually beautiful and thematically compassionate. For the past several months, he has released casting calls across social media and through all his networks – one of his tweets even went viral when Hollywood actress Ellen Page re-tweeted it – but for all its traction, he received no responses.
It is an ignorant thing to assume that the (fairly large) transgender community has no actors whatsoever – in fact, there are a number of young trans actors in the shadows of the industry, but the compounded challenge of being an older actress and a trans woman makes it nearly impossible for anyone that does fit the bill to have the courage or leeway to actually come forward. “India is no country for trans actors,” says Faraz with transparent sadness. “I wanted to tell a story that doesn’t conform to societal norms, in order to actually change those norms. When a director in the U.S. does an open casting call for transgender actors, 5000 or so will show up. If I did it here, not even 5 people would be able to come. Because Bollywood is extremely transphobic and no one cares about the emotional impact of misrepresentation.”
The importance of on-screen inclusivity and representation of minorities in media is a conversation that has yet to reach the country – perhaps because so much of the film industry is wrought by nepotism or perhaps because those in power are eager to brush it off as unimportant in the larger scheme of things. Most of Bollywood is so enormously privileged, self-congratulatory and majoritarian in its approach to media that they don’t recognise the lack of diversity and inclusivity as a problem at all. Even those directors acclaimed as the “pioneers” of modern cinema are ultimately only paying lip service to an ideal they aren’t passionately committed to. “I refused to watch Sacred Games,” says Faraz, “because Anurag Kashyap could have gotten an actual transgender actor to play the role of Kukoo. There is a huge community of young trans actors with untapped potential. So-called progressive directors like him have the money and the resources to be exhaustive and do it right, but they simply don’t have the will. For the dominant elite of Bollywood, inclusivity means inclusivity only within their privileged community.”
Those filmmakers that do go the extra mile to ensure authenticity and fairness are often unable to get their work beyond film festival rings. “I wanted my film to be intentionally mainstream so it could reach a wider audience, not just the same privileged crowds within indie circles,” said Faraz, for whom this is a very emotional undertaking. Mainstream films tend to caricaturise non-normative characters, and mass audiences ought to be presented with a different perspective that encourages empathy and understanding rather than ridicule and dismissiveness.
Even in big-budget films and TV shows that have portrayed transgender characters relatively non-voyeuristically, the actors are rarely transgender themselves, like in the cases of Rajkummar Rao, Murli Sharma or Ujjwal Chopra. Many international films have begun to be more inclusive in the range of actors they choose, like Daniela Vega’s spellbinding performance in A Fantastic Woman. In India, too, ads like the poignant one with Gauri Sawant and her daughter have sparked a small shift in people’s understandings. But the issue of insufficient representation still exists everywhere in the world and applies to almost every minority group; the people who hold social capital and privilege are the ones given opportunities to play “downtrodden” characters, but it is never the other way around. How often do we see a gay actor playing a straight character? How often do we see a Dalit actress playing a savarna woman? How often do we see a transgender person playing a cisgendered character? When there are so few mainstream films that even address these issues in the first place, talking about fair representation of the actors seems like quite a stretch.
In fact, Faraz’s experience shows that the issue goes far beyond the lack of opportunity. It is a longstanding cultural system that is set up to prevent any disturbances to the status quo. “Sabr is a self-funded movie that I have saved up for months to make. Big production houses are eager to give lots of money to big names, but those aren’t the films we should be supporting,” says Faraz. “The cost of my entire film – one that I hope can change how we perceive an entire marginalised community – is the cost of five of Amitabh Bachchan’s scarves.”
Even famous actors known for their progressive roles shunned Faraz when he approached them for support, with blatant remarks against the transgender community. “This film means everything to me. It is my baby and it breaks my heart to see how people have treated it with so much hate,” he says softly. This is a common reality for artists and activists everywhere – it can get really disheartening and emotionally draining to go up against such a massive system. But it is precisely through their collective voice that these old hurdles will be overcome. No amount of money, fame or glamour can replace sincere passion and the determination to shape a better future.
If you or someone know you know is interested in acting for Faraz’s film Sabr, please see our casting call here.
Representational feature image of Gauri Sawant courtesy of YourStory.
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