Art has the immense power to change and dictate opinions on social issues like divorce, violence, and identity. When it comes to identity in Indian cinema, there has been a recent influx of LGBTQIAP+ centric movies like Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga, Badhaai Do, and Shubh Mangal Zyada Saavdhan. These movies, however, focused more on the identity issues of lesbian and gay individuals as they navigate family tensions and romantic relationships, albeit in a typical Bollywood masala style. While these movies are a good first step forward in terms of sensitively representing the community, we have a long way to go before we extend the same level of compassion and empathy to trans individuals, both on-screen and off.
Bollywood’s representation of the trans community has at best been negligent and at worst problematic and harmful, full of negative stereotypes that portray the community in the most egregious ways. On-screen, trans characters are almost never portrayed by actual trans actors, with casting directors resorting to cis-gender people dressed in drag. Mainstream Bollywood films seem to have only two cookie-cutter templates for trans individuals — the laughing stock or the terrifying villain. Rakhi Sawant’s Ms Saxena from Masti (2004) and Lajja Shankar Pandey’s character in Sangharsh (1999) are examples of both stereotypes respectively.
These representations lead to further marginalisation of the community, and instead of having a character with layers, we get one-note sidekicks who do not really add anything to the discourse of trans lives in India.
The movies Chandigarh Kare Aashiqui (2021) and Laxmii (2020) are two recent movies featuring trans characters and the way they handled their two leads is entirely different.
In Chandigarh Kare Aashiqui, cis-gender actress Vaani Kapoor plays trans Maanvi Brar, who falls in love with a cis-gender macho man, Ayushmann Khurrana’s Manvinder Munjal. While overall this representation is not as bad as others, Kapoor’s character is still hyper-sexualised when Khurrana’s character believes that she is a ‘regular woman’ and he is immediately enraged when she tells him that she is trans and feels that he has been ‘duped.’ The bottom line is that a cis-gender actor played another trans characterisation, and both Vaani Kapoor and director Abhishek Kapoor faced immense backlash for the same. However, there was still a large part of the community that was happy that Bollywood was finally taking baby steps in the right direction, by showing a new type of love story, the likes of which we have not seen before, even with a trans character being portrayed by a cis-woman.
On the other hand, resident Canadian citizen Akshay Kumar plays the titular character in Laxmii, a cis-gender man that has been possessed by a female ghost. It is a movie that is meant to be a horror-comedy but is neither of either. In fact, possibly the most horrifying part of the movie is the insensitive and reductive portrayal of trans identity. The moment Kumar is possessed, he begins acting effeminate, leading the audience to believe that a trans woman is nothing but a man in a woman’s clothes, which could not be further from the truth. The movie also uses Laxmii to depict violent behaviour, like kidnapping and murder, thereby pushing the fear-mongering rhetoric that Bollywood has been using for decades against marginalised communities.
However, this is only Bollywood. The South Indian film industry is quickly growing in popularity for its sensitive portrayal of trans identities, most recently in the 2019 movie Super Deluxe, a Tamil sketch in which actor Vijay Sethupathy, although cis-gender, was praised for his sensitive portrayal of trans character Shilpa. The characterisation manages to steer clear of Bollywood’s caricatures and treats the character with the dignity and self-respect she deserves. Other films that manage to create a positive portrayal of the trans identity are the Malayalam film Njan Mary Kutti (2018), as well as Thangam, from the Netflix anthology Paava Kadhaigal in 2020.
With harmful laws like the Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Bill in 2019 causing blows to an already vulnerable community, Bollywood’s representations of trans people only aid in undoing the little progress that we have made as a community. However, we must understand that the story does not end with the casting of trans people, and goes deeper than that. The lack of representation has created a space where trans people are unsure of the kind of reception they will find in the film industry, leading to a dearth of trans actors. Additionally, at the end of the day, the film industry is a profit-making industry. Studios have to factor in whether the story would be more effectively told with a famous cis actor or a new trans face. Casting representatively is one thing but adding more fully-fleshed roles for trans individuals that do not involve comic relief or terrorising a community might be more effective in telling a story while keeping the integrity of the community intact.
In his book Ways of Seeing, author John Berger writes “The way we see things is affected by what we know or what we believe.” As a cis-gender person writing on trans issues, I am reaching beyond my lived experiences to talk about a complex phenomenon that is fraught, added to the fact that my opinion is the one that matters least here. I have had the privilege to see myself and my own identity as a woman represented on the silver screen, however male gaze-y and objectifying it may be. As such, it was essential for me to be as honest as possible, and examine myself to try and change the way I see people after I gain new knowledge. As a majorly cis-gendered audience, we might do well to reexamine and unlearn the stereotypes and falsehoods that Bollywood has reinforced for years.
If you enjoyed reading this, we also suggest: