Film as a subversive art has not only jolted the foundations of bourgeois morality but also helped influence popular opinion on specific issues and stereotypes while leaving intact. Though Bollywood has made significant strides in representing LGBTQIA+ narratives, its proclivity towards resorting to sensationalism and has proven counterintuitive, to say the least.
“I think the subject of homosexuality has been handled far more maturely in regional cinema like Malayalam or Marathi rather than in popular cinema, merely because these films placed the problem in a social, everyday milieu,” says eminent film critic C. S. Venkiteshwaran while speaknig to . South Indian cinema has emerged as a frontrunner in authentically portraying queer characters as regular individuals with dreams, desires, and emotions, just like anyone else. As such we're encouraging you to explore 5 regional films from South India that infuse nuanced storytelling and sensitivity in their portrayal of queerness, exemplifying how art can shape social perceptions and promote inclusivity.
Directed by IPS Xavier, Karuvarai Pookal is a Tamil film that was way ahead of its time for casting two transgender women in lead roles, Julia Robert and Smile Vidya, who play the same character before and after transitioning. The story revolves around Gopi who grows up with an unshakeable fear of being ostracised for not fitting into the . While the dysphoria that brims under the surface is compelling enough, it is really the mother’s remoulding from intolerance to unconditional acceptance that shines through the small town odyssey.
The film masterfully depicts the emotional upheaval that parents of trans children go through as they navigate secrecy, unlearning and the fear of judgement from the community at large.
Iratta Jeevitham is a Malayalam film directed by Suresh Narayanan that delivers a heartrending homage to the fluidity of gender within the machinations of romance. The plot follows a childhood attraction between Sainu and Amina, two girls who develop a potent alliance only to be wrenched apart when Amina runs away from the village. In her friend’s absence, Sainu is married off and is resigned to her fate until a stranger walks into her life. Adraman seems familiar, like a painful vestige from another life, and Sainu falls for him only to realise that it is indeed her long lost paramour Amina who has undergone gender affirmation surgery.
Though unique in fostering the visibility of trans men, with their community being sorely underrepresented in mainstream media, the film devolves into illustrating the hopeless alienation and fetishisation that haunts the unhappy lovers who dare to pursue their innermost desires.
Directed by Ranjith Sankar, Njan Marykutty is a Malayalam film that recounts the chronicles of a trans woman named Marykutty and her indomitable resilience to remain true to herself. Though the protagonist is played by cisgendered actor and co-producer Jayasurya, who is undoubtedly misplaced in the role, the heretofore uncharted concept that gender identity may not be a choice as much as an inherent disposition is one of the strongest takeaways of this tale. The opening scene plants the viewer firmly in the shoes of the main character as she is cross questioned by the cops, evincing the age-old diatribe that trans women must be incessantly persecuted for not fitting into the conventional gender norms.
Based on the true story of K. Prithika Yashini, India’s first trans woman to be appointed as a sub-Inspector, Marykutty also nurtures a dream to enter the police force. In a scene that brazenly unearths the systemic patriarchy of our public institutions, Marykutty encounters a female government official who cannot believe that someone could forsake the 'privilege' of being born a man, to which our heroine responds with “that’s because you don’t know the value of being a woman.”
Paava Kadhaigal is an anthology film in Tamil that welds together four different stories, each exploring the theme of honour (maanam) and the overwhelming ordeal of defying honoured traditions. In Thangam, the first serving of the quartet directed by Sudha Kongara, we admire Sathaar (played by Kalidas Jayaram) reckoning with their own reflection in a mirror. Unhinged in time and born in the conservative Kovai district of Tamil Nadu, Sathaar lacks the means to transition into a woman, but does not resent the waves of discomfort they elicit in the people around them. Their willingness to step aside so their sister can be united with a man they are both in love with is not seen as a sacrifice but more as an empowering decision of not standing in the way of happiness, no matter who is blessed with it. Vignesh Sivan’s Love Panna Uttranum is another segment that might be seen as a modern take on honour killings involving a casteist leader who murders his own daughter in cold blood for cavorting with their driver, only to be confronted by the twin sister (both played by Anjali) with her same-sex partner (played by Kalki Koechlin) in tow.
Naanu Ladies, directed by queer filmmaker Shailaja Padindala, claims to be the first Kannada film that evokes the through the lens of a lesbian love story. Notable for its mostly all-female crew, the set was bustling with individuals who lacked a basic understanding of queerness, but were transformed during the process of working on this film. Premiering at the 16th Tasveer South Asian Seattle film festival (TSAFF) in October 2021, the saga of two female artists, Anita (a struggling actor) and Padma (a painter in the making) entangled in an all-consuming love affair, is a contemporary elegy that pares down the male gaze when looking at femininity. The director also examines the reproductive rights of queer women and the economic freedoms they should cherish in supporting their partners. Thus through the pragmatic prism of our multidimensional reality, Naanu Ladies endures as a defiant celebration of queer love in spite of all the travails that must follow.
While mainstream Hindi cinema still continues to churn out well intended but grossly distorted flicks like Haddi (2023) that defeat the whole purpose of marginalised representation by casting popular cis-male actors, the South Indian fraternity is turning adept at fostering diversity in storytelling, particularly in the realm of queer romance.
Films like (2003) and (2019) have won several accolades at prestigious film festivals, showcasing the industry's ability to produce world-class cinema that interweaves gender identity and sexuality seamlessly into the sociocultural fabric of present times.
However, there are many lesser-known gems out there, and by shedding light on them, we hope to contribute to the growing recognition and appreciation of queer narratives in South Indian cinema.