A primordial war cry against the gender binary, the tin taali of a hijra person forging a fiery path at a traffic intersection or local train station in India, roused the justice system from its colonial hibernation in April 2014. Justice KS Radhakrishnan was serving his last term on the Supreme Court, when his two-judge bench (the other being A K Sikri) conferred the ‘third gender status’ upon transgender people in our country.
“Recognition of transgenders as a third gender is not a social or medical issue but a human rights issue," he said in his landmark ruling.
A transgender activist and mother, Gauri Sawant — one of the petitioners behind the PIL instrumental in this victory for the community — was in her mid-thirties then and though she was celebrating this queer euphoria, she couldn’t help but wonder when this new bill would translate into real world changes. “We have to change the myopic understanding of gender as being three watertight compartments of male, female and others,” she lamented in an interview to DNA. “For, as long as that happens many will continue to remain marginalised and ignored.”
Our earliest impressions of how gender and identity intersect often serve as the blueprint for lifelong interactions with non binary and trans individuals. The films we watch while growing up, the characters we resonate with or learn to fear on television and the hesitation we sense from our parents when they encounter hijras tapping on the window of the family car — all these memories trickle into our subconscious. Before we know it, we are no longer looking at a trans person as a human being, instead they have assumed an amorphous shape floating beyond the pale of respectable society as we have grown to understand it.
Watching Ashutosh Rana play a hijra person who sacrifices children to attain immortality in the 1999 film Sangharsh was straight out of a Grimm’s storybook and it still makes my blood run cold. The vilification of trans identity in mainstream visual culture has been systemic and hyperbolic to an extreme, movies like Sadak (1991) or Murder 2 (2011) actively portraying trans women as malicious entities, while Rafoo Chakkar (1975) and Chachi 420 (1997) featured crossdressing as comic relief or convenient plot device.
The world of entertainment itself has undergone a crucial transformation in the past half decade or so with the rise of Netflix and other streaming services. According to PwC’s Global Entertainment & Media Outlook report, the OTT platforms saw an unprecedented growth of 28.6 percent in India between the years 2019 and 2023 when the COVID-19 lockdown thrust us further into the recesses of our insularity as far as media consumption was concerned. With the walls of the cinema hall crumbling around us, the nervousness we felt in espousing unconventional ideologies was slowly evaporating and our individualised algorithms began feeding us more of what we really enjoyed watching.
Released this Independence Day, the tersely biographical Taali is a six-episode web series streaming only on JioCinema, helmed by Sushmita Sen, who is essaying the role of aforementioned Gauri Sawant. The series traces her journey from her soured relationship with her police inspector father to starting her NGO and eventually concludes with the aformentioned Supreme Court verdict. Although Sushmita's performance has been lauded for her emotionally intelligent portrayal of a nurturing and resilient activist, the show falls upon straitened means when trying to depict an inner life of a troubled man who transitions into Gauri, and this largely impinges upon the optical illusion of seeing a cisgendered woman in the role of a trans person.
While it’s commendable that the makers of the show are peering at transness through an empathetic, albeit misguided lens, the authenticity of gender dysmorphia — as Sushmita Sen scrutinises herself in mirrors strategically placed between the ‘gents’ and ‘ladies’ washrooms — is watered down because the actor does not inherently belong to the community she’s representing.
When a young Dalit transgender activist, Rie Raut first heard about the show, they were elated that Sawant wasn’t being played by a cis man like Akshay Kumar in 2020 ‘comedy horror’ Laxmii. However, they were quick to point out that “if a cis woman plays a trans role, Bollywood thinks it will be more respectful because the assumption is that she is the end goal of every trans woman.” Not to forget, as Rie goes on to mention, this was an opportunity taken away from a trans actor.
A theatre actor herself, Sophia David is a trans woman who has wrestled with the idiosyncrasies of a cisnormative industry, frequently told that she was “not trans enough” or “not woman enough” in every audition she has been to. “When a cis-het person plays out a trans person’s role it fuels irreparable inequity,” she interjects. “It takes the cis-het person way ahead in the race at the expense of a minority group, widening the gap.”
“Nothing about us, without us,” says another trans rights activist and social media influencer, Trinetra Haldar Gummaraju in an interview to Mid-Day. “Too often, trans people aren’t involved in the process of their own storytelling, when sharing trans stories on screen should, first and foremost, be about normalising being trans and drawing empathy to trans lives.” After a four year moratorium, the second season of Amazon Prime Video’s much awaited web series, 'Made In Heaven', cast Trinetra in the pivotal role of a production head for the eponymous wedding planning company, who happens to be a trans woman.
The fans were astounded at how the script does not tokenise Trinetra or play into the victim trope even after she is thrown out of a car on a date gone wrong. Trinetra's character Meher Chaudhury is a fully self possessed human being in her own right, working on her relationship with her mother and navigating the onerous Delhi dating scene.
The beauty of a trans woman playing herself on camera translates into the naturalness and organic representation that the community yearns for. “When you want to play a drunk person, you must try to pretend you are not drunk,” Rie quips. “Drunk people in real life pretend they are not drunk but when sober people play drunk they go all out, full Devdas”.
Unlike Made In Heaven, most shows tend to treat their trans characters as objects of novelty and brutalise them or subject them to tragic endings in a half baked attempt to spread awareness about transphobia, suicides and gender based violence in our country. A similar fate befell the character of Kukoo (played by cis actor Kubbra Sait) in Netflix India’s first original Sacred Games, who falls for the mafia mastermind Ganesh Gaitonde (played by Nawazuddin Siddiqui) before taking her own life. When asked about whether she thought a trans woman should have gotten the role, Kubbra retorted that she is an actor and if someone asks her to play a cloud, it wouldn’t be expected for a real cloud to be cast for the role.
Exploring queer euphoria and ascribing a more holistic identity to queer characters beyond their queerness is a new realm for digital content to be wading in. It is a source of inspiration for most coming-of-age teens to see a trans person on screen grapple with their identity but keep at it; to not give up hope and emerge triumphant by mettle of their own self-confidence.
If we keep writing trans characters that are mopey or one dimensional and continue casting cis actors to play them, we won't see the amorphous state of transness imbibe human features, and find acceptance even offscreen.