Is the Increasing Transgender Visibility in Cinema a Ray of Hope or Just Tokenism?

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Pride Month 2020, albeit in the middle of a deadly pandemic, is a glorious occasion to celebrate as it has been the second year since India abolished the draconian Section 377 and legally accepted her LGBTQIA+ citizens.

Recently, superstar Akshay Kumar took to social media to announce that he would be playing a transgender woman in Raghava Lawrence’s Laxmmi Bomb, remake of Tamil film Kanchana.

The response to Akshay’s casting left the audience divided. While many recognised the positive impact a superstar like Akshay would have in challenging the stigma around the community, as was the case in Tamil cinema, where a paradigm shift in their representation happened due to the Kanchana movies. But the other section expressed exasperation because another cis-gendered heterosexual man was taking up space that could have gone to a queer actor.

The same happened when people questioned Anurag Kashyap, why Kubbra Sait, a cis-gendered woman had played Kukku in Sacred Games. Konkona Sen Sharma, a cis-gnedered woman starred as a transwoman in A Monsoon Date, a film surprisingly written by a trans writer Ghazal Dhaliwal.

It was only in 2018 with the Tamil-Malyalam film Peranbu featured the first transgender actor in a lead role. Anjali Ameer created history, albeit quite late, when she starred opposite Mammootty as Meera, the trans woman Mammootty’s character falls in love with and marries after she saves and rehabilitates him and his disabled daughter.

Filmmaker Faraz Arif Ansari, who has helmed Sisak and Sheer Qorma, two films with about same-sex couples , had taken to Twitter to find a transgender woman to be the lead of his film TRANSaction 2.0. While the tweet generated underwhelming response, it caught the attention of Hollywood actor Ellen Page, who had retweeted it. Two years down the line, with several workshops conducted, Ansari is yet to find his lead.

When a community, race or region is underrepresented for centuries, they tend to accept consolation prizes. While it takes eighteen into the 21st century to have one transgender actor play herself in a lead role in Peranbu, and nineteen years for one transgender actor Shree Ghatak to make her debut in Season’s Greetings in Bollywood, a lot of people are finding consolation in the fact that the representation of the community has come far from what it used to be.

The transgender community has come far from their original depiction on screen as villains or psychos. The brilliant Ashutosh Rana, who is chilling in every negative role he plays gets remembered most because of his portrayal of Lajja Shankar Pandey, the trans woman who abducts children and sacrifices them in Sangharsh. The same kind of stereotype was exploited in Emran Hashmi-led Murder 2 where the murderer was a man named Dheeraj Pandey who was so scorned with women that he transitioned into a woman to murder them.

This depiction is regressive on so many levels as it reinforces negative stereotypes against the community. It does not only deny the fact that transitioning is a natural right for members of the community, it also takes away attention from the fact that trans women are, in fact, real women.

Sadashiv Amrapurkar’s Maharani in Mahesh Bhatt’s Sadak was a sadistic brothel owner who tortured and forced women into sex work. While many transgender people are employed in sex work, with this depiction, there is a complete erasure of the socio-political reasons behind such employment.

If not villains, the transgender community was shown as a laughing stock with “effiminate men” and “masculine women” stereotype dehumanising them. Many Bollywoood male-leads, ranging from Aamir Khan to Ajay Devgn cross-dressing as humourous ploys in films, who in no time would reclaim their machismo back in the same film. On the other hand, actors like Bobby Darling, who was cast in many such roles was bullied by people in the industry and the audience for years.

With the passage of time, and a wave of much-required sensitivity in films, there is a slight ray of hope. Recently, Vijay Sethupathi played the trailblazing Shilpa in Thiagarajan Kumararaja’s Super Deluxe, who normalised the complex yet never changing love between a son and his father, who has now transitioned into a woman.

Credit where it’s due, two films in the 90s that also quietly paved the way for a better, more nuanced portrayal of transgender characters. Paresh Rawal’s Tikku Ali Sayyed in Mahesh Bhatt’s 1997 Tamanna, a trans woman who adopts and raises a little girl is an example of a fleshed out, complex transgender character. Another example is Amol Palekar’s 1996 film Daayra, where a trans woman rescues and shelters an abducted girl.

Many other roles throughout the years have brought the community to the mainstream. Be it Mahesh Manjrekar in Rajjo, Shashank Arora in Others, Sanjana Dipu in Moothon, Adah Sharma in the upcoming Man to Man, among many others, a lot of these stories are finally being told.

What the community now needs is to have its real members telling their own stories on screens. A cis-gendered male actor might argue that he has the right to play anyone he wants to, but it is not his place to say so. If a marginalised community is saying that it wants real representation, a cis-het person doesn’t get to say otherwise.

Granted, Indian cinema has still not reached the desired political correcteness yet, where it could make a force like Scarlett Johannson apologise for taking up seldom given space, but there is hope that one day we will get there. Because Mairembam Ronaldo Singh’s Mary Lyngdoh in Paatal Lok is just the first step towards equality.

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