It’s been a minute since Sadashiv Amrapurkar’s Maharani gave everyone the chills in Sadak (1991). We’ve come a long way in Hindi entertainment since then. This year, we’ve had six major shows and films with prominent trans characters, and it’s only September. One of these was a high profile debut for a trans actor (Trinetra Haldar Gummaraju in the second season of Made in Heaven). Another featured actor Sushmita Sen playing a trans woman inspired by activist Shreegauri Sawant, while yet another was one of the most anticipated releases of the year (Guns & Gulaabs by Raj and DK).
On paper, this looks wonderful, but take a closer look and you’ll notice a familiar pattern in the characteristics that are associated with transness. Transgender characters keep getting cast as the resident baddies — immoral brothel owners at best and sadistic killers at worst — and are invariably posited as the other, like Vijay Raaz’s Raziabai is in Gangubai Kathiawadi (2022). Raziabai almost competes with the protagonist for charisma, but she nevertheless embodies the opposite traits of Gangubai. In Guns & Gulaabs, the first thing we see a key character do when they accept their trans identity is commit murder (that too of their father. If there is Netflix in the afterlife, Sigmund Freud must have felt a whirlwind of emotions). There’s a similar reveal in Kaala where, once again, the arch villain is a trans woman.
This peculiar penchant for painting trans-ness in less-than-favourable shades is an old legacy in Hindi entertainment. In the past, it was frequently made worse by cis-het actors playing these parts, often to appalling effect. Sometimes mined for “comedy” — if you’ve been able to forget Rakhi Sawant as Ms Saxena in Masti (2004), our envy knows no bounds — and usually associated with villainy, trans characters have rarely been allowed complexity and nuance in Hindi entertainment. Here are a few who have made an impression and let’s hope that the roles get better as the industry opens up to more trans people.
Maharani remains one of Amrapurkar’s most unforgettable performances. An evil trans woman who runs a brothel, Maharani’s involvement in prostitution and illegal trafficking does a whole lot of damage in the plot while also cementing prevailing notions about trangender communities being mired in sex work. Yet for all the prejudice that laces the writing of this character, there’s something about the menace that Amrapurkar brought with his performance that is gripping. There’s nothing flat about Maharani, who commands the scene every time she appears. If only it wasn’t her transness that was shown as fearsome.
Awkward as it may be in parts, Amol Palekar’s Daayraa remains one of the better written and sensitively imagined stories about queerness and love to have come out of India. Nirmal Pandey played the nameless “kudrat ka karishma” (divine miracle) who is biologically male but “andar se aurat” (a woman inside). Pandey got some fantastic dialogues in this film, which ends with a woman declaring her love for Pandey’s character. It was considered bold for Pandey to take on this role back in the Nineties and even now, it’s difficult to imagine too many leading men doing a role like this one.
Kukoo's transgender identity serves as a significant plot twist in this crime thriller, but to Sacred Games’s credit, Kukoo is not defined solely by her transgender identity. Her charisma, her capacity for love and her experiences of loss all contribute to the narrative. While her role may be relatively small in terms of screen time (and includes an entirely unnecessary nude ‘reveal’), Kukoo makes a profound impact as a person. Co-director Anurag Kashyap had expressed a desire to cast a transgender artist for this role, but reportedly faced challenges in finding someone willing to take on the part.
Maanvi is a Zumba instructor and Manu, a gym owner, falls head over heels in love with her. That is until she tells him that she is a trans woman. The revelation makes Manu, who is initially repelled by the fact that he kissed a transgender woman, spiral. Maanvi doesn't fit the stereotypical appearance associated with being transgender. Ultimately, Manu (like all Ayushmann Khurrana characters) sees the error of his ways, and everyone lives happily ever after. While the film does suggest that the only way for a trans woman to find social acceptance is if she conforms to conventional standards of feminine beauty, there’s something to be said for a mainstream Hindi film championing a trans woman as a heroine.
As a role, Cheeni is not one that gets much screen time and as one of the four individuals apprehended as accomplices in a plot to murder a journalist, she does little more than weep. However, through Cheeni, Paatal Lok showed the cruel treatment that the LGBTQIA+ community endures in Indian society. Actor Mairembam Ronaldo Singh, who portrays Cheeni, made everyone sit up because she is a trans actor and was discovered by casting director Nikita Grover.
It’s almost as though Laxmii had a checklist of what makes a film problematic, and then went on to tick all the boxes. Kumar plays a Muslim man possessed by the ghost of a transwoman, thus achieving the rare feat of being both Islamophobic and transphobic at one go. Much of the time, transgender identity is used in an attempt to be funny, with Kumar adopting exaggerated feminised body language for comedic effect. The only silver lining of this film is that it’s a masterclass in what not to do and how not to write a trans character.
In R Balki's Ghoomer, Das plays Rasika, who shares a sibling-like bond with Abhishek Bachchan's Paddy, the film’s grumpy hero. Das imbues Rasika with vulnerability, genuine kindness, and innocence. While some may wish Balki had given her character more depth, this portrayal stands out as one of the few instances where representation doesn't leave you feeling disappointed. It’s also a character whose trans identity is not her defining trait, but rather used to show a positive aspect in Paddy.
You can count on one hand (with a few fingers to spare) the number of trans actors in mainstream media, so it was good to see a new face add a queer edge to Made in Heaven. Unfortunately, Haldar Gummaraju’s Meher feels too much like a token character in the show, which was weighed down by its own preachiness. It seems like Meher has only two aims in life: Educate those around her about trans identity, and score a date with a man who is not a transphobe. However, considering so many of the other trans characters we’ve seen on screen this year, there’s clearly a need for Meher’s lectures.
One can acknowledge the commercial appeal of having a prominent star like Sen driving market forces. However, Taali does approach the transgender experience primarily from a cisgender perspective, even though Shreegauri Sawant (on whose life the film is based) was closely involved with the project. Could Taali have been a better film? Yes. Still, it’s a mainstream film with an established star championing the cause of trans rights. We’ll take what we can get while dreaming of more.
When Nawazuddin Siddiqui — widely acclaimed as one of contemporary Hindi cinema’s finest actors — is playing a trans woman, you’re entitled to expect an impactful performance. To Siddiqui’s credit, his turn as Haddi, the heroine of Haddi, is measured and not clichéd. However, within the film’s first few minutes, Haddi commits two murders — one of a friend, the second of a stranger. Both are men whom Haddi kills because she thinks they’re more use to her as dead bodies. Let’s just say that this is not a role that will make you rethink the prejudices against trans people. “Pata hai log hum se kyun darte hain? (do you know why people are so scared of us?)”, Haddi asks early in the film ( “hum” here refers to the Hijra community as a whole). In the film, the answer is simple: Because Haddi is scary. Once again, the film conflates aggression and transness, depicting Haddi’s criminality as typically trans and not as deviance.