‘Chandigarh Kare Aashiqui Is Trans Persons 101 For An Uninitiated Audience’ — Gazal Dhaliwal, A Trans Writer, On What The Film Got Right

A trans woman screenwriter’s perspective on Chandigarh Kare Aashiqui, the first commercial Bollywood film with a trans woman protagonist
‘Chandigarh Kare Aashiqui Is Trans Persons 101 For An Uninitiated Audience’ — Gazal Dhaliwal, A Trans Writer, On What The Film Got Right

I was quite anxious about Chandigarh Kare Aashiqui ever since I saw the trailer — which was quite uncomfortable and offensive, reducing the whole trans issue to sex. But I held back my opinions, waiting for the film to come out, hoping for the best.

My heart was thumping throughout the length of the film. But I was pleasantly surprised, as I came out of the theater with many more positive things to take back than bothersome grouses. I may not be the right person to critique the film on the whole; for me, it was too personal. I was just a trans person watching a film with a trans character. 

There is, by default, a cis-het male gaze, since the director and writers are cis-het men. And at the end of the day, the principal protagonist (Ayushmann Khurrana's character Manu) is a cis het man. Yes, Vaani Kapoor's character, Maanvi – the trans woman – plays a crucial part in his story, but it is he who starts with a goal in mind and ends victorious by achieving that goal.

Having said that, it is the uninitiated/transphobic cis het men in the audience who are the most important and most difficult to convert. And I'd like to think it would be slightly easier for them to connect to a transphobic cis het male protagonist, and then go with him on this journey of understanding and acceptance.

The creators have put in effort to understand the inner world of a trans woman. I know that the director, Abhishek Kapoor, was reaching out to quite a few people within the community while writing the film, and that has certainly paid off.

I was also moved by Vaani Kapoor's performance. Ideally, a trans woman would have been a better choice, but I am not from the school of thought where I would be up in arms about that. For me, the most important thing right now is trans stories going out, because there are no stories. This is the first film of its kind. And while there is a criticism that it is too mainstream, predictable, etc. it is told within the format that is palatable to our audience. This film is Trans Persons 101 for a completely uninitiated audience in a mainstream format, and I am happy it exists. They have made it with hard work, empathy, and good intent, and it shows.

Take the scene where Maanvi says, "Main ek ladke ke shareer mein paida hui thi, par hamesha ladki thi." That is how she explains that she is a trans woman — that she was always a girl, but born in a male body. This sentence defined transness for me, that even before she had her surgery, she was a trans woman. Of course, the film doesn't delve deep into this — that one does not need to undergo sex reassignment surgery to be accepted as the gender of their choice — but that is perhaps something which should be tackled in future films. (And I hope there will be more films in the future with trans protagonists.)

Maanvi was always over-made up, with her hair and make-up perfect. That comes from the need to assert her womanhood, where she is trying extra hard to convince everyone around her and more importantly, herself, that she now is biologically a woman.

There were so many small things they got right, like Maanvi being so insecure about her body, checking the mirror every opportunity she gets. Or when she feels grateful and says "thank you" after sex, even though she doesn't owe him that. Thing is, sex is a huge part of feeling validated in your new body. When she said "thank you", my eyes actually became moist.

Even that sense of guilt she feels around a Hijra on the streets, not being able to make eye contact, was a nice detail. It is an unearned guilt even I used to feel earlier on after my transition — that I could very well be where that person is, and there is a privilege I enjoy, and it used to make me feel bad about the whole situation. Someone might read that scene as her being embarrassed, but I read it as guilt, a discomfort because of this unearned guilt of privilege.

Maanvi was always over-made up, with her hair and make-up perfect. That comes from the need to assert her womanhood, where she is trying extra hard to convince everyone around her and more importantly, herself, that she now is biologically a woman. Being completely comfortable and secure in your new body takes time. I, too, overcompensated for years after my transition. Of course, I didn't go to the gym in heels, but different women's expression of their identity is different. There are trans women (as well as cis women) who seek that degree of classical femininity. Make-up and surgeries help them express their sense of self, just like for Maanvi.

Then, the anxiety of coming out every time, with every new relationship, the interactions with all the family members, the transphobia, all of this was on point. And unlike the trailer, the transphobia was not used for humour. It was portrayed as problematic. Of course, the transphobia was triggering to watch, and I would give fair warning to any trans person watching it, especially the ones still struggling with their identity emotionally or physically.

I thought it was interesting that they named her Maanvi, which is drawn from "human", for after all, underneath all the layers and conditioning, that is who we are. I also thought it was interesting that her dead name — Manu — is the same as that of Ayushmann's character. It shows that males can be of all kinds — there could be a cis-het gym rat Manu, and also a seemingly cis-male but actually trans Manu.

I had no idea that I was going to be there in the film, in that montage where Manu is trying to educate himself on being trans. While it would have been nice to know beforehand, I thought it was a very authentic thing — to go on YouTube to learn something in the face of ignorance. It is not something you would normally do in a film, to risk taking the viewer out of the fictional world. The fact they did that deserves kudos.

Now, I also had some grouses. I don't think the film did justice to the Hijra character by sanitizing her so much. The reality of the Hijra community is much harsher. But she is made to talk to Manu in English and quote Shakespeare as if that makes her important and worthy of giving advice. I don't think they should have gone down that route. She should have been relatable to a regular viewer, the way they know a Hijra on their streets. Give them a deep insight into the person they see and look through every day.

Then, I worry that most trans women watching the movie might think, "I'm never going to look like Vaani". Though she carries the character well, and I was really moved by her, I couldn't help thinking that there was an impossible standard of beauty here. And I found myself hoping that it doesn't take that degree of perfection to find love.  

Lastly, I thought the film missed an opportunity to give the trans community an anthem. This is the first film of its kind in the mainstream format, and if they created a song which we could take away as an anthem or even a true-blue Bollywood number which spoke of/to us, that would have been amazing.

But my complaints aside, I'm very happy that Chandigarh Kare Aashiqui got so much right. I'm certain it's going to bring a lot of good to many trans people's lives.

As told to Prathyush Parasuraman.

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