By now, I think it's safe to say the "gay film" (i.e. films about two men in love or in a relationship) or the "lesbian film" (films about two women in love or in a relationship) is fairly well-established in the context of "mainstream" Indian cinema. First off, I wish to emphasise that qualification. This is not to diminish the important work done by filmmakers like Sridhar Rangayan (over the years) and Sudhanshu Saria (more recently) and many, many others. It's just an indication that this article is going to focus on films that are released in theatres (as opposed to, say, those that are screened at festivals), because that's the truest sign that a trend or a thought or a lifestyle has percolated into the society at large.
So this year, Shelly Chopra Dhar came out, in a manner of speaking, with Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga, whose title uses one of Anil Kapoor's most famous love songs (from 1942: A Love Story) and makes us wonder: Why can't his daughter—Sonam Kapoor, who plays the protagonist—and women from her generation fall for a girl the way Anil Kapoor (and the men from his generation) fell for Manisha Koirala? But the real surprise has been the appearance of empathetic, no-fuss, gay/lesbian angles in mainstream cinema outside Bollywood. The Tamil and Telugu film industries—to take the other two big "mainstream" film industries in India—are far more conservative, far more patriarchal in their setups and what they want to show in their films, and yet, we've had depictions of lesbian love in Prashanth Varma's Awe (Telugu, 2018) and Anita Udeep's 90ml (Tamil, 2019). Granted, these characters and relationships aren't exactly the centrepiece of their respective films, but it's a huge step in Tamil/Telugu cinema to see a same-sex scenario that's treated casually, without being put in quotes.
But it's rarer to find the "trans film", or at least, a transman or transwoman character in a film. The pickings are slim, and tend to veer towards one of two extremes. We either get the villain (the Sadashiv Amrapurkar character in Sadak) or the saint (the character who rescues the twins in Bombay, and is their equivalent; just like they are the result of a Hindu/Muslim union, this transwoman has characteristics of both female and male). What about flawed, all-too-human, trans characters who can be neither vilified nor canonised? It is in this context that Thiagarajan Kumararaja's Super Deluxe (2019, Tamil) is so path-breaking. It's a multi-narrative story, and one of the narrative strands revolves around a man named Manickam (Vijay Sethupathi) who has transformed into Shilpa.
The character is introduced the way most Tamil/Telugu protagonists are: through anticipation. Manickam fled his home seven years ago, and his wife and young son (along with the extended family) now have word of his return. The cab arrives. They expect Manickam to step out. They get Shilpa. The shock on their faces is unsurprising, but Shilpa, amazingly, doesn't feel an iota of shame or guilt about abandoning the family or even about her transformation. In a stunning scene that follows, the wife looks on, weeping, as Shilpa dresses up after a bath. A wig comes over the balding head. A sari is draped over a prominent paunch. Shilpa barely sees the wife. All she wants to know is: "Do I look good?" The self-centredness is breathtaking. It's almost like she's saying: "Listen, honey, this is what it is. You think you are having it bad, now? Wait till I tell you how my life panned out."
Later, we learn that, when in Mumbai (that's where he went), Manickam abducted two children and sold them to someone, perhaps to finance his surgery. Later, Shilpa sees these children begging on the streets, after being maimed physically. Shilpa is stricken with remorse and she gets to redeem herself at some point, but this is the scene that set off transgender activists in Chennai. Protesting against the film, they said, "Can anyone recall of such a crime committed by a transgender person? After hearing the script, Vijay Sethupathi should have rejected it."
Seen one way, this is definitely a problem. In a society that takes so many cues from cinema, in a society where transmen and transwomen already face so much derision and discrimination, you can see why the presence of such a character (played by a high-profile actor, in a high-profile movie) is so problematic. Had Super Deluxe not been a "mainstream" movie, had it played only in festivals to sympathetic and (dare I say) "evolved" audiences, there might have not been the fear that Shilpa is showing the transgender community in a bad light.
But seen the other way, this is a huge step towards normalisation, towards freeing trans characters in cinema from the burden of being either sinners or saints. It raises the question: Are we being condescending when we expect trans people to be any different? Like the rest of humanity, some are bound to be good people, some are bound to be bad people, and some, like Shilpa (and like most of us), are likely to fall somewhere in between. This is the reality that needs to be accepted, which is why the line uttered by Shilpa's son at the end of the film is so immeasurably moving: "Be a man, be a woman, be whatever you want. Just be with us." This is the acceptance not of a gender but of a human being, warts and all.
The reason this is so important in Tamil cinema is evident from another Vijay Sethupathi starrer, Dharmadurai (2016). The protagonist, a doctor, decides to help a transwoman, who tells him she's working as a watchman. "Watch-woman," he corrects her, recognising what she wants to be seen as. This small line suggests an ocean of inclusiveness. But when he makes her an assistant in his clinic and hands over her first month's salary, she falls at his feet. The question, then, boils down to whether you want uncontroversial trans characters grateful for being treated as "normal" human beings, or controversial ones who don't have to be singled out as "normal human beings". This is an important conversation, and Super Deluxe paves the way for it.
This article was originally published as part of "Rainbow Reflections—An Anthology of LGBTQ Narratives in Indian Cinema" published by KASHISH Arts Foundation and supported by Bureau du Québec à Mumbai, to commemorate 10th anniversary of KASHISH Mumbai International Queer Film Festival. The magazine contains writings by eminent critics & filmmakers, and is a treasure to cherish.
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