“Pata hai log hum-se kyun darte hai?” (Do you know why people are afraid of us?), Haddi (Nawazuddin Siddiqui) asks, only rhetorically, as the eponymous film opens. Haddi is sharpening her knife, threatening a kill. The “hum” in her question refers to hijras — the blessings they give, the curses they fling — establishing them as this mythical clan embroiled in street politics, capable of both kindness and kick.
Historically it has been men who have had the monopoly on fear-mongering and violence in cinema, so when there is a slippage in the writing, giving trans women these traits, the possibility of splintering that masculine monopoly glints — except, it seems, our casting demands remain stuck in the binary of male-female possibilities.
In the past month or so, we have had a steady drip of web shows foregrounding trans women characters, either as plot pushers or plot twists — Taali, Made In Heaven, Guns & Gulaabs, and now Kaala. Made In Heaven, following in the footprints of Paatal Lok (2020), chose to cast a trans woman for the role (Trinetra Haldar Gummaraju plays the newest member of the wedding planning crew. In the older show, the role of Chini was played by Mairembam Ronaldo Singh). The rest, however, follow the rocky stream of film history where cis gendered actors embody the roles of trans women.
Sometimes it is women who take up the mantle of trans women — Sushmita Sen in Taali, Vaani Kapoor in Chandigarh Kare Aashiqui (2021), Kubbra Sait in Sacred Games (2018). Sometimes, it is men — Sadashiv Amrapurkar in Sadak (1991), Paresh Rawal in Tamanna (1997), Prashant Narayanan in Murder 2 (2011), Akshay Kumar in Laxmii (2020), Vijay Raaz in Gangubai Kathiawadi (2022), Nawazuddin Siddiqui in Haddi, Jitin Gulati in Kaala, and Adarsh Gourav in Guns & Gulaabs.
Merely passing your eyes over the names of the shows or films, a loose trend emerges. Men are called upon to play a certain kind of a trans woman — bashful, violent; street muscle bordering on or sometimes breaching that border into villainy. Women, instead, play a more distinctly feminine trans woman — bordering on or sometimes breaching that border into conventional beauty.
A lot about the casting of these roles has to do with the writing, which asks one central question: In which body does the character spend more time? For example, Akshay Kumar in Laxmii is a choice that emanated from the story. Kumar plays Asif, a married man who is possessed by the ghost of a trans woman. In the role of a man, he must be convincing. Similarly for the casting of Vaani Kapoor in Chandigarh Kare Aashiqui, where the entire film takes place post-op, where she is supposed to pass as a woman without pulling up any strange, suspicious stares on the street. As a woman, she must be convincing. These are narrative demands, on which the casting cues pick up.
These narrative demands, however, clarify something about the way they construct maleness and femaleness, a battleground at the heart of queerness.
The queer theorist Lee Edelmen in his book No Future makes a rather messy, clear, but provocative claim (the way a manifesto would) that queer people need to reject the future, because the future is a heterosexual eden that is intensely built on ideas of reproduction, parenthood, and child rearing — ideas wholly embodied in the woman. The way we have mother-ed India and the feminine into being this receptacle of nurturing, the site of reproductive possibility, is the instinct that leads one to cast Sushmita Sen as Gauri Sawant in Taali. A prominent strain of the story, and indeed the one around which Sawant’s public image galvanised with the viral Vicks video, is about her mothering children. The same instinct reaches out to cast Vaani Kapoor in Chandigarh Kare Aashiqui, a love story that, like any troped tale of two hearts meeting, leaves us with the idea of a fertile future for the couple.
It is when there is no future to hold onto — gangsters, street politicians, vamps — that men seem to be whistled at and summoned to embody roles of trans women. Additionally, with men taking up roles of trans women, there is the added screech of history, with flashing images of male actors dressing up as women for comic relief, from Amitabh Bachchan in Laawaris (1981) to Govinda in Raja Babu (1994) and Aunty No 1 (1998), and more. These totemic visuals produce a strange odour — remember Humshakal (2014)? — where we are unable to see a male actor playing a trans character as but a man slipping into a sari, padding his chest with weights. There is, certainly, a moral argument to be made about representation, but what of the aesthetic graveyard it has been digging up for decades? What have we been primed to imagine as the archetypical trans woman?
It is this weight that leaves a stain in the way we receive these characters, conceiving of them as dress-up dolls, as something ripe for mockery, even if they have to be feared. This tension — to produce both humour and horror — is best seen in Laxmii, a horror-comedy.
With Vijay Raaz from Gangubai and Nawazuddin Siddiqui from Haddi, the casting is, thus, a reflection of this anti-beauty, anti-future lens from which the character is being seen and imagined.
In Kaala and Guns & Gulaabs, however, it can be argued that the trans-ness of the male character is flung at us from the off-side, like a twist, and so the choice of casting men (Jitin Gulati, Adarsh Gourav) makes sense, in that it is as contrived as the script. Both shows use homosexuality as a conduit, as a shimmering, distracting mirage, to reach transness — both male characters are shown in love or fawning over men, letting us believe they are gay, only for it to be later revealed that they, in fact, were on their journey to realising their identity as trans women. This coming into their transness is mapped onto their journey of growing into the criminal selves — there is bloodlust that accompanies the drying of their starched identity. Does this streak of violence, this heady confidence come from coming out as a trans woman, unleashing both one’s marrow and one’s machete?
Borrowing the arc of male machismo’s blood-letting into confidence and catharsis, to shoehorn the trans identity, is a complicated dance. It both reveals the fragility of the male arc — how male self-realisation is, essentially, a lonely peacocking — and the moral consequences of it for the trans body. Are we constructing a trans identity in the shadow of male anti-heroes?
More than a stating of gender or sexuality, queerness has always been a posture that questions the assumptions it chafes at. It is an aesthetic of constant friction, a fabulating, sandpapering pout. When critic B. Ruby Rich, who coined the phrase “new queer cinema” in 1992, speaks of “Homo pomo” — ‘pomo’ being a snazzy slashing of ‘postmodernism’ — what was being theorised was a cinema that takes pleasure in the destruction of stable ideas and identities, something that torpedoes tropes. But when that queerness is folded into the normative structures — of not just cinema, but of family, of state — populating it by being vocally, visibly represented, offering itself up to be corralled and cannibalised, it is bound to lose the very thing that made it queer.