Since everyone's talking about Ranbir Kapoor's performance in Sanju, allow me to direct your attention to Jayasurya in the Malayalam film, Njan Marykutty, where the actor plays a transgender. This isn't about comparing performances, but non-Bollywood films don't register much outside the states they are made in, and I felt Jayasurya's marvellously tuned performance deserved another shout-out. (The first one is in my review, which you can read here.)
But this column is about something else. On the Film Companion South Film Club, on Facebook, this (valid) question came up: Where do you stand on the debate – "Actors should play their age?" And this made me think of Njan Marykutty. I replied: "The whole point of 'acting' is that it is opposite to 'being'. If the character is convincing, age or gender or whatever else does not matter. I say this also because, in recent years, it's become PC to say 'a trans role should be played by a trans person' and so on. If you get a great trans 'actor', then certainly. But the 'acting' comes first, and if a cis person is better at putting the emotions across, then THAT should be the priority. Cinema is make-believe. Whether the actor 'makes us believe' is the most important thing."
I do believe that the acting skills come first, that the person cast in the part should make us believe whatever his or her character is going through
Naturally, there was some back and forth, and a commenter brought up this important point: "It's not just political correctness in the case of marginalised characters like trans people. It's just that they hardly get a role written for them and when there is a chance, it does feel unfair to have a cis male play them. It also suggests that they are just men playing women, which is part of the problem that creates the stigma around transition." They added: "If we are looking for a woman to play a female character in a film, do we take the best female actor that's available or do we take the best actor that's available? If only a woman can play a female character, shouldn't the same rule apply to transgenders too?"
This is a complicated question, for it brings up the point that the pool of trans actors to choose from is non-existent. I do believe that the acting skills come first, that the person cast in the part should make us believe whatever his or her character is going through. Casting a trans person in Njan Marykutty, instead of Jayasurya, would certainly have meant we wouldn't have had to suspend disbelief. We wouldn't be thinking, "Oh look, there's Jayasurya in a sari." But the way one looks is only one part of the performance. The rest is how one emotes, and this was my point when I said, "If you get a great trans 'actor', then certainly."
But if that's the chicken part of the question, here's the egg: If filmmakers do not actively seek out trans actors, then how will we find the ones who perform well? This argument could be extended across a wide spectrum, say: If filmmakers do not actively seek out North-eastern actors (and choose Priyanka Chopra, instead, in 'Mary Kom'), then how will we find the ones who perform well?" But let's stick to Njan Marykutty, for now, and let's also imagine an ideal world where there are no box-office considerations (which is surely a reason a Jayasurya or a Priyanka Chopra is cast).
It's one thing to appreciate Jayasurya's performance in the part, but it's quite another that a cis-male actor was automatically chosen for the part, without casting the net wide to find a trans actor at the level of say, Daniela Vega. She's the real-life trans-woman who played the trans-woman protagonist of Sebastián Lelio's A Fantastic Woman, which won the Oscar for Best Foreign Film this year. But the evaluation should finally be on the basis of the performance. In other words, if a cis person is the better actor, then he/she should be cast over a trans person – even if it is a trans part. And this works both ways. If a trans actor is the best suited for a cis part, then he/she should be the first choice. Isn't the whole point of acting the opportunity to be someone else?
A first film is a kind of calling card, but sometimes it's also a fluke – the filmmaker expends all his imagination at one go, and he finds he can never inspire himself to those levels again. Which is why I was more than pleased to see Asuravadham, the Sasikumar-starrer, directed by Maruthupandian. This is the other kind of filmmaker, whose first effort (Chennai Ungalai Anbudan Varaverkirathu) showed promise, and whose second outing builds on this promise. I looked back at my review of Chennai Ungalai…, and found that I wished for better craft, even though I liked parts of writer-director's screenwriting flourishes, his "novelistic bent." In Asuravadham, the craft aspect is taken care of, too. This is one of the most imaginatively shot films of the year.
I'll end with a seventies' song I stumbled on after quite some time: Mazhai tharumo en megam, from RC Sakthi's Manitharil Ithanai Nirangala (1978). It's an odd little film, one that stars Kamal Haasan and Sridevi, but does not make them the central romantic couple. This song is sung by a suitor, as Sridevi mulls over his proposal. Kannadasan's opening line exquisitely metaphor-ises the question in the man's mind, whether she will say yes. Will my cloud burst forth with rain? And the composer, Shyam, transforms this yearning into what I like to call a "singer's song," one that focuses on phrasing (say, elongating a syllable) and tunefulness rather than the instrumental passages (which, sometimes, can sound quite primitive).
But what a singer's song this is! Shyam tunes each line differently, MS Viswanathan-style (and these are jagged lines, with different lengths) – other than the parts of the stanza that are repeated, we never hear the same melodic phrases again. The singer is SP Balasubrahmanyam. Touchwood and all that, this amazing performer never seems to have had a bad day. At most, you could say he sounded too… boyish for MGR, in Aayiram nilave vaa (Adimaippenn, 1969). Traces of this boyishness can be found as late as Unnai naan paarthathu (Pattikattu Raja, 1975) – but by 1978 (which also saw his superb numbers from Nizhal Nijamagiradhu), there was more whiskey-warmth in his voice, more bass, and he brings alive the melancholy in this song. He knocks it right out of the park.