Spoiler alert: In the last scene of Guns & Gulaabs, Raj and DK’s latest Netflix series, there is a great reveal. Jugnu who has presented as male for the duration of the series appears dressed as a woman. With bangles tinkling on wrists, long hair and a dupatta on shoulder, Jugnu comes out by walking into their father Ganchi’s hospital room.
Generally referred to as Chhota Ganchi, Jugnu was supposed to carry out an important opium deal in order to prove himself to be a worthy heir to Ganchi’s criminal enterprise. Instead, having taken several questionable decisions and screwed up the task, Jugnu has to admit failure. “Main aapko kabhi khush nahi kar sakta (I can never make you happy),” says Jugnu — using the masculine conjugation to refer to themself, despite presenting as a woman — when Ganchi waves them away in a gesture of rejection.
Jugnu is played by Adarsh Gaurav, a cis male actor, and Jugnu’s trans identity is kept securely under wraps for the duration of Guns & Gulaabs. In order to pack the most punch, the series deliberately poorly contextualises Jugnu’s transness and what a viewer needs to make of it so that the revelation takes the audience by surprise. “Whenever you’re around, Papa, I can’t live freely,” Jugnu says in the hospital room, in the final episode. We do not know if this is referring to Jugnu’s transness, or their position in the criminal world (Ganchi had, in the past, pointed out that Jugnu didn’t have what it takes to be in this line of work). Then, after vowing to “live like I’ve always wanted to”, Jugnu takes off Ganchi’s oxygen mask and, with their face washed in a lurid red light, Jugnu murders their father.
It’s only after Ganchi has flatlined that Jugnu finally uses the feminine gender to refer to herself. A generous reading would want you to sympathise with the suffocation Jugnu must have felt under the chiding patriarch, but there is also the discomfort of Jugnu’s coming out scene being inextricably linked to cold-blooded criminality. To make a trans character commit murder in the same scene in which they come out fits into an insidious and dominant narrative that assumes transness as deviant.
Recently, there has been a significant increase in the visibility of trans characters and stories in Indian media. The inclusion of a trans character in a popular web series such as Made in Heaven (2023), played by trans actor Trinetra Haldar Gummaraju, was widely talked about and praised. Another trans actor, Ivanka Das, was recently seen in R Balki’s Ghoomer (2023). Last week, we also saw Taali (2023), the story of activist Gauri Sawant played by Sushmita Sen. In recent years, shows like Paatal Lok and Sacred Games have included important characters who are trans, and Paatal Lok cast the trans actor Mairembam Ronaldo Singh in the role of Cheeni. Yet while these can be seen as positive strides in representation, they also show how much more needs to be both discussed and done.
Mainstream depiction of trans characters has usually been limited to the hijra culture and community, who were often used as comic relief. Actor Negha S (she/her), the first trans woman to win a Kerala State Film Award, pointed out, “Trans people are mocked – in songs, in comedy scenes – or else we are given negative characters. People like me who get called slurs have to live with the impact of the misrepresentation.”
Most often, if a mainstream Hindi movie has made space for a trans character, they’ve been modelled on hijras. Sometimes, like in Laxmii (2020), which saw Akshay Kumar possessed by the vengeful ghost of a woman, the portrayal is reductive in the hope of pandering to clichés about effeminate men. Otherwise, the trans character is a villain, like Sadashiv Amrapurkar as Maharani in Sadak (1991), or Prashant Narayanan as the psychotic antagonist in Murder 2 (2011).
Some trans people, who did not wish to be quoted, told Film Companion they wished to distance themselves from hijra culture because of its association with sex work and begging. Others pointed out that the hijra community is one of the few safe spaces accessible to trans people, especially if they’re disowned by their families or struggling to live on their own. Irrespective of how one sees these communities in real life, there’s no doubt that the on-screen representation leaves a lot to be desired.
PhD student James (he/him), who is a trans man, said, “The issue is that they want to categorise all of us into one bracket. They want to see us from their cis-het lens and make airtight categories – this is queer, this is gay, this is trans, etc. We are people, right? It’s not fair to reduce us to our gender or sexual identities! Yes, I am trans, but I am so much more! Why can’t you see me as a multi-faceted individual? That is the problem. When you fail to see me as a whole person, it’s easier to hate me, easier to marginalise me, easier to look at me as the other. We do this in media portrayals as well. We make trans characters look like they belong to some other species. Either we exoticize them, like Kuckoo on Sacred Games (2018) or we make them laughing stocks, or worse villains.”
While recent streaming shows have seen better written trans characters than mainstream cinema, the perspective is invariably both limited and limiting.
James said, “There is a set pattern of media portrayal — either you look beautiful and are given the ‘good trans’ character or you look evil and [are] threatening. Think about what that does to public perception of transness. You have to understand that privilege plays a big part in this. If you have access to surgery, good make-up, good clothes, etc there’s a higher chance that you will be perceived as non-threatening. Unfortunately, a lot of trans kids have to run away from their homes as they are no longer safe for them. How will they fit into this standard? Will they forever be perceived as evil?”
Queer activist and filmmaker Siddharth Gope (he/him) pointed to Taali as an example of good representation of trans characters on screen, even though the film’s trans protagonist is played by Sushmita Sen. “As a trans child, my relationship with my mom is not smooth. I watched Taali with her,” said Gope. “This movie helped her (who has no idea about trans life, struggle, and rights) understand more about the transgender community, and how they struggled to get legal rights.”
Negha, an actor who aims to create a platform for trans and queer artists, has a different point of view. For her, cis women playing trans women can send out a “dangerous” message. “It demands all trans bodies to look seamlessly 'cis' (not even all cis bodies are the same, please!),” said Negha. “Transness is unique. It cannot be erased and silenced. You hesitate to show this in the stories you write and film. I cannot be 'mistaken' for a woman… Let's normalise the fact that trans bodies don't have to look like cis bodies to be beautiful.”
Everyone agrees that including more trans people, both on and off-screen, is essential. Queer and trans affirmative counsellor Fred Rogers pointed out, “There are lots of people from the [queer and trans] community who can do the role of trans people instead of a cis-het person occupying that space. There are lots of trained people from the communities who can take up the role and if not, there are people who are willing to show interest towards being mentored so that the role can be offered to them.”
Negha agreed. “If a cis-het actor is doing a trans character, what is the real change they are trying to bring in the society?” she asked. “If they won't accept a real trans actress, surely it's transphobic. They cast cis actors only for commercial purposes which we need to strongly oppose.”
With social media helping to grant celebrity status to influencers like Ankush Bahuguna and Komal Pandey, one could argue that trans stories don’t need to be fronted by a cis-het actor just because the latter is famous. Trinetra Haldar Gummaraju’s casting in the second season of Made in Heaven is an example of someone straddling the worlds of entertainment and social media. However, Fred warned against seeing Gummaraju’s character Meher in Made in Heaven as a comfortable stereotype. “Not every trans person has the privilege to go through a medical journey, a medical transition. Not every trans woman will be able to afford a facial feminization surgery or even laser for that matter. All of these elite aspects, that which is being portrayed in the media, erases the struggles of the entire community,” said Fred.
The only way to ensure better trans characters appear on screen is by giving them a seat at the entertainment industry’s table. Kanmani Ray, a lawyer and trans woman, said, “Trans representation in media should also extend to trans persons being hired behind the screen. People are making movies, [but] who were hired as trans person related consultants? Who were hired for roles behind the camera? Did anyone get a job, an actual job on the movie production team? Because ultimately in the name of trans people, cis folks have been making money, but are trans people getting any jobs? Are they being given opportunities? That is the larger question.”
The consensus is clear: Write multi-faceted, well-delineated characters, and imagine worlds in which trans people, in all their diversity, are accepted as normal. And that process begins with listening — to how the trans community wants to be seen, and the stories they want to tell.