For queer stand-up comedian and content creator Sunthar V, an Eelam Tamil who was born and raised in Canada, Tamil cinema was a way to connect with his roots. Tamil popular culture references and film music were an intrinsic part of his identity growing up, and so, when he figured out what the “Avana nee” line – commonly used in Tamil films to humiliate the queer identity – meant, he felt all the more hurt. The line, which translates to “Are you that guy?” has its origins in the action film Gambeeram (2004), where comedian Vadivelu plays a policeman. While investigating a case, he ends up naked in a room and a male reporter is shown lusting after him. “Avana nee?” Vadivelu quips, and ever since, the line has been used repeatedly on and off screen to demean the queer identity.
The latest is the blockbuster science fiction comedy Mark Antony (2023) directed by Adhik Ravichandran. In the film, veteran actor Y Gee Mahendran plays Gowri, a character who wears two plaits and a bindi, is called Mama-Auntie (uncle-auntie), and displays a sexual interest in Jackie Pandian (SJ Suryah), his brother-in-law. “Avana nee?” a pained Jackie Pandian asks when he discovers Gowri’s intentions.
“I didn’t know it was an offensive phrase until later in life. I thought it was a joke till it was used on me mockingly,” said Sunthar. “I was a big fan of Vadivelu, and it’s a perfect example of how remarks made by comedians and stars can be hurtful. One can perhaps excuse it back then, but if it continues after so many discussions around the queer identity, it feels intentionally targeted.” Sunthar added that he doesn’t subscribe to the idea that just because an artist has done something wrong, they are a bad person. But, in doing so, they missed the mark at making something appealing to a lot more people.
This is why Sunthar’s latest stand-up show is titled Avana Nee, an act of assertion to reclaim a slur for the purpose of amelioration. The show, which has been selling out in venues across the UK, Canada and Europe, dives into Sunthar’s own experiences as growing up queer with the influence of Tamil pop culture and cinema. “The phrase is hurtful to a lot of young queer people, and it reinforces negative connotations for the new generation.They may have gone without knowing the Vadivelu joke but will pick it up from its re-use in a new film like Mark Antony.”
Tamil cinema has a notorious history when it comes to representing the LGBTQIA+ community. Several films have either criminalised the community or used these identities for comedy. In Shankar’s I (2015), for example, the character of transgender makeup artist Osma Jasmine (Ojas Rajani) is horribly mocked. She is shown to be overly lustful towards the hero (Vikram), with the latter reacting with disgust. Later in the film, she is hospitalised in room no. 9 (a slur used against the trans community) after the hero punishes her by causing Hypertrichosis, a condition that leads to excessive hair growth.
Actor Anjali Ameer, who plays the role of Meera in director Ram’s Peranbu, (2018), acknowledged that it’s rare to find a sensitive representation of a transgender character in south Indian cinema. In Peranbu, Meera is a trans woman and sex worker who falls in love with the protagonist Amudhavan (Mammootty). He initially rejects her but later, the two of them get married. “Love is very complicated when it comes to the transgender community,” said Ameer. “Many of us have faced a lot of rejections, so when we receive some affection from somebody, there is a tendency to go overboard. I felt my role in Peranbu was an honest representation.”
Most Tamil films have a popular male star or comedian wearing a wig, costume and makeup to play a trans woman. Even if the portrayal is intended to be dignified – as with Sarathkumar in Kanchana (2011) or Vijay Sethupathi in Super Deluxe (2019) – it adds to the perception that the trans identity in real life is merely cis men ‘playing’ at being women. Ameer noted that it is preferable for either cis women or trans women actors to play such roles. “In the Hindi film Chandigarh Kare Aashiqui (2021), the role of trans woman Maanvi is played by a cis woman actor (Vaani Kapoor). I didn’t think the representation was bad. When cis men do it, their portrayal is almost always exaggerated,” she said, adding that another depiction she liked was the role played by trans actor Anjali Varadhan in the Tamil drama film Aruvi (2017).
Ameer pointed out that even if trans characters are not mocked in a film, it is unusual for them to have a meaningful role. “They are just made to stand in a scene. There is no story, nothing about who they are and what they’re doing. I don’t think such representations help,” she said.
The mockery and tokenism continue to exist despite the Supreme Court striking down Section 377 – an archaic law that enabled the harassment of same sex relationships — in 2018, and the growing visibility of the LGBTQIA+ community following this. Even when queer characters are represented respectfully, there is seldom any complexity to their identity. Director Pa Ranjith’s Natchathiram Nagargirathu (2022), an experimental film that explored the politics of love, is among the few films to acknowledge intersectionality and the diversity that exists within queer communities.
Actor Sumeet Borana plays a gay man named Dayana in the film, but that isn’t the only identity that his role carries. He’s also Brahmin and a north Indian, and these identities come into conflict with others in his social circle over a discussion on love, caste and politics. Borana, a theatre actor, had already played a gay character in an English play titled Guilt, and he based Dayana on him.
When Natchathiram Nagargirathu came to Borana, the brief he received for the role was sketchy, but he managed to build on it. The film received mixed reviews, with many hailing the film for daring to explore uncharted waters in Tamil cinema, and many others criticising it for keeping the queer characters in the sidelines among other things. Though he loved working in the film, Borana agreed with this criticism. “I felt the same – that there wasn’t much for me to do. That’s the actor inside me speaking, but that’s how Ranjith sir had envisioned it. One of my friends who watched the film told me that perhaps if it had been a web series, all the characters and their stories could have received equal representation,” acknowledged Borana.
The bar is certainly low when it comes to queer representations – be it the writing, casting or screen time. Director Anita Udeep’s adult comedy 90ML (2019) is that rare Tamil film where women drink, discuss sex and have a good time, but are neither judged nor punished for it. One of the plot threads in the film is about a runaway bride uniting with her girlfriend. They share a kiss, but unlike sexualised depictions of lesbian relationships that cater to cis-heterosexual male fantasies, 90ML allows the women to emerge as real people.
Udeep said that though she was making an adult film, she was particular about not reducing the lesbian women to their sexuality. “I wanted to show that love is love, no matter who the people involved are. This is also part of our society. It shouldn’t be looked down upon as something abnormal,” said Udeep. There is a scene in the film where the two women are in bed, but Udeep chose not to show them making love. “I didn’t want to use the characters to titillate the audience. The point of the scene was to show the emotional connection between two characters, the fact that they’re there for each other,” said Udeep.
Another trope that Udeep wanted to avoid was turning the story of the two women into a tragedy. “There are too many depressing stories when it comes to the community, and it’s true that they face a lot of difficulties. But, I wanted to normalise their identity. I didn’t want to emphasise that this is a taboo. I wanted this plot thread to have the same light-hearted treatment as the rest of the film,” she said.
Sunthar agreed with Udeep on the lack of happy queer stories in Tamil cinema. “Many of our films show queerness in a Westernised way, without any sense of how such identities play out in Tamil communities and cultures. There are too many sad stories and tropes. But there are so many positive, exciting stories too that can be told,” said Sunthar. Many in the community, therefore, look to queer coding in seemingly heteronormative characters and stories. “One of my friends pointed out that Madhesh (Raju Sundaram) in Jeans (1998) can be read as a queer character. How he dresses and behaves, his outlook in life, and the way he goes all out for his sister,” said Sunthar, admitting that the filmmaker may not have intended this at all.
“As queer people who are barely represented on screen directly, we take our cues from what we get to see. Another example is the duel between Arunmozhi Varman (Jayam Ravi) and Vandiyathevan (Karthi) in Ponniyin Selvan 1 (2022). It’s an intense scene where they’re talking about sword sizes and what not – these are little things that a queer person reads differently,” said Sunthar.
When representing queer characters directly, Sunthar believes a filmmaker should be cognizant of the context. Venkat Prabhu’s comedy Goa (2010), for example, is often credited as the first Tamil film that showed a full-fledged gay relationship without deliberately mocking it. The film also features a romantic song involving the gay couple. However, many in the audience back then laughed at the characters and the body language of the actors (Sampath Raj and Aravind Akash).
“I think filmmakers should be cautious about the context when bringing in a queer character, however well-intended. When you use them in a comedic plot, you’re unintentionally saying that all queer attraction should be mocked,” said Sunthar. This is why filmmakers need to be hyper aware and have someone from the community vetting their decisions – from scripting and casting to how the community is represented on screen. As for films like Mark Antony where the intention is clearly to provoke the community for laughs, Sunthar wondered why the makers couldn’t come up with anything novel or creative for the queer character but had to fall back on an angle that’s done and dusted. He has only one question for the makers and the audience that finds it funny – “Are we okay with such a lazy joke on a community because we have run out of funnier things to say?”