Transgender is a word that many consider too clinical. Words like hijra, aravani, thirunangai, kinnar, jogti etc. imperfectly translate to ‘transgender’, because it’s not just about the gender identity. It’s also a cultural marker, each identity fortified with its own legacy, way of life, and mythology.
The Aravanis, or Thirunangais of Tamil Nadu are the spine of Muni 2: Kanchana, Raghava Lawrence’s 2011 horror-comedy film, the second one in the Muni Cinematic Universe. This has been remade, with Akshay Kumar in the lead, as Laxmii, also directed by Lawrence, who returned to complete the film after a brief fallout. It will premiere on Disney+Hotstar on November 9.
The film is about a transgender ghost that possesses the body of the strong but scared protagonist, Raghava. In Kanchana, Raghava, played by Lawrence himself, jumps onto his mother’s hip to be held every time a ghost is mentioned. Based on Laxmii’s trailer it’s safe to say this fear has been excised, replaced with Asif’s (Akshay Kumar) arrogance, and a disbelief in the idea of a ghost. A hero must be postured as a hero.
Kanchana was lauded by the masses. Made on a budget of 7 crores, the film made 20+ crores making it the most profitable Tamil film of 2011.
The Muni Cinematic Universe (MCU)
Following the semma success of Chandramukhi (2005), the idea of a commercial horror-comedy film gained social sanction. While not foreign to Indian cinema, horror-comedies certainly weren’t common. The 1965 film Bhoot Bungla might be India’s first horror-comedy film.
But Lawrence made this genre into a trademark film lineage – the Muni Cinematic Universe (MCU), if you may, with Muni (2007), Muni 2: Kanchana (2011), Muni 3: Kanchana 2 (2015), and Muni 4: Kanchana 3 (2019). Munni 2: Kanchana was remade in Karnataka, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, and Myanmar, before arriving at the shores of Mumbai.
The movies are not connected to each other plot-wise. Even the “love-interest” changes, from Taapsee Pannu to Raai Lakshmi. The tether is the character played by Lawrence himself, named either Ganesha or Raghava, the macho man who must be home before 6 p.m. for he is afraid of the dark and the ghosts that populate it. In the films he gets possessed, and is moved by the backstory of the ghost, ultimately helping them seek their revenge. It’s a perfect potpourri, with ample space for humour and horror.
What I found most intriguing among the reactions to the film is that many Aravanis, the community being represented, embraced it. In fact many preferred it to Super Deluxe which they found geli-kindal panra maari, as if mocking them, bringing the already marginalized community ill-repute; it seemed to solidify the idea that a trans-woman was just a “dude with a wig”.
The Aravanis worship Aravan, the son of Arjuna, who sacrifices himself for the Pandavas to emerge victorious in the Mahabharata. But before his sacrifice Aravan wants to get married. Unable to find any woman to marry a man who is about to be sacrificed, Lord Krishna becomes Mohini and marries him for one night. The story of Mohini and Aravan spending the night together is part of the Aravani and Thirunangai mythology — Aravan is seen as the patron God for the Aravanis. To cement this relationship, the climax of Kanchana takes place with an imposing Aravan-esque statue of on the beach, as Kanchana slaughters the evil, clad in a red sari, and maroon blood.
In the film, there’s also a brief discussion on the biology of a trans-person, the hormonal arithmetic. It is also generally a story with a lot of characters from the margins — a poor Muslim man, and the differently abled. This is seen right from the introductory dance song, where the vertically challenged, and a person with a prosthetic foot pepper the koothu, the dance performance. But make no mistake- this is as mass as mass gets, and so a flattening and resorting to commonly held stereotypes are expected, and delivered.
It will be interesting to note how Laxmmi translates these very culturally specific identities like that of the Aravani to something that is both satisfactory, simple, and celebrated — by the people, and more specifically the trans community.
It must be noted here that Kanchana is written, and directed by cisgender-man, with an Aravani character, Kanchana, played by a cisgender-man (Sarath Kumar). The same holds for Laxmii. While representation is certainly a move forward, one must also put the money where the mouth is. The least we can do is seek trans people’s reactions to Laxmii to contextualize our own.
The Bollywood Debut
Hindi Cinema has awoken to this horror-comedy combination’s commercial potential, with Stree (2018), Golmaal Again (2017), and the to-be-released Roohi Afzana. But my fear is that the mass appeal of a film like Kanchana is so rooted that there might be an overcorrection in its remake.
In Kanchana, the scene of possessed Raghava asking his mother if she will be fine with a man beating her is played with sombre horor. In the Laxmii trailer, it has been made into a comic moment. A few other changes seem apparent from the trailer. The family dynamics and relationships too seem to have changed. In Kanchana, Raghava tries to woo his sister-in-law’s sister, which might be considered odd up North. This angle seems to be axed.
The track record of directors from the South making it big in Bollywood has been spotty. While Sandeep Reddy Vanga (Kabir Singh) found his footing with thumping success, Gautham Vasudev Menon’s canvas (Ek Deewana Tha) didn’t translate well in Hindi, and Prabhu Deva’s (Action Jackson, Singh Is Bling, Dabanng 3) mass-allure seems to have faded overtime. Here’s hoping Lawrence’s success in Tamil translates well pan-India, as an arresting voice that is, as one Aravani put it, “Pakka pakka pakka pakka mass.”
You can see Muni 2: Kanchana on JioCinema and SunNXT without English subtitles. Disney+Hotstar has a Bengali dubbed version, with English subtitles.