I do not know how many times I have walked out of the living room because there was a man on TV – dressed in a sari, wearing a wig, speaking in an effeminate tone, with set of stereotypical gestures and mannerisms – and that somehow was the joke: the beginning, the middle, and the end. What's worse: my living room laughed. If it were in the cinema, the audience would have laughed, endlessly.
This is the case not only in Kannada and Hindi TV and cinema, but also in award shows, comedy shows, and reality shows. Our regional and national media employ these characters and scenes repeatedly as fillers to date. And I feel nothing but sadness and anger that there has been no reflection or thought on it, let alone change and action.
However, for those of us in India, the grass always has always looked greener on the other side of the world, that is until trans filmmaker Sam Feder told us otherwise. Running for 100 minutes, subtitled "Trans Lives on Screen", Disclosure premiered in Sundance last January and has been on Netflix since June 2020. Feder's approach is to identify the role media have played in shaping the culture and society's approach to trans people.
It is a thorough questioning of everything in TV and cinema – from that first supposed landmark film I saw in journalism class during my bachelor's degree, D.W. Griffith's The Birth of a Nation (1915), and the masterpiece horror film by Alfred Hitchcock, Psycho (1960), to the relatively contemporary horrifying The Silence of the Lambs (1991) by Jonathan Demme and more recent visual media, it looks at the portrayal of trans characters in cinema and the impact it has had on the trans community, their friends and family, as they grew up, grow up, and lived in America.
Acceptance from straight people is one thing but acceptance from the queer community is quite another. One of the most chilling scenes in this documentary is a gay man apparently sending a trans person a sharp object and saying, "Finish what your doctor started." There is also quite a lot of talk on how talk show hosts talk to trans people, sensationalising what lies between their legs to get viewership.
The documentary does not experiment with form too much: Feder interviews his subjects, there are voiceovers, and clips from films. It begins disturbingly and ends hopefully. What's refreshing, however, is that the clips span a century and more, and the films and series that we once lauded are laced with discrimination, and Feder is now simply showing them to us again. The personal stories have such punch that their sheer force makes it impossible to not be moved by their struggles.
The 2010s is a decade I am all too familiar with, or would like to think so. So, without giving away the ending too much, I can tell you that Jenji Kohan paved the way somewhat, Joey Soloway did what they could, trying their best to remove the Tambor stain, and Ryan Murphy, at best, made amends. Full disclosure: the documentary's critique invoked a resentment in me that something as urgent and thoughtful was not seen, made, or even understood in India, to find some promise and hope in filmmakers and showrunners that portray trans characters sensitively on the Indian screen. Maybe, someday, one day: when we learn that they're not to be laughed at, they're not to be feared at traffic lights, they're not the 'other'; they are us!