The first time I saw a transgender character in a film was in the 2000 movie Appu. Prakash Raj plays Maharani, a transgender woman who rules over a brothel in Mumbai. Maharani is the antagonist; she is also utterly terrifying. I remember watching in bewilderment and fear as a child, as she sauntered around with sheer malice and evil in her eyes. In hindsight I recognize it's a movie I was definitely too young to be watching, but the statement the movie made was rather clear to me – the image of the transgender woman is associated with sex work and was supposed to ignite fear.
To his credit, Prakash Raj has claimed later on that he regrets doing that role, but the damage was done. And so many movies and characterisations preceded and followed that role. For years, Tamil movies has shown transgender characters as villains, as laughingstocks, and as caricatures. They are sex workers, victims of hate crimes, and hypersexualised. And even though there have been multiple discoveries of capable transgender actors and performers, cis actors continue to be cast for roles of transgender people.
One could claim that in recent years there has been progress. After a terrible history of transphobic jokes and gags, there have been positive representations of transgender characters, some of them played by transgender actors themselves. Two movies in 2018 featured trans women in prominent and positive characters. In Thimiru Pudichavan, Sindhuja essays the character of Latha, who is claimed to be inspired by Tamil Nadu's first transgender policewoman, Prithika Yashini. Ram's Peranbu features Anjali Ameer as Meera, who is ultimately the essence of what the title suggests – compassion.
But are we there yet? We can't bring up the rare couple of roles and think we've done it. And even these characters aren't perfect. Anjali Varadhan's Emily in the 2016 Aruvi is an AIDS patient. For all the tenderness given to Meera's character in Peranbu, she is introduced as a sex worker, following the trend of transgender women as sex workers. These women are also supporting characters, merely existing to forward the arc of the protagonist. In the latter especially, Meera is the foil to Amudhavanan's passive masculinity. She is there as he fails and figures out his role as a father and a man. It also doesn't help that when the trans character is actually the protagonist, the role inevitably goes to a cis male actor.
After Paava Kadhaigal (2020) I keep seeing all the praise – deservedly so – for Kalidas Jayaram's portrayal of Sathaar, and I cannot help but question: why couldn't that role and praise have gone to a transgender actress? In Super Deluxe (2019), I finally saw a transgender woman who was allowed to have a grey moral compass, who didn't have to be evil or a saint, who could just be a complex character whose entire arc didn't have to revolve around her gender. But still, it's Vijay Sethupathi as Shilpa who got the opportunity to portray that complexity. Why must such nuanced roles even now go to cis actors? It has become almost an acting feat or milestone for a cis actor to have played a transgender character, and we conveniently ignore the fact that trans actors continued to be failed. It seems as if all mainstream male actors go through a rite of passage where they dress in drag and play a trans character or pretend to be a woman, to showcase their acting chops. From Kamal Hassan to Sivakarthikeyan, we keep seeing the same old plotline where a man can dress up as a woman and become so believable and desirable, when the reality is that many transgender women go through difficult transitions and continue to be ostracised in society.
This performative aspect also has a ripple effect in real life. In the Netflix documentary Disclosure (2020) – a must watch if you are interested in the history of trans representation in Hollywood and cinema in general – they bring up a rather important idea of performance and lies. When a cis male actor plays a trans woman on screen and is able to transform back to a man as soon as they take off the clothes and the makeup, it creates the illusion that being trans is a performance in itself, and that a trans woman is just a man who is able to hide his masculinity under really good clothes and makeup. The documentary claims that this is one of the reasons behind physical, psychological and sexual violence against trans women. It's the fear that a man's attraction to a trans woman means he's gay, and it's the fear that women – even some radical feminists – hold that trans women are just men who want to prey on women within closed spaces under the guise of femininity.
Of course, with the kind of movies and cultural thought we've all grown up with, it might seem that even being able to talk about trans and queer representation in this way, to have characters to hold up as example, is a huge feat. But we can't stop at Shilpa and Saathar – whose arcs once again were also centred on sexual violence. Where are the trans men and trans characters whose plotlines transcend their transness? And when can trans characters live, laugh, and love like cis characters are freely allowed to in Tamil cinema?