Pati Patni Aur Panga on MX Player, since its release on December 11, has garnered 3.4 million views, becoming the most-watched Hindi show of last week. The romantic-comedy show, 6 episodes of 20 minutes each, follows Romanchak Arora (Naveen Kasturia) who, after marrying Shivani Bhatnagar (Adah Sharma), finds out that she was born a man, and had undergone gender-affirming surgery. He feels betrayed, and files for divorce, and the comedy lies therein, embedded within a dollop of horror and ultimately, a message of acceptance.
The show, since its trailer’s release, has gotten brickbats from the trans community, the one it is trying to represent, and beyond. A petition has been up on change.org to ban the series for using a trans identity “as a source of entertainment by cisgender people, for cisgender people.” It has over 3,400 signatories so far. The top comments on the trailer are calling the show transphobic, disrespectful, and offensive. A lot of the anger is about language- using “sex change” instead of “gender affirming”, and constantly referring to a trans woman as a man- but a lot of it is also about using old tropes of mining trans persons as a source of humour, and thus ridicule.
Having watched the entire show, it is obvious that the makers, good intent aside, did not bother to do their research, confusing sexuality (who one is attracted to- homosexual, heterosexual, etc) with gender identity (who one is- male, female, etc). For Abir Sengupta, the writer and director of this show, there is little differentiating an effeminate gay man from a trans woman.
I thought this was the character’s ignorance, and not that of the makers, something that over the course of the six episodes would be rectified, but I was mistaken. The arc of self-growth comes from Romanchak’s character, that of a property broker. In the first episode he calls a trans woman gay, telling them to go to the hospital to get themselves checked. In the last episode, after his journey of growth, he confuses an effeminate man for a trans woman, by showing him a girls PG, and proclaiming in front of a doubtful owner of the PG, “See, actually, he’s a woman from inside”, despite the man not saying anything to that effect to him.
Even in the promotions of the show, Shivani’s character is referred to as a man. Adah Sharma has been quoted saying she’s playing a “man”, when she is actually playing the role of a trans-woman. MX Player incorrectly called the couple – that of a trans woman and a man- that of two men. This is not just ignorant, but also irresponsible. Because gay men and trans women, though falling under the linguistic umbrella of LGBT+, are fighting remarkably different wars. One is about the right to love whomever you want to love, and one is the right to be whoever you want to be. The trans community is often shortchanged, their issues not given the same vocal support that say, gay men’s brouhaha get.
This could have been altogether avoided if the makers decided to consult within the community, and best-case scenario even hire actors from within the trans community to play the trans character. They wouldn’t irresponsibly call this role that of a man, for one. But also, the makers would have then known how much more important the 2014 Supreme Court Judgment was (that declared transgender persons the ‘third gender’, giving them the right to self-identify, and affirming their fundamental rights according to the Constitution), compared to the 2018 Supreme Court Judgment (that read down Section 377 so that consensual homosexual sex won’t be punishable). And yet, it is a neon sign board with “#377” in the background when the final kiss and forgiveness ensues, again confusing the support for homosexuality, with the support for transness. If they consulted more trans persons they would have realized the legal hurdles a trans person needs to jump to get a government identity card where the name and gender matches their reality, something Shivani here is just assumed to have gotten.
This is not to say that good intent shouldn’t be encouraged, but what to do with good intent when it’s coupled with brazen ignorance?
However, the bigger, more pressing question this show brings up, something that even celebrated writers like JK Rowling and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie have been caught in the cross-fire of, is if trans women are women? Does the transness of a trans woman make them any less a woman?
Pati Patni Aur Panga bleakly refers to this in the very convoluted, and obtusely written court scene where Shivani represents herself. One of the arguments used against her is that she didn’t tell her husband before marriage that she wouldn’t be able to conceive. The point here is about her not being transparent with her lover, not of trans-ness or womanhood. But Shivani swerves this by asking, rightfully, why a woman is only seen vis-a-vis her ability to have children? She is correct, but she doesn’t counter the original allegation – that of not telling her lover of her inability to conceive.
The whole courtroom drama, like the show itself, is obsessed with whether Shivani has a vagina or not, since apparently a woman’s womanhood is expected to reside in their genitals. It’s this same ignorance that expects survivors of rape to not be respectable anymore- because respect resides in the vagina. The fact is that it is just a body part, and using it to define a personality, and one’s destiny is questionable.
Shivani’s lack of a penis is constantly brought up- as proof of her womanhood. The fact that he “checked” she was a woman by having sex with her before marriage, the fact she keeps mentioning to everyone- her husband, her mother in law, the lawyer she is fighting against, and even the judge of the court. Her vagina is seen as a sign of her womanhood.
This begs the question, if she had not transitioned medically, would the show still consider her a woman? Based on what I saw, I don’t think so, and therein lies the rot.