This year has been turbulent enough for trans* folx in India. From the regressive Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Act, 2019, to the loss of livelihoods due to the pandemic, 2020 has been a catastrophic struggle. What was missing was Bollywood’s contribution to this nightmare and now, it appears, we have that too.
On November 9, Laxmii, starring Akshay Kumar and directed by Raghava Lawrence, will premiere on Disney+Hotstar and in theatres internationally. It is a Hindi remake of the Tamil film Kanchana (2011), also directed by Lawrence. The trailer of the film, that dropped a few weeks ago, indicates that this remake is not going to stray too far from the transphobic original.
Laxmii, like Kanchana, has been branded by the makers as a ‘horror comedy’. The horror of a ghost taking revenge and the physical comedy elicited from watching a cisgender male actor, dressed in a saree, playing a transwoman. This premise in itself is transphobic, but to elaborate, Kanchana and now Laxmii, will yet again give the audience a problematic, stereotype-driven portrayal of transgender persons where the trans character is an unreal, evil ghost and not a living human being.
From Sadashiv Amrapurkar’s Maharaani, the evil brothel-owner in Sadak (1991), to Ashutosh Rana’s Lajja Shankar Pandey, a devil-worshipping religious fanatic in Sangharsh (1999), to more recently, Prashant Narayanan’s Dheeraj Pandey, a psychopathic serial killer in Murder 2 (2011), Bollywood has had a troubling history of cisgender actors playing transgender villains.
On the other end are films like Humshakals (2014) and Dream Girl (2019), just a few examples of the largely male-dominated film industry turning transgender identities into comedy film plots at the cost of their blatant dehumanisation. Closer home, the success of The Kapil Sharma Show, where viewers watch and laugh at crossdressing cisgender men doing outrageous physical gags, day after day, only confirms how comfortable not just our media, but also our audience is, to throw trans people under the bus by reducing them into devices of humour.
Barring a few exceptions, horror and comedy have always been the only two spaces where Bollywood has acknowledged the existence of transgender folx. The industry, however, thrives on peddling dangerous stereotypes about transness and femininity at large, while bolstering up hyper-masculinity in the same breath. The Laxmii trailer itself is an example of this. One of the dialogues uttered by Akshay Kumar in the trailer reinforces the age-old misogynistic idea that a man should wear bangles if he is weak.
These films don’t exist in a vacuum and have a real impact on the trans community.
After the release of Kanchana in 2011, the title of this film became a new slur for trans people in Tamil Nadu. Kanmani Ray, a Tamil transwoman and a law student based in Delhi, said, “People started teasing any person who was feminine and trans persons as ‘Kanchana’ in a transphobic manner as this was the very clear image they saw. People got a new slur in their vocabulary.” She further added that it’s entirely possible that ‘Laxmmi Bomb’ (the original name of the movie) may soon turn into another catcalling slur that trans people across the country will be forced to endure.
Cinema, like any other media, has a visual and psychological impact on its audience. And when it comes to a film toplined by a major star like Akshay Kumar, the impact it has on the audience is enormous, the consequences disastrous. The motion poster of Laxmii started by referring to the mythological ‘Ardhanareshwari’, followed by showing Akshay Kumar’s character in a similar light with a dialogue “Aaj se tum Laxman nahi, Laxmi ho.”
The image plays the most important role here. The most common understanding that Indians have of transgender people is that of a person who is neither man nor woman or a man wearing a saree, which is what this film very clearly further propagates. At times, this understanding is derived from mythological sources of Ardhanareshwari, Brihanalla and Shikandi (of the Mahabharata). Kanchana uses this similar trope in a dialogue where the transgender character is told by the cis-man, “You are half Shiv and half Shakti, you are Ardhanareshwar.”
Following such commonly held beliefs when the audience watches a cisgender male Bollywood superstar wearing a saree and portraying a trans character in an exaggerated manner, it only works to confirm their existing stereotypes, further othering the transgender community, making them more and more susceptible to discrimination.
The cisgender gaze on the trans community has been consistent. The community has always been attached to mythological ideas and assigned the role of those who give either blessings or curses. On the other hand, a consequence of patriarchy is the perception of femininity as feeble and weak, which further enforces the gender binary. This often results in violence against transgender people.
This premise of femininity as ‘weak’ also questions the machismo of men, resulting in hyper-masculinity and extreme misogyny and transphobia. The biggest stereotype propagated by both Kanchana and Laxmii is that ghosts or evil spirits possess men, leading them to crossdress. In Kanchana, the man possessed by the ghost is taken to a dargah to be exorcised and we are shown the ghost of the transwoman cowering to them. This has been a long-standing belief in India, which has led to parents taking their trans child to a baba or fakir for an exorcism that could “cure” them. Long derided by the scientific community as baseless superstitions, these are still an existing and widely-practised form of conversion therapy.
“With the release of 'Laxmii' inevitable, my only wish is to someday see a trans person like me on screen in a regular love story or a family drama, just being a regular human being, instead of a stereotypical villain, mythological ghost or a butt of jokes.”
The Laxmii film production team has announced that they’ll donate Rs 1 crore for the welfare of the transgender community. But to this display of magnanimity, my question is simple. Is an amount of Rs1 crore enough compensation for the lasting damage the film will make in the lives of trans people? Will it offset the damage in perception, one that encourages the audience to view trans people as comedic gags or dangerous, vengeful ghosts? Will it fix the dehumanisation of the community that it is actively contributing to?
The deeper problem here—and it’s a problem across several industries—is the fact that trans people are not involved by the production in projects that have trans characters. With a cisgender actor playing a trans character and no trans person named as an advisor, consultant, or writer for this film, Laxmii simply fails in all accounts of representation, ownership and authorship, which are central tenets of ethical production of work that, by all accounts, impacts the lives of marginalized people.
The original Tamil film Kanchana released in 2011. Since then, the NALSA judgment recognising Transgender people has passed and the Trans Act which claims to fight discrimination has been enacted. At the same time, Tamil cinema itself has seen a marginal shift with some amount of representation and authorship. Films like Aruvi (2016) and Super Deluxe (2019) are notable examples. And yet, it’s 2020 and the Hindi film industry still produces a remake of an old transphobic film, hoping for it to be a blockbuster.
Bollywood, on the other hand, has also claimed that they are finally aboard the train of wokeness. In regards to the representation of LGBTQI+ people, there’ve been films like Margarita With a Straw, Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga, and Shubh Mangal Zyada Saavdhan. However problematic these films themselves might be, the least they did was portray queer people as human beings with families and lives, capable of love and overcoming life struggles. With the release of Laxmii inevitable, my only wish is to someday see a trans person like me on screen in a regular love story or a family drama, just being a regular human being, instead of a stereotypical villain, mythological ghost or a butt of jokes.