Clad in a white kurta, with a dupatta worn over the shoulder and tied around the waist, that is the image of transgenders and crossdressers we grew up watching in the Indian cinema. They didn’t have much to do on screen, but to be the queen’s friends in the mythological movies, sidekick of the goons in the action films, and an element of ridicule for every other film genre.
While actors like Amitabh Bachan in Mere angne mein and Superstar Rajinikanth in Panakkaran used the cross-dresser to add a few tumkas to the songs, Sathyaraj and Govinda used it to generate a few laughs in the theatre and bring a comic relief to the plot, films have used the transgenders mainly as an element of ridicule and mockery.
The transgenders, crossdressers, and other members of the LGBTQ community have largely remained ostracised from our society and cinema. This has been to the extent that a lot of people do not know the differences that exist in each of these sexual orientations. For the simpletons, comparing gays and lesbians with transgenders is like comparing oranges to apples.
Trans community tend to have very little to no screen space, and when they do, they are often an object of ridicule and pity. And they are mostly depicted as being greedy for money, driven by sexual desire, and as being very deceitful. Not sure how our directors arrived at these traits, because the last I remember reading in my psychology classes, character traits aren’t determined by one’s gender or sexual orientation.
Today, we go on to explore how cinema has portrayed these marginalized communities and how it has changed (has it?) over the years.
Appu, a film starring Top Star Prashanth, was among the first few pictures to experiment with a transgender antagonist. Prakash Raj, who convincingly essayed the role of Maharani, the Madam of a Brothel in Mumbai, was enough to send shivers down the spine of the audience. But, sadly, even this role did not take the scope of transgenders beyond prostitution or begging as a profession.
Kanchana, for me, is the torchbearer of transgender representation in Indian cinema as no other film has gone on to portray the community in a positive light like this. The raw emotions of Kanchana who was abandoned by her parents, her need to support people like her, and her will to fight for her rights and step away from the stereotypes makes it the most loved character. Kanchana advising other eunuchs from begging, prostitution, and cheating and voicing her concern on how the wrongdoing of a few in the community brings bad reputation to everyone in the community left us all teary-eyed, while also highlighting how each of us hold the same stereotypical image of the trans community.
The fact that this was played by the Macho Man of Tamil Cinema, former Mr. Madras, Sarathkumar was icing on the cake.
However, this was a film that released over seven years ago, in 2011, we then had films that bought back homophobia. Remember Osma Jasmine and Love from I and Irumugan? What’s one thing that these two characters had in common other than being transgenders? They were both evil and driven by lustful desires. That’s how our mainstream heroes got back to portraying the trans community.
The only difference from the past decade being, they had more screen time and a few sensible dialogues, while still being on the receiving end of ridicule and mockery of their sexual orientation.
While things have been changing, there’s still a lot that needs to get better. A better and equal representation of the community for who they are, a narration from their perspective and not what we perceive of them, and a story of their world, which we have alienated from ours.
Vijay Sethupathi’s role in Super Deluxe has the debate on again. Will Makkal Selvan step away from the stereotypes and essay the role of Shilpa as another person in our society? Well, the narration of the story’s trailer by him, does seem like he would make Shilpa seem like another human on screen, who is not subjected to any prejudice, but then the last shot where he says “Aaaha” as Shilpa, with a currency note held against her bosom, does remind one of the instances where transgender people resort to begging/bullying to extract money.
But, that was just the trailer, and picture abhi baki hai mere dost, so let’s wait and watch. One can only hope that this would be different, given his past movies like Dharmadurai, where he speaks high of the Thirunangais in the society. Hoping to see Shilpa drive home the message that there’s nothing to discriminate and that the Transgenders are as much a part of our society as we are.