Transgender Portrayal in Indian Cinema

The Indian Film Industry Should Stop The Way They Currently Portray The Transgender Community In The Movies In A Cliché Comic And Negative Light.

This Reverse-Modernization Is Degenerating And Should Be Halted.


Indian movies have often influenced much public thought. Some would go on to say that they create the way people think by making them look headfast unto issues that are usually not dealt with. Movies such as Rang De Basanti (2006) have provoked the populi into thinking about serious matters and started a national conversation. For an Industry so powerful and influential, the portrayal of transgender people is a cupboard of skeletons that nobody talks about. From the first prominent portrayal of Hijras in the Hindi movie Kunwara Baap (Mehmood, 1974), they have been treated predominantly as sources of comic relief and mockery. Hijras are always brightly dressed, always loud and boisterous, and never human. They are objectified as glimmering sidekicks. The Indian film industry should stop the way they currently portray the transgender community in the movies in a cliché comic and negative light. Bollywood is thus reverse-modernising itself and is leading itself in this degeneration. 

Hijras and other non-binary identities have always been shown in movies for comic relief or as antagonists who are out to rape and castrate as many men as possible. Undoubtedly, most Indian middle and upper-class families who have had no interactions with members of the LGBTQA+ communities have, over time, developed negative notions about the trans community and therefore create stigmas that they enforce onto their environment, friends and family. The Dharma Productions’ Agneepath (Karan Malhotra, 2012) had a minuscule role assigned to transgenders as killers, armed with machetes. In the 2011 Bollywood movie Murder 2 (Mohit Suri, 2011), actor Prashant Narayanan played the role of Dheeraj Pandey, a eunuch who is a psychopathic killer and torturer. Dheeraj’s terror is shown in graphic details in the movie; but not once has his psychological trauma been shown. We are shown a man who tortures young women, but not once are given an insight into his mind and thinking. It further enforces the view that transgenders are negative characters and ruthless murderers, if not comical jokers. This immensely influences the minds of the audiences and creates a broad generalisation for all the viewers. 

In many movies, Hijras have been used as a source of slapstick comedy. The presence of a Hijra guard of the Zenana[1] in Ashutosh Gowarikar’s historical drama Jodha Akbar, (Ashutosh Gowarikar, 2008) was used to lighten the heavy scenes and later to plot against the Queen, thereby incorporating both the stereotypes of Hijras in Indian films. Ni’ammat, the Hijra, was a trained assassin and a hyper-sexualised comical person, showing the stereotypes and creating a demonic image. The only transgender actor in India, Ms Pakhi Sharma, better known by her stage name of Bobby Darling, has forever been limited to parts of prostitutes, idiosyncratic stylists, and gay perverts. What we find is that in neither of these parts has she ever been able to display basic emotions. She is shown to be the usual Hijra begging for money and displaying her body.

What we need to gauge in this depiction is the fact that all the Hijras are maligned in real life, and are mistreated every day of their lives. Most of them are forced to beg and make a living by sex-work. They are refused white-collar and blue collared jobs, and even in the exceptional case when one of them does succeed in getting a white collared job, they are ridiculed so much that they have to leave posts. The case of Prof Manabi Bandyopadhyay is one such case. Prof (Dr.) Bandyopadhyay successfully and rightfully was appointed the principal of the Kishangarh Women’s College in West Bengal, but had to, unfortunately, resign from the position soon because of harassment and abuse.

One can argue that these movies portray what the Hijras face in the society. In most parts of India, Hijras are not only looked down upon but also disallowed entry into shopping malls, temples, beauty salons and movie theatres, and even hospitals and police stations- so much so that they are even denied a fundamental right to use public toilets. What an Indian film-goer would see of them would be a facade of bright pink saris and absolute lecherous behaviour. What is often left unseen is the face of dire poverty, their quest at the traffic signals and the cover-up of happiness while taking badhais at weddings. In international movies and documentaries, “the world of the Hijras was portrayed as a trans-utopia, where gender differences are celebrated and even revered” (Barr, Damian, 1998). What is often however forgotten is the fact that most transgenders in India live and work in brothels. Movies and documentaries have not often delved upon this dark area. A rarity was Eunuchs: India’s Third Gender (Michael Yorke, 1998) which focused on this cinematic lacuna and received critical acclaim. The landmark movie Daayra (Amol Palekar, 1997) was another such stunning film which showed all of the above in a humanising manner, without being mortifyingly pitiful.

On the other hand, a sincere question can be raised of this idea of ‘showing the truth’. Movies are meant to be trailblazers and are meant to change social influences. The mere fact that movies from Vittorio De Sica and Roberto Rossellini in Italy and even Guru Dutt in India have led a major change in beliefs in their respective societies. Why has it been so that transgenders or other non-binary and non-cis identities cannot have a decent portrayal in Indian cinema? The movements that have changed the portrayal of the Black Americans and the Hispanic Americans in Hollywood with movies such as The Color Purple (Steven Speilberg, 1985) and West Side Story (Wise and Robbins,1961), and have put issues of immigrants and gay youth to the forefront in Daniel Day-Lewis’ My Beautiful Laundrette (Stephen Frears, 1985) in the UK. It has also influenced many a change in social behaviour in South Asian settings, when the highly acclaimed Pakistani movie Bol (Shoaib Mansoor, 2011) led to more transgender and intersex students’ admission in the Punjab University, Lahore, and crime against transgenders reduced in 2012. Today, the Transgender Person (Protection of Rights) Bill has been approved by the Senate, and daily television sees a queer person named Ali Saleem to come in drag as Begum Nawazish Ali and have a Stephen Colbert style Late Show [2].

The only answer to that can be found in the ideas that are being brought forward by the many writers and screenplay authors who feel violated by the Indian Film Industry. More today than ever before, the Indian Film Industry has become commercial. Its commercialisation is evident in its many ways today- be it in the way that old songs are remixed for quick fame, or even the blatant plagiarism of many Korean [3], English, Persian [4], and regional films, in a slew of critically panned films. This commercialisation has led to the development of something called the ‘Critics’ Choice’ in Indian Film Awards. Thus, even acclaim to movies is limited to either very well earning movies or movies that are backed by influential production houses and personalities. The lack of incentivising for ingenuity hampers the progress of parallel cinema.

A fundamental question that should be raised is if there is a prospect for improvement in Indian Films. There is a good deal of new well-written movies that are reflective of the actual nature of the society rather than an imaginative sexist utopia for the patriarchal cis-male. There is also evidence to suggest that Indian Film has reconstructed itself again and again. The utterly bad movies of the 1980s also saw the rise of Shyam Benegal and Kundan Shah. The decay of the Punjabi Cinema of the 1990s ultimately led to its reconstruction in the 2000s with earthy, natural and understandable dramas. The improvement to the cinema has already begun at a slow rate and with more film festivals and commercial backing to independent films may be a prospective ‘brighter future’.

A big issue that often goes ignored is the lives of transmen- men who were born as women and transitioned to being men. The transmen are practically invisible all across the world, save a few appearances such as Hillary Swank’s Brandon Teena in Boys Don’t Cry (Kimberley Pierce, 1999). In Indian cinema, transmen are completely invisible and have not been seen. Transmen are most persecuted and have internationally been sexually assaulted more than any other intersectionality. Transmen need visibility, representation, and social acceptance. Can the film Moghuls of Mumbai dismember their criticism and give transmen their much-required depiction on- and off-screen?

A move to sensitise the films has gradually started. Though transformative results are yet to be achieved, movies such as the acclaimed Marathi drama, Jogwa (Rajiv Patil, 2009), and the Rituparno Ghosh starrer Bengali romance, Arekti Premer Golpo (Kaushik Ganguly, 2010), herald a new change. There also has been a significant move in other parts of popular culture. An all transgender band by the name of 6 Pack Band [5] has gained some time in conversation and about 15 million views on YouTube. This, however, is not enough. Despite the acceptance of the transgenders as a third gender by the Supreme Court (Sikri and Radhakrishnan, J.J., 2014) no prominent Hindi movie has come out with any substantial role to a transgender character, and no big award has ever been given to any of the upstate movies. There is always a topical taboo of movies that deal with LGBTQA+ relationships. Fire (1994), Kapoor and Sons(2016), and My Brother Nikhil(2016), along with a few other movies are trying to reverse the demonisation of homosexual relationships, but there has certainly been very little progress in displaying the battles of the gender minorities for societal acceptance. The end to the portrayal of an extremely negative construct of the transgenders and replacing the same with a positive narrative, however, is a process that has yet to take its baby steps. It is high time for us to stop this brutal degeneration and halt the Indian Film Industry’s stooping to such low levels.

Note: The above essay uses Hijra/s as a term for Transgenders. It is NOT a term of disrespect or mockery but rather a term of vernacular usage as is often used in Indian movies and society.  


Aarnav Tewari-Sharma is a student pursuing an LLB at Durham University, United Kingdom.  

 


[1] Zenana is a term for women’s quarters in Indian palaces, historically protected by transgenders and castrated men.

[2] Begum Nawazish Ali is now more and more infrequent and Ali often comes without drag, something similar to what drag queens Katya and Trixie Mattel do on their eponymous primetime talk-show. A link:. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Mz1HASfCV9Y

[3] 2010’s Korean Movie, A Man from Nowhere, became the 2016 dud Rocky Handsome, and 2012’s Masquerade was copied by Suraj Barjatya in 2015’s critically panned Prem Ratan Dhan Paayo.

[4] Majid Majidi’s 1997 movie Children of Heaven was authorised as a remake for 2010’s Bumm Bumm Bole.

[5]The term 6 Pack Band has an inert connotation. When translated into Hindi, the number 6 is read Chakka- a term of contempt and mockery targeted at the Hijras. The 6 Pack Band with its name makes an attempt at reclaiming the term Chakka.


References

  1. Barr, Damian “The Second International Transgender Film and Video Festival” Screen, Volume 40, Issue 2, July 1, 1999, p. 214-217; Oxford Academic.
    A link: https://academic.oup.com/screen/article/40/2/214/1605857/The-Second-International- Transgender-Film-and?searchresult=1
  2. Guramani, Nadir “Senate unanimously approves bill empowering transgenders to determine their own identity” The Dawn, March 7, 2018.
    A link: https://www.dawn.com/news/1393766
  3. Hilderbrand, Lucas. “Queer Cinema, Queer Writing, Queer Criticism.” Chapter. In The Cambridge Companion to American Gay and Lesbian Literature, edited by Scott Herring, 73–86. Cambridge Companions to Literature. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015. doi:10.1017/CCO9781107110250.007.
  4. Graham, Philip. “Transgender and Sexuality.” Chapter. In <i>Men and Sex: A Sexual Script Approach, 167–76. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017. doi:10.1017/9781316874998.009.
  5. National Legal Services Authority V Union of India [2014] 5 SCC 438; Radhakrishnan, K.S. Panicker; Sikri, Arjan Kumar, J.J.
    A link: http://judis.nic.in/supremecourt/imgs1.aspx?filename=41411

 

 

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