Bollywood, India’s mainstream Hindi cinema industry, is notorious for its unsettling distortion of individuals from distinct groups, faiths and other marginalised communities. For an industry that is still wrapping its head around the complexities of the spectrum of identities, particularly those linked to gender and sexuality, the misrepresentation of trans people is predictably derogatory and dehumanising.
One of Bollywood’s most awaited 2020 films, Laxmii, was to bring an end to this pattern by putting a transgender character at the heart of its plot. It was meant to differ from previous portrayals that retained trans identities as shadow figures mostly for comic relief, or as villainous or sociocultural sidekicks. The movie, however, ended up perpetuating the very myths it was trying to counter, and reignited debate around the contentious depiction of third sex in the Indian film industry.
Laxmii is Raghava Lawrence’s Hindi revision of his 2011 Tamil movie, Kanchana. The title of the film changed from Laxmmi Bomb to Laxmii after some Hindu outfits protested, saying it linked a derogatory word, bomb, with Hindu goddess Laxmi. The comedy horror sees leading Bollywood actor Akshay Kumar play a Muslim businessman possessed by a vengeful transwoman ghost named Laxmii. Kumar, who doubles as a member of an association that dispels myths about ghosts, wraps himself in a sari with jewellery and make-up as his possessed character terrorises his Hindu in-laws.
The depiction of Kumar’s character reinforces the image of a transperson as an effeminate man or a eunuch, who enjoys behaving like a woman. The film was severely criticised for mocking and demonising transpeople, and reinforcing discriminatory stereotypes of transpeople as predatory or connected with paranormal evil.
“Laxmii is offensive on such a basic ideological level that slotting it in the consolatory progressive-mainstream film category is in fact a scathing indictment of how regressive we are to begin with,” writes film critic Rahul Desai in Film Companion, a news blog about the Indian film industry. “Laxmii is essentially about a Muslim man who gets possessed by the ghost of a transwoman. As a result, it manages to be both Islamophobic and transphobic at once. Not to mention logic-phobic and taste-phobic,” Desai concludes.
Noted film commentator Shubhra Gupta also made a scathing indictment of the movie’s representation of transpeople and Muslim characters. “Claiming to break stereotypes by heavily stereotyping people across the board is a device bad Bollywood never seems to get enough of: all the transgender characters clap their hands, and dance around a fire; a good Muslim character wears a ‘topi’ and beard; and everyone else speaks their lines in the hope of making us laugh,” she says in her review for the Indian Express newspaper.
“Irrespective of its aims, Laxmii serves to further otherwise the already ostracised trans community. It is also tacky and insufferable,” writes Anna MM Vetticad in her critique of the film.
History of prejudice and erasure
In India, transgender people are generally referred to as hijras. They have long lived on the fringes of Indian society, with unique ascriptive religious and sociocultural roles that further render them invisible, disempowered and ostracised from public spaces. Often they are viewed as an “ultra-minority” subgroup within the LGBTQIA+ community. Derogatory words are frequently used to demean and humiliate transpeople. And in recent years, some transgender organisations have deemed the term hijra offensive.
Some people believe hijras are spiritually entitled to bless or curse them. As they are ostracised from the public sphere, which traditionally denies them the opportunity to receive a formal education or search for a job, they are forced to gather tips for blessings in rituals and celebrations, on roads or public transport.
The erasure of a transgender identity as a culturally identifiable category and gender in Indian society is reflected not only by a dearth of transgender representation in Hindi cinema, which continues to depict the main protagonist as a hypermasculine male, but also by a lack of realistic portrayals in movie plots. Although there has been a marginal increase in humane transgender roles, such as in 2019’s Super Deluxe, stereotypes remain prevalent, feeding homophobia and heterosexism in society.
Methods of distortion
Transgender characters are depicted most frequently in a style that elicits cheap laughs, usually in brief scenes that often do not blend with the plot but are included purely to set the mood for the viewer to laugh. These plots construe the personality of the third gender through abjection, ridicule and erasure, and depict transpeople as caricatures, leading a life of desperation and emerging on the scene to beg or dance on specific occasions such as marriages.
This style of representation provides a reductionist view of transpeople and erases any positive sentiment towards them. These scenes depict transwomen with a touch of underlying implicit masculinity in grossly exaggerated feminine characters. For instance, a scene from the 2004 movie Masti shows a transwoman kissing one of the protagonists. He does not know she is trans and when he becomes aware, he rushes to the bathroom to wash his mouth. Gender scholars contend that this scene illustrates male disgust and revulsion, and reaffirm the leading man’s heteronormative masculinity, the assumption that heterosexuality is “normal” while other kinds of desire are not.
Another common depiction is male actors cross-dressing in a convoluted way. They are usually crude and intended to elicit laughter at the expense of transpeople. Other prevailing representations show transgender people dancing in congratulation at marriages or births. These scenes generally do not have any role in the main narrative, but they reinforce the reductionist role of transgender people as mere entertainers.
Perhaps a more problematic portrayal in Hindu cinema is that of trans characters as villains, evil or predatory. Third gender characters are often grotesque anti-heroes, involved in sex work or pimping and the abduction and emasculation of children to recruit them for transgender clans. The character of Lajja Shakar Pandey from 1999’s Sangharsh is a prime example. The villainous character, played by actor Ashutosh Rana, is a goddess Kali-adoring transwoman who abducts children and sacrifices them to the deity.
Another infamous example is from the 1991 film Sadak, in which Sadashiv Amrapurkar’s portrayal of a transgender brothel owner is cunning, evil and sadistic. Amrapurkar’s character adopts exaggerated expressions, amplified mannerisms and a peculiar form of intonation to signify the cruelty of his character, heightening fears and myths about transpeople. Amrapurkar won several awards for this role and was applauded by critics and audiences, further accentuating how negative depictions are not only normalised but widely received by the Indian public.
In the 2011 movie Murder 2, a eunuch goes on a killing spree of women who are sex workers. Other films like Baazi, Aunty no 1, Tamanna, Style, Page 3, Traffic Signal and Apna Sapna Money Money are also on the endless list of mainstream movies that distort perceptions about the third gender in India. Gender scholars say such projections only serve to affirm prejudice. These portrayals further otherise the trans community through misrepresentation, thus reinforcing existing stereotypes.
What is pertinent is that most of the transpeople depicted in such movies are transwomen and not transmen, who are effectively rendered invisible, revealing another layer of transphobia. “One particular trope is extremely popular in Bollywood,” writes Rohini Banerjee, “and that is cross-dressing men.” She notes that most celebrated A-list actors have all dressed in drag at one time or another, be it Aamir Khan in Baazi, Rishi Kapoor in Rafoo Chakkar, Amitabh Bachchan in Laawaris, Shahrukh Khan in Duplicate, Govinda in Aunty No 1 or Saif Ali Khan and Riteish Deshmukh in Humshakals.
Dearth of representation
Bollywood’s problem with the third gender is not only portrayal but also representation. The film industry was heavily criticised in 2019, when Netflix series Sacred Games depicted a transgender woman played by a cisgender actress. Question were raised about whether the industry is providing transgender people with work opportunities.
Modelling is often a stepping stone to India’s entertainment industries. Reena Rai, the founder of Miss Trans Queen India, India’s first transwoman beauty pageant, says casting directors frequently approach her models. However, the conditions put forth by moviemakers, she says, are shocking. “Some want my models to come with a beard and with a manly voice, while many don’t want to break the myth that transgender women do not look like men,” Rai told Vice News.
A grounded, humanistic portrayal of the third gender in Hindi mainstream cinema is especially critical because of Bollywood’s broad reach and popularity, and its dominant influence on pop culture in the country. Bollywood permeates everyday life and culture in India, reinforcing social ideals and customs. This is particularly important in a country where abuse against transpeople is prevalent and systemic prejudices remain endemic.
Although there has been some systemic change in attitude towards transpeople, reform is slow and meagre. In 2014, the Supreme Court of India ruled that transgender people should be recognised as a third gender and enjoy all human rights, while being eligible for special benefits in education and jobs. In 2019, India passed the Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Act, which ostensibly is meant to secure the interests of transgender people. However, trans activists say it does the opposite, even saying that the act is a massive blow to India’s already fragile transgender population, and nullifies the progress made over the past few years.
The new law prohibits discrimination against transgender people with regard to education, employment and the ability to rent or buy property, and gives transgender people a “right to self-perceived identity”. But it requires them to register with the government if they want to be officially recognised as transgender, for which they have to submit proof of gender confirmation surgery. Pertinently, the act offers a reduced punishment ranging from six months to two years imprisonment for offences against transgender persons, while the same offences against women are awarded a much higher degree of punishment, up to life in prison.