‘Laxmii’: Bollywood blockbuster offers problematic transgender portrayal, critics say


Written by Meenketan Jha, CNNOscar Holland, CNN

One of Bollywood’s most hotly anticipated motion pictures of the yr, “Laxmii,” is already amongst 2020’s most controversial.

Since a trailer and posters (just like the one pictured beneath) emerged final month, Hindu nationalists have expressed outrage on the film’s depiction of interfaith love and the similarity between its title — initially billed as “Laxmmi Bomb” — and the identify of the goddess Lakshmi. Calls to boycott the film have grown louder on-line since its launch on Monday.

But different criticisms have emerged from one other a part of Indian society altogether.

With a storyline that facilities round a Muslim protagonist possessed by a vengeful transgender ghost, the film has been slammed by critics for reinforcing discriminatory stereotypes of trans individuals as predatory or related to supernatural evil. For many within the LGBTQ group, the plot faucets into Bollywood’s lengthy historical past of each mocking and vilifying trans individuals in a manner that would have harmful real-life implications.

“It manages to be both Islamophobic and transphobic at once,” wrote film critic Rahul Desai on the Indian film business information web site, Film Companion. “Not to mention logic-phobic and taste-phobic.”
The comedy-horror "Laxmii" sees actor Akshay Kumar play a character possessed by a transgender ghost.

The comedy-horror “Laxmii” sees actor Akshay Kumar play a personality possessed by a transgender ghost. Credit: Fox Star Studios

The comedy-horror sees Akshay Kumar, one in all Indian cinema’s most bankable stars, assume a sari, jewellery and make-up as his possessed character terrorizes a petrified household. Beyond his exaggerated efficiency, the selection of Kumar — who isn’t solely a cisgender actor, however one with a monitor document of taking part in historically masculine heroes — has additionally raised eyebrows.

“Why couldn’t (they hire) a trans woman?” requested actor and activist Living Smile Vidya, who identifies as a trans girl, in a telephone interview previous to the film’s launch. “You have big actors and actresses with so many opportunities … then, once in a while we get a role, so why can’t they just let us do that job? It’s basically stealing my job.”

After seeing the film this week, she added: “It’s just annoying to be ‘cis-plained’ (by a) straight man in a heteronormative narrative.”

Although Fox Star Studios and Kumar didn’t instantly reply to CNN’s requests for remark, Kumar has been vocal on-line in expressing help for trans communities within the build-up to the film’s launch. “Let’s break the gender stereotype and extend our support to the third gender,” he wrote on Instagram alongside a video the place the actor asks his followers to talk out in opposition to prejudice and stereotypes utilizing the hashtag #AbHamaariBaariHai (#ItsOurTurnNow).
A promotional poster for the Bollywood movie "Laxmii."

A promotional poster for the Bollywood film “Laxmii.” Credit: Fox Star Studios

Portrayed as villains

Over latest many years, Bollywood has displayed an inclination for utilizing trans characters as a supply of comedian aid moderately than participating with delicate storylines about gender id. Major studios have generally used cross-dressing, or the transformation of well-known male actors, as a supply of humor.

Perhaps extra problematically, trans characters typically operate as villains, and are usually depicted as evil or predatory. An notorious instance is 1991’s “Sadak,” which noticed actor Sadashiv Amrapurkar’s portrayal of a nefarious transgender pimp win a Filmfare Award for Best Performance in a Negative Role. This sort of “demonization” is symptomatic of prejudices in wider society, in line with Sonali Pattnaik, a professor at St. Xavier’s College in Ahmedabad who has studied Bollywood’s illustration of “hijra” — a time period that features intersex and transgender individuals, and falls underneath India’s legally acknowledged “third gender” class.

“Historically, what we have seen in Bollywood cinema is a constant need to show the (transgender) body as a horrific, grotesque body,” she mentioned in a telephone interview.

For Pattnaik, trans characters are “othered” as a result of they “threaten mainstream masculinity.” The widespread trope of hijras having supernatural powers, or being portrayed as sexual predators, might end result from a variety of unfounded stereotypes and myths. Culturally, hijras are believed by some to have the ability to bless or curse, and sometimes acquire suggestions at ceremonies and festivals, in addition to on roads or on public transport, in alternate for blessings.

“It’s the same old stories about hijras being some kind of supernatural creatures, of transgender people having the power of both male and female identity and all of these myths you hear around you,” Pattnaik mentioned. “There is this whole idea that (hijras) have the strength of five men. It’s the same kind of mystification, rather than actually allowing them to tell their own story in their own terms, humanizing them and seeing them as human beings like you and me.

“The demonization of the group (additionally comes from) this concept that they can not naturally have youngsters, in order that they need,” she added. “They need different individuals’s youngsters, and therefore they develop into a risk to heteronormative reproductivity.”

The controversy round “Laxmii” comes at a time when transgender individuals proceed to face violence and discrimination in India, regardless of makes an attempt to safe protections underneath the legislation.
While the Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Act, passed in 2019, ostensibly sought to defend the rights and welfare of transgender communities, it was roundly criticized by lawyers and activists as being incomprehensive and open to interpretation. The legislation, which requires individuals to apply for a certificate identifying them as transgender to change their legal status, will serve to “violate the rights of trans individuals moderately than respect and uplift long-persecuted communities,” according to Human Rights Watch.

No seats at the table

Bollywood studios have a long history of casting cisgender male actors for trans roles, from Ashutosh Rana in “Sangharsh” to Arif Zakaria in “Darmiyaan: In Between.” This can make it difficult for actors like Living Smile Vidya to offer authentic portrayals based on their lived experiences.

“They’ve solely now began hiring trans girls — and provided that it is like a small character,” she said. “If it is the lead, then they go for a well-known actor.”

The lack of opportunities may contribute to a vicious cycle whereby trans people are discouraged from acting, which, in turn, reduces the pool of talent for filmmakers to choose from, according to screenwriter and director Faraz Arif Ansari, who helps train LGBTQ actors.

“Right now, most folk from the trans group haven’t even thought-about appearing as a profession choice, as a result of they’re apprehensive about getting meals on their desk, fairly truthfully,” said Ansari — who uses the pronouns they and them — in a phone interview.

“They do not even think about appearing to be a profession selection. When I attain out to them to do the workshops, they’re genuinely shocked. They are like, ‘Are you actually desirous about us? Do you really need us in your movies?'”

This may reflect a lack of access across the industry, whether that’s in directing, production or screenwriting. More broadly, it reflects the underrepresentation of hijras in India, said Ansari, who added that “the trans group is sort of invisible, and this can be a prejudice (that is) so deep.”

In what they called the “lengthy, lengthy battle to inclusion” in Bollywood, Ansari argued that filmmakers must balance meritocratic casting with a responsibility to improve representation.

“It actually boils right down to that,” they said. “As a filmmaker, for me, meritocracy is necessary. But after I consider it as a queer filmmaker, I really feel illustration is far more necessary. And I feel meritocracy could be labored upon, you’ll be able to work on coaching of us to suit the invoice.

Commercial incentives are restricted, nonetheless. LGBTQ critics are unlikely to derail the success of a Bollywood blockbuster, and though the Covid-19 pandemic denied “Laxmii” a theater launch in India, it’s featured on the very high of the streaming large Disney+ Hotstar’s homepage going into the Diwali vacation.

The absence of genuine tales about gender id or transgender experiences might mirror an absence curiosity amongst moviegoers, Pattnaik mentioned.

“People are not interested in their stories,” she defined. “I think people are interested in seeing stars perform. So ultimately, even with a film like ‘Laxmii,’ this is what’s going to happen … it’s going to put Akshay Kumar on a greater pedestal.”

These market forces are formed not solely by the tastes of moviegoers in India, but in addition these of its diaspora and other people of Indian heritage — the non-resident Indian, or NRI, market, that makes up a sizeable chunk of Bollywood’s viewership.

“The NRI want to watch nostalgia or star-laden movies — this is what allows them to connect with India. They need to see their heroes and their heroines, and so on, and they need to see them in a certain way. They’re not interested in seeing progressive India.”

Rays of hope

This is to not say that mainstream cinema is incapable of manufacturing genuine portrayals. Dating again to the 1990s, motion pictures like “Tamanna” — which tells the story of an impoverished transgender girl who raises an deserted little one — have periodically been praised for his or her reasonable presentation of difficulties going through the transgender group in India.

But one should often look past Bollywood blockbusters, and in the direction of the impartial and regional motion pictures scenes, for extra nuanced portrayals. In explicit, a variety of motion pictures originating from the state of Tamil Nadu have been lauded in recent times for his or her delicate dealing with of trans points.

Vijay Sethupathi in 2019 Tamil movie, "Super Deluxe," which depicts hardships faced by a hijra character who is ultimately accepted for who she is.

Vijay Sethupathi in 2019 Tamil film, “Super Deluxe,” which depicts hardships confronted by a hijra character who’s finally accepted for who she is. Credit: Prime Media Pictures/Everett Collection

Pattnaik pointed to the 2019 Tamil film “Super Deluxe,” which depicts hardships confronted by a hijra character who’s finally accepted for who she is, for instance of film made with out the “voyeuristic gaze” generally related to trans storylines. Living Smile Vidya, herself a Tamil actor, in the meantime mentioned that “Kanchana,” the supernatural film that “Laxmii” was primarily based on, even confirmed components of compassion.

“They show a trans woman studying medicine and being a hero at the end. That was a real trans woman — not in some silly way, but she was just herself, and that’s it. That is one small part (of the movie) that I really appreciated.”

Yet, altering attitudes amongst figures within the Tamil film business (a few of whom, she mentioned, had been “making fun” of transgender individuals “10 or 15 years ago”) isn’t the results of strides taken by studios, however of these made by the area’s trans communities, she mentioned.

“Credit (should go) mostly to me and some of my fellow trans activists in Tamil Nadu, because we’ve always (taken) risks, at a cost, and that’s how it changed.”

Top picture caption: “Laxmii” sees actor Akshay Kumar play a personality who’s possessed by a transgender ghost.





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