Despite the fact that there are numerous forms of entertainment cropping up almost every other day as a result of technological advancements, film as a medium continues to enjoy a major fan following of its own. Movies continue to influence minds to quite a large extent, as a result of which, representations and portrayals - be it of individuals or sections of society, become crucial. When it comes to the third gender, a lot of Indian movies have been called out in the past for insensitive and/or inaccurate portrayals of their lives. Slice of life representations of those from the transgender community are generally hard to come by, which leads to the continuation of unabashed stereotypes. Using case studies and in-depth interviews as the research methodologies, this paper will attempt to objectively study the portrayal of the third gender in Tamil cinema, and why representation of such gender/sexual minorities is important in the context of a society, especially in the current day and age.
Humans are innately social beings who live in groups and consider interactions an integral part of their everyday lives. They listen to the thoughts, opinions and ideals of others around them and that, more often than not, shapes the way they think as well. Apart from fellow human beings, another element which does (or at least tries to) influence their thinking is media – whether that is broadcast media, print media or various forms of new media that keep emerging. There are divided opinions on the extent to which media is able to influence people. While there are those advocating the Hypodermic needle theory of media, there are lots who support the limited effects of media theories like Paul Lazarsfeld’s two-step flow theory, for instance.
However, irrespective of which theory people believe in, the agenda-setting theory of media still largely holds true. Through the narratives they choose to convey and bring to the consumers of their content, the media is telling them what to think about and sometimes end up telling them how to think of it as well.
This is where narratives, their representations and portrayals become crucial especially when it comes to creative texts. Be it books, plays or movies, any creative fictional piece gives the author of the text the liberty to portray a person, a community or even a country in a certain way, claiming artistic freedom. Such representations gain more importance when dealing with marginalized, oppressed or largely stereotyped communities. One such community is the transgender community. Despite a lot more people choosing to openly discuss gender identity, gender expression, gender non-conformity and other related issues like non-binary identities and sexual orientation these days, the transgender community continues to remain a marginalized section of the society in a lot of countries. Thus, the way the transgender population is represented in films (a mass media vehicle still loved and supported by millions of people worldwide) becomes crucial.
Representation and why it Matters:
Representation is defined as the “the description or portrayal of someone or something in a particular way”. Such representation paves the way for people in a society to get to know groups or communities that they might not interact with or have previous knowledge about. Hence, such representation of any group becomes significant.Merriam Webster defines a transgender or a trans person as “a person whose gender identity differs from the sex the person had or was identified as having at birth.”1 Thus this definition includes trans men (female-to-male) as well as trans women (male-to-female). Various studies have tried to find the number of transgender people across different countries. The Pakistan government decided to include the country’s transgender population in the census for the first time this year, allowing people to self-identify themselves2. Closer home, India legally recognized transgender as the third gender in a landmark judgement in 2014. Following this, there was a census conducted during which 4.9 lakh people identified themselves as belonging to the third gender. Activists however claim that the numbers are grossly underestimated and that the real numbers would be six to seven times higher3. This is evidenced by the fact that another report claims there are around 2 million people in India who are part of the hijra community (transgender people in South Asia) which is significantly higher than the numbers reported in the census as stated above4. From these statistics, it is easy to understand that India is home to a lot of trans people (transgender people). This makes it very important to represent them in the right way in mass media vehicles like movies which are watched by people nationally as well as internationally.
OBJECTIVES OF THE PAPER:
1. To understand how Tamil movies portray the transgender community by taking a few samples as case studies and dissecting/analyzing them.
2. To see what people from the transgender community and those working with the community think about such portrayals.
3. To study the impact of such representation in movies and why it matters in a social context.
NEED FOR STUDY AND METHODOLOGY ADOPTED:
According to George Gerbner’s cultivation theory which studies the effects of television, continuous or heavy television watching can have long-term impacts on people and lead them to believe that the portrayal on television is the actual social reality5. This theory can be applied to film viewing as well, which is why portrayal of communities in films need to be analyzed. Further, though there is research done and papers written about portrayal of transgender people or LGBT representation in cinema on a global level or in Indian movies, there is hardly any explanatory research or otherwise that focuses specifically on such portrayal in Tamil movies. Hence, there is a need to study this further. In order to understand these portrayals better, this paper will use qualitative methods by taking a few movies as case studies and critically analyzing the portrayal of trans people in them. Further, a few relevant people will be interviewed to understand what their views are on the portrayal and representation of the transgender community in Tamil films.
Portrayal of Trans People in Cinema:
A lot of movies have been made with transgender characters in them, globally. Movies like Transparent, Boy Meets Girl and New Girls on the Block have had trans people portray trans characters in the movies, thereby lending authenticity to their roles.6Such movies received good reviews for the portrayal of the trans community through those characters. However, on the other hand, movies like Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, Dallas Buyers Club came under fire from transgender activists for their portrayals and for allowing cisgender (non-transgender) people portray the role of a trans person. In a paper titled “How Does Mainstream Cinema Represent Transgender Characters and What Effect Do These Representations Have On The Lives of Transgender People?” by Noah James Donnelly, the author talks about how the transgender character in Dallas Buyers Club was shown to be promiscuous and exuded sexuality, apart from being a victim of addiction. All of these are widely regarded as negative traits, which paints the community itself in a bad light. The author of the paper argues that the character was not given as much concern as a cisgender person would have been given, if the character in the movie had been cisgendered instead7. Hence most movies in the global context seem to “other” the trans community through their portrayal, which is problematic. Othering refers to alienating a person and treating them as intrinsically different or abnormal from the mainstream population.
Back home in India, despite being legally recognized as the third gender currently, the community largely remains ostracized and is on the receiving end of hate and discrimination more often than not. It is interesting to note that there are sometimes contradictory reactions to this community as well – on the one hand, they are ostracized and shunned, while on the other, they are believed to be spiritually/religiously superior which leads people to believe that the blessings of the community will help them. Neither of these contradictory beliefs help in normalizing the community or helping the society look at them the way they would at the cis community. Most of the ostracization, backlash and hate the trans community receives is largely due to a few factors – ignorance about non-binary gender identities, ignorance of the concept of gender expression, and the fact that a lot of the cis population believes that trans people take up either begging or prostitution as their means of livelihood.
Given the fact that not many cis people interact or converse with people from the trans community, the way they are represented or portrayed in Indian films becomes crucial. Tamil cinema, or Kollywood, is one of the largest revenue making industries in the country. People throng theatres and film stars achieve cult status, inspiring heightened levels of fandom. In such a scenario, needless to say, Tamil movies and how they portray trans people becomes important.In majority of the movies, transgender characters are given minor, pivotal roles without any substance and the characters don’t really add value to the plot of the films. They are used for comic relief and the characterizations are written in such a way as to fit the relief theory of humor8. Sometimes, male characters in a movie dress up as and pretend to be a woman. This is again problematic as it does not actually represent a transgender and could actually merely be a case of cross dressing. Cross dressers are those who wear clothing that is usually associated with the opposite gender. This can be seen in quite a few movies starring Vadivelu, Vivekh’s character in Guru En Aalu (directed by Selva) as well as the recently released Remo (directed by BakkiyarajKannan) in which the male lead merely dons the attire of a woman nurse in order to establish a close bond with the female lead.
Analyses of a Few Tamil Movies and their Portrayal of the Transgender Community:
Movies with characters like that of Vaiyapuri’s in ThulladhaManamumThullum(1999) directed by Ezhil make fun of a male showing signs of being effeminate and is mocked even by their own friends. A lot of such subtleties are not given enough importance while drafting the screenplay or during the characterization of the roles in movies. Sarath Kumar essayed the role of a transgender called Kanchana in Muni 2: Kanchana (2011) which was a crucial role in the horror film. Directed by Raghava Lawrence, the role was that of a transgender who gets ousted by her biological family but gets accepted by someone else for who she was and later gets killed by a villain. It brought out the difficulties faced by a lot of people in the trans community but ended on a positive note, portraying Sarath Kumar in a good role. The role, as well as Sarath Kumar’s portrayal, were widely appreciated. Many consider Kamal Haasan’s role in Vishwaroopam(2013) to be that of a trans person. However, he merely played a man who had effeminate characteristics and that does not necessarily make one a transgender. In the film, Haasan is rejected by his wife early on in the movie for his effeminate nature but once she finds out about his macho activities, falls for him. This hypocrisy was noted and criticized by some people9.
Another major problem with all of the examples stated above is the fact that none of the roles were essayed by an actual trans person. They were all cisgendered, which in itself lacks an authenticity that can only be lent by trans people themselves. Having said that, there are a few exceptions, including positive portrayals and the role being played by a trans person themselves. This includes movies like Narthagi(2011) written and directed by Vijayapadma, Paal (2008) which was directed by D Sivakumar and Appa (2016) which was helmed by Samuthirakani. Narthagicaptures the struggles and life of a transgender through the protagonist’s journey; the protagonist was played by a trans person as well. The movie answered quite a few questions that the cisgender crowd usually has about the third gender and hence the director, Vijaya Padma’s efforts were praised. However, there was criticism that the movie focused a bit too much on a sympathetic angle, while an empathetic angle might have been better to normalize their position in the society10. In Appa, there is a scene where one of the lead child artistes gets lost but is later found to be safeguarded by a trans woman who ensures the child gets back together with his father. A small, but powerful scene ensues when the child’s father thanks the trans woman with folded hands.
Interviews to Understand Opinions on the Portrayal of Trans People:
An insider perspective on any subject is important to understand the subtleties and complexities of an issue better. Bharaa Bobby, an Engineering graduate who is a trans woman says, “After about 20 years or so, the way transgender people are portrayed is now better. Movies like Thenavattu are an example of that. Kanchanaportrayed a transgender well. The movie had a good impact and many people came forward to help us (the community) after that movie. Hence more roles like that would be appreciated”. She, however, questioned why directors don’t give the lead roles or other roles with substance to more trans people. She believes directors have a great responsibility when it comes to portraying them in the right manner as more often than not, trans people are shown in a negative light which leads to most parents not accepting their children when they come out. She stated that people form opinions about the community after watching movies and negative portrayals create issues for the community in a lot of ways, including finding accommodation which can become a huge hassle as it did in the case of some trans women who were employed by the Kochi Metro Rail project recently. When asked to name a movie in which she particularly liked the portrayal of the community, Bharaa mentioned BanaaKaathadi (2010). She stated that there was the role of a neighbor in the movie (played by a trans person) and that the role was normalized – she was neither shown in a negative light, nor was she given importance. Bharaa feels that such roles where trans people are shown living with others like any other human being is crucial. “If they show a scene in the workplace where there are four people, the fifth employee could be a trans person. Even small roles like a neighbor, a sister or so would be nice. They should not be separated from the mainstream society or kept aloof”, she concludes.
SaraaSubramaniam, a freelance journalist and a film critic, was asked what he thought of the general portrayal of the transgender population in Tamil films. He said he felt like filmmakers are almost betraying the community by using trans people for sex-related comic roles, more often than not. “They don’t do enough research on the community or the subject before they portray transgender people in movies. Mani Ratnam’sBombay had a positive transgender role. However Appu, which gave a lot of importance to a trans person, had Prakash Raj play a highly negative role and I wonder if that movie worsened people’s perspective or views regarding the transgender community. AadhiBhagavanand IruMuganhad negative portrayals of the community as well. Villain roles are also fine. But Shankar’s movie I was the height of atrocity!” he said. The movie’s portrayal had, in fact, led to protests from the community at the time of its release in 2015.
Saraa went on to add that Kamal Hasan’s way of acting effeminate before turning into a courageous hero in Vishwaroopamwas indeed troubling. “However, movies like Appa(2016), Dharmadurai(2016)and OnaayumAattukkuttiyum (2013) are movies where trans people have been portrayed neatly.” He felt that Muni 2: Kanchanawas a good movie as well, and noted that it is heartening to see more and more of such roles being played by trans people themselves. “Something is better than nothing. But, nothing is better than nonsense”, he said, opining that it’s way better to have normalized, small roles for trans people or not have such roles at all instead of generalizing the community by portraying them in a negative light. Saraa noted that such negative portrayals are the norm in the global film scene as well. He concluded that filmmakers should undertake necessary research before portraying the community in movies, internalize the treatment of trans people as just anybody else in the society and stop using them merely for comic relief. While it is slowly becoming commonplace to see trans women (male to female or MTF) characters on the big screen these days, trans men (female to male or FTM) are rarely discussed especially in Tamil cinema. Opinions on such portrayal or the lack thereof may however, vary. A trans man, who did not wish to be named for personal reasons says, “Trans women are shown in movies, but that has not really helped change the mindset of the society. They are mostly shown in a poor light which has spoilt the general image of trans women. Trans men like me live secret lives and our identities are only known to our families and friends. However, the society must know that there is another side to the transgender community as well – FTM. That is enough.” He was worried that movies may spoil the reputation of trans men the way they have with trans women but added that portraying trans men in Tamil movies will help a lot when it comes to gaining acceptance of the family if and when they come out. He is of the opinion that portraying more trans men in movies will help people understand the existence of trans men and realize that trans men are just like cisgendered men.
From the case studies taken as examples above and the interviews of people who either directly or indirectly have a vested interest in the portrayal of trans people in Tamil movies, we understand that there is a definite need for filmmakers to get sensitized about the community and understand the impact movies have on people’s perception before they get down to scripting or directing movies. Further, while movies like Boys Don’t Cry (1999) directed by Kimberly Peirce talk about trans men, Tamil movies largely ignore them despite the fact that they come under the transgender community. The portrayal of such gender or sexual minorities can be understood better by studying the directors of such movies to understand why they write/direct such roles in a certain way and by taking a lot more samples over a larger period of time, which could not be done in this paper due to time constraints. The scope of this study can also be extended to Indian films in the LGBTIQA+ space (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Intersex, Queer/questioning, Agender) for a broader, thorough understanding of the portrayal of minorities. Though portrayals are slowly becoming more sensitive, filmmakers still have a long way to go. They should understand the power and responsibility that comes with being able to impact and influence mass audiences in a society like ours and live up to the same by doing justice to any community they write or talk about.
1. Retrieved from https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/transgender
2. TauqirGhumman (2017, January 9). Transgender population to be counted in population census for first time. Dawn. Retrieved from https://www.dawn.com/news/1307376
3. RemaNagarajan (2014, May 30). First count of third gender in census: 4.9 lakh. The Times of India. Retrieved from http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/india/First-count-of-third-gender-in-census-4-9-lakh/articleshow/35741613.cms
4. Ananya Bhattacharya (2017, January 12). Some of the world’s least progressive countries recognize transgender citizens. The US does not. Quartz. Retrieved from https://qz.com/882300/some-of-the-worlds-least-progressive-countries-recognize-transgender-as-a-gender-the-us-does-not/
5. Retrieved from https://masscommtheory.com/theory-overviews/cultivation-theory/
6. Tre’vell Anderson (2015, Dec 18). Visibility matters: Transgender characters on film and television through the years. Los Angeles Times. Retrieved from http://timelines.latimes.com/transgender-characters-film-tv-timeline/
7. Noah Donnelly How Does Mainstream Cinema Represent Transgender Characters and What Effect Do These Represenatations Have On The Lives of Transgender People? Retrieved from http://www.academia.edu/15621886/How_Does_Mainstream_Cinema_Represent_Transgender_Characters_and_What_Effect_Do_These_Representations_Have_On_The_Lives_of_Transgender_People
8. Monro, D. H. (1998) Theories of Humor. Retrieved from https://msu.edu/~jdowell/monro.html
9. Srivatsan (2016, September). Before Vikram in IruMugan: 5 actors who played transgender on screen. India Today. Retrieved from http://indiatoday.intoday.in/story/iru-mugan-vikram-kamal-haasan-prakash-raj-jayam-ravi-vivek/1/757678.html
10. Behindwoods Review Board. Narthagi Movie Review. Retrieved from http://www.behindwoods.com/tamil-movie-reviews/reviews-2/may-11-03/narthagi-review.html
Received on 24.10.2017 Modified on 28.11.2017
Accepted on 23.01.2018 ©A&V Publications All right reserved