Posted by Shweta Tiwari
History bears testimony to the discrimination and atrocity that society has always inflicted on the the queer population. Over the years, mainstream media of the country has produced innumerable films and documentaries on women issues but a sincere commitment towards depicting the lived reality of the trans people and intersex individuals has not been seen. In this scenario, the serial, Shakti: Astitva Ke Ehsas Ki should be applauded for making this community the subject of their venture.
The social stigma against intersex people is well expressed in the words of Paoli Venkat (name changed) who says “Pata lagte hi maa baap ne ghar se bahar fek dia.” (As soon as my parents came to know about my identity, they threw me out of the house). A majority of intersex people have to resort to begging and menial labor for livelihood. The ones who manage to get a formal education are subjected to prejudices in educational institutes and workplaces.
Also Read: It Fits to A T: Transgender & Proud
An intersex person, Trishala Chettri (name changed) relates the harrowing experience of working in a corporate call center for less than a week. “There were 400 people working on the same floor, and may be a quarter had no problem with me. But the rest did. They were continuously staring, talking in groups, openly laughing.”
The famous chromosome testing case of the South Indian track athlete Santhi Soundarajan and the consequent humiliation she was subjected to is one of the many examples of prejudices faced by people with atypical sexual characteristics around the world.
Produced by Rashmi Sharma, Shakti promised a paradigmatic shift from the regular melodramatic soap operas of the Indian television. Before Shakti, none of the desi soap operas featured an intersex character, leave alone an intersex protagonist. The plot revolves around an intersex person Saumya, who was assigned female at birth, played by the eternally misty-eyed Rubina Dilaik. On account of its unconventional concept, the viewers had naturally expected a respite from the saas-bahu drama, kitchen politics and a saccharine-but-too-good-to-be-true love story. The title of the serial roughly translates to “the power of realizing one’s existence”. Now, this is exactly where the show disappoints us.
Shakti is the story of two sisters – Saumya and Surbhi. While all the love of the family is bestowed on Surbhi, Saumya is a source of vehement discord between her father and mother. Her father, Maninder Singh (Ayub Khan) and grandmother loathe her and consistently try to get rid of her. Their detestation towards Saumya is overt through their attempt to bury her when she is a ten-day old baby and later abandoning her. The reason behind this resentment is that she is ‘not like others’. “Ye hamari duniya ki nahi hai. Iski duniya alag hai” (“She is not from our world. Her world is different”), says the exasperated father.
Parents and family are the first to shape the perspective of a child towards herself and the society. The violence against transgender and intersex people at within the four walls of home is reflective of transphobhia in the society at large. In this way, the show does manage to depict some of the stigma and discrimination against intersex people.
the absence of legal provisions for sexual minorities and problems faced in the public sphere are not touched upon.
It is only Samuya’s mother Nimmi (Reena Kapoor), who is affectionate towards her but unfortunately her affection is restricted to only guarding her daughter. The strategy she devises to keep Saumya safe is to tie her hand to doors and windows with a piece of cloth. In other words, the show justifies mild coercion to protect a child from a bigger threat. Really?
What is practically inconceivable is Saumya being oblivious of her anatomical disorder right till adulthood. Her incognizance about her identity is not very appreciable and neither is her timidity. Her crying at the drop of a hat projects her in an uninspiring light.
Time passes and both the sisters are shown in their prime youth. In a bout of confusion a robust young man, Harman (Vivian D’sena) abducts Saumya instead of Surbhi. He releases her after realizing his mistake but by the time she returns, her reputation is tarnished beyond repair (it doesn’t matter that she had no role in her abduction). Her chastity is questioned and morality doubted. Her parents are obviously confronted with an ethical dilemma as they cannot confide the truth of Saumya’s identity in the Panchayat.
Keeping up with the archetypal Indian value-system in which the izzat of an abducted victim can be redeemed by marrying her to her perpetrator, Saumya is married off to Harman. Instead of criticizing this, the show then proceeds along typical saas-bahu lines where the plot now revolves around Saumya’s marital frustration and the abuse and neglect she is faced with at the hand of her in-laws.
Her mother-in-law, Preeto (Kamya Punjabi) is the female version of Maninder Singh who mouths trite platitudes, typical of a soap opera mother-in-law, “Main is kinnar ko apne puttar ki zindagi se nikaal kar rahungi.” (“I will expel this intersex child from my son’s life”) and “Bahu hone ki baat karti h? Tu toh poori aurat bhi nahi hai.” (“You speak of being a daughter-in-law? You aren’t even a complete woman”).
Despite having an intersex protagonist, the plot descends into the usual melodramatic saas-bahu drama.
To aggravate her problems, the members of her own community are shown extremely jealous of Saumya. They frantically try to make her a part of their group. The opinion of real life transgender and intersex people on similar incidents is in stark contrast with what is aired on the show. The renowned transgender activist, Laxmi Narayan Tripathi in a speech said, “We are fighting for inclusion and not how it is achieved. The biggest grief in life is to make someone believe that nobody loves them and if a hijra is lucky enough to have a comfortable home and a supporting family, she should never surrender.”
Despite having an intersex protagonist, the plot descends into the usual stereotypical and melodramatic saas-bahu drama and exhibits a lack of nuanced understanding of the real life problems of the intersex community. While the stigma against an intersex child is made evident, the absence of concrete legal provisions for sexual minorities and the problems faced by them in the public sphere are not even touched by Sharma and the team. We can just hope that the coming episodes do justice to both the title of the show and the expectations of the viewers.
Shweta Tiwari is currently pursuing PhD in English Literature from Guru Gobind Singh Indraprastha University, New Delhi. Apart from writing stories that docu