Due to the abundant use of the word ‘unprecedented time’, the time doesn’t seem unprecedented anymore. I have internalised the feeling that now nothing can surprise me in 2020. But I didn’t anticipate Bollywood’s tremendous potential in reaching new lows. This time, to my utter surprise it truly landed a bomb that nobody asked for. Laxmmi Bomb!
Laxmmi Bomb is an upcoming Indian Hindi-language comedy-horror film that features Akshay Kumar, Kiara Advani, Misogyny, Trans-negativity and much more. The thought that really fascinates me is what might have compelled the actors and director Raghava Lawrence to recreate the 2011 Tamil-Telugu movie Muni 2: Kanchana, a story that trivialises trans identities and their representation in mainstream media. The trailer was released last week and currently is in the trending list on YouTube.
I sat through the whole trailer as my body cringed, breath shortened in anger and most parts of me wanted to unsee it forever. I scrolled through the comment section in hope of finding some solidarity, I spoke to a friend expressing all that I was feeling, and now I am writing this to inform the world how Bollywood’s irresponsible behaviour impacts our lives, the lives of queer-trans people.
In the movie, the protagonist character played by Akshay Kumar is a person who has been possessed by the ghost of a trans person. The trailer looks like an attempt to cook Bollywood’s age-old recipe of comedy-horror hotchpotch with a handful of poor jokes and massy songs. You are in the 11 seconds of the trailer and Akshay Kumar says, ‘the day I see a real ghost…. I swear I will wear bangles.’ If you are already cringing with the casual sexism, wait, there’s more to unfold to repulse you. The problem is deep-rooted and deserves serious attention.
Here is a list of things that Bollywood needs to stop doing immediately.
Akshay, Stop Commodifying Marginalised Issues and Identities For Your Commercial Success
There have been multiple instances where Akshay Kumar has bluntly hijacked stories where it was supposed to portray women empowerment. Be it Mission Mangal, Padman, Toilet-Ek Prem Katha, the examples are plenty. He takes up space and becomes the savior/hero in the film that ideally should have upheld the lived realities of women and their struggles. The lineage of his recent film choices clearly indicates his savior complex and his desperate desire of establishing his image as someone who does movies on social issues. In reality, it actually sabotages the core essence of social issues more than that serves any purpose.
Now in Laxmmi Bomb, his portrayal of a transfeminine person isn’t only inauthentic but looks caricatured, reduced to only a careless and insensitive act of transness of the character; nothing more, nothing beyond that. So far he has been hijacking spaces but here he crosses that extra line by hijacking the trans-expression and identities of trans people.
Stop Reinforcing Stereotypes
The trope to perpetuate the idea that trans people are scary but scary in a laughable way is again irresponsible. The film reinforces the age-old stereotypes that the way trans people appear is funny, they are aggressive, and they are hysterical.
When Akshay’s character in the trailer wore the red saree and was slapped for that, it is immediately followed by a comic reaction by the other character. It is informing the audience that violence, frivolity and fear is the response when you see trans people. As many cis-people anyway look at the trans community as a homogenous group, their ideas of trans people is often limited to that one representation that they might have seen in media.
When films mainstreams marginalised lives, their story becomes a single story, and single stories can be true but never complete. When Laxmmi Bomb capitalises marginalised communities and makes profit out of it, the community only receives further marginalisation. It damages the social justice movement in the real world that trans people have been building for decades now. The distorted representation has a direct implication in the real lives of trans people, their mental health, the risk they have on streets, rejection in family, lack of employment and acceptance as whole individuals.
Stop Casting Cis-People for Trans Roles
Queer-trans people have been screaming about this from the rooftop but still, many cis-people reluctantly ignore to recognise how and where it is problematic.
I remember sitting with my friends at lunch and discussing the movie Super Deluxe, which has a story about a trans woman played by Vijay Sethupathi and her relationship with her son Rasukutty. The discussion escalated to the debate on the appropriateness of casting cis-people in trans characters. The people who didn’t see any problem in that were cis-people themselves and die heart fun of Vijay Sethupathi. They explained how Vijay Sethupathi had so much to lose doing such a role but still being the great actor that he is, he took it up to sensitise people about trans lives. Also when famous actors like him play such roles, that apparently reaches out to a larger base of audience.
And here is where the primary problem lies. The whole conversation all of a sudden becomes about the cis actor, their amazing acting abilities and their selfless deeds to uphold the lives of marginalised people. And we don’t get to discuss enough about the trans character, which would have not been the case if trans people were cast. That way the conversation sticks to trans people, their abilities, their struggle and their success and their life.
When cis mainstream actors play trans characters, even if they portray the character sensitively and aces at the technicality, it is never possible to have an authentic representation. It is merely a challenging role or another character for them with the hope of being acknowledged as a critically acclaimed actor or being drooled by the ‘woke’ fans or a mere ‘experiment.’
Whereas when trans people play such roles, they don’t have to play the transness of it but the deeper nuances of the character. They bring their own authentic lived experiences in the portrayal. I didn’t have much vocabulary at that time at the lunch table but I remember feeling repulsed. What really helped me to shape up my language around media representation of trans-queer people is the recent Netflix documentary ‘Disclosure.’
The documentary also points out how many people don’t know any trans person personally. Their only point of reference is the media and when the media misrepresents such identities, the implications are real. When cis actors play the trans-feminine role, they only dress-up in feminine clothes, apply make-up for the film and not in their real life. That perpetuates the idea that trans people are only men in dresses or sarees. This eventually leads to rejection of transwomen as valid women* or transwomen*.
In the end, not having any mainstream trans actor in Bollywood speaks volumes. Would you expect a man playing a woman’s character conveniently in a mainstream Bollywood movie or vice versa? Then why there’s so much reluctance in casting a trans actor for a trans character? This only reflects how trans-negativity is institutionalised even in Bollywood. In at least an attempt to change that, cis actors need to stop taking up spaces of deserving trans actors in the showbiz industry.
Some people would want to argue by saying that in Laxmmi Bomb Akshay’s character is only possessed by the trans-person’s ghost but his character isn’t trans, so not casting a trans person is justified. Well, that actually adds up to the fact that how Bollywood takes the liberty to use their trans-negative imagination to erase the possibility of even casting a trans person. According to them, even a storyline about a trans person needs to center around a cis-person. They have to exist through the bodies of cis-people.
If this is not trans-erasure, then what is?
Stop Looking at Trans People From the Cis-Gaze.
We grew up watching the problematic portrayal of queer-trans people on mainstream media and we only know how it feels to sit it through with our families, friends. We grew up seeing them the way cis-hetero people wanted us to see them, not the way we wanted.
As many such movies are written, directed and acted by cis-hetero people, it eventually turns out to be looking at the margialised communities from the cis-hetero gaze. The gaze that saturates their fascination with the Hijra community, which knows nothing and wants to know nothing beyond their preconceived perceptions of gender and sexuality, the gaze that only knows to treat trans characters with frivolity and humour. I don’t have to see the complete movie to know what Laxmmi Bomb stands for, the trailer is enough. Even if it ends with a social message to evoke sympathy, it is still problematic.
But honestly, there’s not much to expect from them anyway. In the other school of filmmaking, where there are honest attempts of portraying queer-trans characters, often they too fall prey to sensationalising the lives of queer-trans people. Their storyline mostly ends with death, violence, or perpetual sorrow-ness of despair, separation, rejection, etc.
We are tired!
We want to see stories of queer love, trans people having full lives—stories of aspiration that celebrate our sexuality but doesn’t limit us to only our queer-transness. We want to see stories of possibility, having non-heteronormative families, singing songs with friends and the cliched Bollywood-y happy endings. Don’t only make ghosts out of us.
Bollywood please do better!
Featured Image Source: Feminism In India