By Karthik Shankar:
‘I’ was one of the most awaited Kollywood film releases of the year. Directed by Shankar of Enthiran (Robot) and Shivaji fame, on a humungous budget, and starring Vikram, one of the biggest Tamil film stars, it promised to be a grand spectacle along with a twist on the vigilante who metes out justice. ‘I’ is undoubtedly a unique story. It’s Beauty and the Beast, and Hunchback of Notre Dame influences are perfect for a love story set in the world of modelling. It could have been a scathing attack on the way society models itself on physical looks.
Instead, it’s making waves for another reason. One of the primary characters in the film, Osma Jasmine, a transgender makeup artist, is one of the worst transgender stereotypes seen on film in recent years. A lecherous sexual predator, she embodies the worst stereotypes of LGBT characters in Indian cinema. Transgender groups in Tamil Nadu are already rightfully protesting the film’s portrayal of them and have asked for certain objectionable scenes to be removed. Several transgender people also demonstrated outside the director’s house on Monday leading him to seek police protection.
To go into why Osma Jasmine is such an offensive character, let’s dive right into the plot. When Lee (Vikram) first meets Osma, he’s a small time model who is about to embark on his biggest advertising campaign in China. Top model Diya (Amy Jackson) enlists a stylist to help fashion him into a model-worthy look. Enter Osma. The way the first scene is shot, itself indicates where the movie is going. We see a shot of her legs in tiny shorts and stilettos, setting her up to be a vixen who enters the narrative at this point. Then we get a glimpse of her face and one of those protracted moaning soundtracks which Indian cinema loves so much plays. Her Tamil is anglicised in an effeminate manner that regurgitates the worst LGBT clichés in India. We are supposed to look at her as an object of ridicule.
Osma openly lusts after Lee. She greets him with a kiss on each cheek. While styling him she slides her hand into his shirt. Lee’s look of horror and befuddlement is one that the audience is also expected to share. He and his friend then get up and do a song and dance routine to mock her. At that point you hope she’s a minor character who will exit the frame after that scene. Sadly that is not the case.
Where it gets worse is when the action shifts to China. Osma’s behaviour gets more and more outrageous as Lee spends more time with Diya. At every turn, she finds a way to violate Lee’s personal space and initiate unwanted physical contact. She causes a rift between Lee and Diya, all while not subtly eating a sausage. Visual poetry, this is not.
Her outfits also get increasingly garish. In a movie where every costume is breathtakingly stunning and perfectly modelled for the heroine, it’s even more egregious that Osma’s costumes seem like fashion school rejects. Additionally, she appears next to the heroine who aside from the modelling shots and dream sequences, appears in chaste Indian clothes. At one point, Osma is wearing this extremely short skirt and see through shirt, which had one audience member derisively laughing and exclaiming “Look what she’s wearing man!”
But it gets worse. After Lee and Diya have a rift, Lee goes out for dinner with Osma. In this sequence, Lee is supposed to be a sad sack and heartbroken, leaving little space for his usually mocking behaviour. Osma gives him a drink which gets him extremely drunk and she dances with him. Her behaviour gets more and more sleazy. She attempts to kiss him, at which point Lee is conscious enough to fend her off. But on her request, he drags her along to her room. There, they fall on the bed and she tries to have her way with him. Lee pushes her away and admonishes her for her behaviour. He then tells her one of the most insulting things a man can say to a transgender. “You are not a human.”
Later on, Osma joins a roster of villains in taking revenge on Lee by making him a disfigured creature with a hunchback. She is the archetype of the vengeful female spurned lover, except in this case it’s played by a transgender. When Lee takes revenge, he switches her cosmetics and the chemicals make hair sprout all over her body. Every other villain’s form of disfigurement deals with a burnt face, giant warts on the body or elephantine legs. Hers is the only one that deals with what is considered an aspect of feminine beauty – the lack of bodily hair; as illogical as that is in itself.
How did anyone think this was a good idea? This was a Pongal release that was supposed to be enjoyed by the whole family. Instead it just feeds kids insidious stereotypes about transgender people. Ojas Rajani, the woman who plays Osma Jasmine is a popular makeup artist in the film industry. She was the one who designed Amy Jackson’s look in the film as well as Aishwarya Rai’s in Guzaarish. It’s disheartening that someone who has achieved so much would allow herself to be debased in such a film, but who can blame her? She thought she was getting her own shot at the spotlight, given that Osma is one of the most prominent transgender characters in Tamil cinema in recent years.
The sad part is, Tamil Nadu is one of the more progressive states when it comes to life for transgender people. The state was the first to constitute a separate welfare board for transgenders. In addition, transgender people have been an intrinsic part of the state’s cultural life. Rose Venkatesan, a transgender, hosted her own show on Star Vijay. Moreover, the world famous Koovagam festival attracts thousands of people and is an amazing mix of religious pomp with cultural celebrations.
In this environment, comes a film like ‘I’ with its blatantly caricatured portrayal. Cinema is a potent force for social and cultural change. Somewhere, it also carries a certain amount of responsibility, and unless we change the regressive way transgenders are depicted, they will always be people not ‘normal’ and for some, even less than ‘human’.