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‘I’ – All That Makes It A Horribly Offensive Movie For Transgender People

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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.

I

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’.

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  1. Bala Sai Kiran

    Absolutely true. The more shocking thing was the response of the audience. You could find people cheering as the hero and his sidekick mock the trans woman, you could find them cringe in disgust when she makes moves on him, and worst of all, they laugh at her when she cries in pain.

  2. Vennela

    Finally someone points this out. I wasn’t aware of the protests in TN, but I was hoping someone could write what exactly is wrong with the movie. The plot is terrible, but the characters are even horribly designed. Of course I didn’t pay much attention after Osma’s entry scene because I genuinely believed that Kollywood had evolved beyond transgender shaming (Muni 2 raised my hopes). I’m glad you pointed out that Amy Jackson dresses up as a traditional Indian girl after the ad shoots.
    Maybe the fact that the movie flopped reflects that the audience’s expectations from a movie are not the same anymore.

    1. Vennela

      When Osma was introduced as one of the country’s best and highly paid stylist, my hopes got up. But then Shankar decided that respect was not what her character had to invoke.

  3. TempleTwins

    I saw the movie ‘I’ , I had many issues with that movie but this PC bullshit is not one of them. This is exactly what happens when you employ a social minority and you mock them or make fun them. You can make fun of the majorities religion ie hinduism but can’t make fun of religions followed by the minorities, the same way when the doctor in this film was shown as a pervert who betrays his patient etc and we don’t take that as a portrayal of doctors or of men for that matter. We see it as one individual who is a man and also doctor, is a pervert and have no medical ethics, however when you show a social minority in a negative role which make the audience cringe by their predatory behavior, that is an attack on all the other minorities. They are not seen as individuals but as a collective. Predators come in all shapes that includes transgender too, to see it as unacceptable portrayal is nothing but political correctness, the special status of social minorities. If you want them to be treated and employed like everyone else, they will have to take roles which everyone else would take too.

  4. dayranter

    It’s a character and refers to a specific role in the movie and not a representation of LBTG community.Bad people exist in all communities and that is what was being potrayed in the movie as well

  5. Aditya

    Freedom of Expression buddy…

  6. Shankar

    I don’t see anything wrong in the movie. We are the same ppl who laugh for jokes made on color n appearance so what’s wrong in showing them . Aren’t we seeing males are sexual predators for decades so is all the men are sexual predators as we see in cinema. Then why do feel when a transgender.its good that they have given a good job in the movie.You might feel only awkward when you see them as a separate ppl in the society. Everyone gets portraid as villan n good . So just see it as cinema. Obvious protests has become trend to generate publicity .

    1. Dee

      @sankar You say – .You might feel only awkward when you see them as a separate ppl in the society. – Wonder why?

      I would like to point out that she was referred to in the movie as ‘idhu/adhu’.. not even considering her as a human!!

      And I have no words or time for people who want to justify this cheap comedy saying freedom of expression !

  7. Dee

    Freedom of expression is different and cheap comedy is different .. and portraying transperson as sex starved people..like they don’t have any another feeling or interest or aim in life .. this portrayal has been a major part of Indian movies..and its disgusting, never funny.. don’t women ogle at men? And aren’t they give roles like friends, sisters and other roles!
    A part from a couple of movies..When and where were transpeople portrayed as a common woman..like a friend and hairdresser of heroin..or a member of hero’s family..?? no wonder everyone makes fun of them..cos thats what is being fed by the movies..that they are “things” with no feelings and the only feeling they have is to sleep with the Hero..

  8. Aakanksha Jadhav

    So true! I saw the movie trailer and it was by far the worst way women could be portrayed . I mean they literally objectified the actress in every scene of the trailer and that song. It was painful even to see something as such on the tv screen.

    1. Aakanksha Jadhav

      Also, I choose not to comment on the trans women issue here because I haven’t seen the movie so I dont know anything about it.

  9. irate_pirate

    Get a grip guys. This is a story about a wicked person who happens to be transgender. No suggestion of extrapolation to the whole community. We need to stop playing this game of ” who is the most offended” and seeing art and humour in a sensible manner.

  10. Suman

    inceredible

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