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How Bollywood’s Representation Of Transgender People Is Downright Horrifying

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By Rohini Banerjee for Cake:

As an Indian kid, and a keen lover of popular culture, growing up in the late 1990s and 2000s was a perplexing time—because the pop culture I consumed gave me some warped ideas in terms of gender and sexuality. Historically, Indian cinema—and especially Hindi cinema—hasn’t had the best record in terms of gender and sexuality. From blatant sexual objectification to glorifying stalking and harassment, Bollywood has treated women abominably; but, it didn’t stop just at cis women. When it comes to the transgender or hijra communities, Bollywood has fared even worse.

Trans People In Bollywood—Terrifying Villains, Or Ridiculous Comic Relief

One of my most vivid memories surrounding Bollywood as a kid is being utterly terrified (to the point of nightmares) by the character of Lajja Shankar Pandey from the film Sangharsh (1999). The character, played by Ashutosh Rana, was a transwoman, who in the film was a Kali worshipper (Bollywood’s idea of ‘devil worship’) and abducted little children and sacrificed and cannibalised them at said Satan-adjacent Kali’s altar. Albeit watching the film at the tender age of 10, my horror obviously stemmed from the whole scary-child-murderer aspect of the character, but as I slowly grew up and watched a lot more Bollywood, I realised that this part of a larger problem; a larger systematic horror.

Ashutosh Rana as Lajja Shankar Pandey in ‘Sangharsh’.

In almost every Bollywood film I have watched featuring even the slightest mention of a transgender person, I’ve noticed two (disturbing) polarities of representation—either the trans person is a demonised, horrifying villain (in dramatic films); or the worst kind of comic stereotype, with really offensive transphobic humour directed at them (in comedies). There is a sustained othering which takes place here, where the trans person is constantly seen as outside the bounds of ‘normal’ — as a sexual predator, a child molester, or someone who is out to prey on or deceive the unsuspecting (cis) hero or heroine.

Look at director Mahesh Bhatt’s critically celebrated film Sadak (1991) for instance; which has one of the most jarringly violent depictions of a transwoman in the character of Maharani (which means ‘queen’ in Hindi). Maharani’s function in the plot is, again, to be the villain—depicted here as an evil brothel owner who tortures and traffics young women. In a film where the trans character gets so much screentime, there is a constant reiteration of the worst kind of harmful myths and tropes associated with the trans community — ultimately creating a stereotype in Indian mainstream culture which became hard to shake off. Taking off from this, countless other films both big and small (most recent of which was 2011’s Murder 2) played on this trope of the ‘evil-trans-brothel-owner-slash-villain’.

Sadashiv Amrapurkar as Maharani in ‘Sadak’.

In Bollywood comedies, trans characters face similarly horrific treatment. Very often trans people are seen to be preying on the hero sexually (almost always, without their consent) or turned into exaggerated ‘effeminate’ caricatures who exist to elicit laughs. When they do rarely attract the attention of the hero, he is ultimately repulsed once he discovers that the trans woman in question is not an ‘actual woman’ and finds himself ‘deceived’ — a form of transphobic hate that trans people go through very often in their real lives.

While films like Kya Kool Hain Hum, Partner‘, ‘Style, and many more feature such horrific stereotypes of trans women as sexually predatory, the film Masti (2004) probably has the worst kind of portrayal—even though it’s in a 5-minute scene. In the film, one of the heroes is on a date with a woman and is seen to be enjoying it. But, moments later, he walks in on her in the bathroom, accidentally sees her genitalia, and finds that she is trans. What follows is him going into an immediate panic, and nearly fleeing the scene. As if the very sight of a trans woman was an anomaly; and the fact that she made him believe she was ‘a woman’ a terrible ‘betrayal’.

Trans People Are ‘Abnormal’, But Cis Men In Drag Aren’t?

Despite the rampant transphobia, one particular trope is extremely popular in Bollywood, even after so many years, and that is cross-dressing men. Celebrated, A-list actors have all dressed in drag one time or the other—whether it be Aamir Khan (in ‘Baazi’), Rishi Kapoor (in ‘Rafoo Chakkar’), Amitabh Bachchan (in ‘Laawaris’), Shah Rukh Khan (in ‘Duplicate’), Govinda (in ‘Aunty No 1’) and recently, Saif Ali Khan and Riteish Deshmukh (in ‘Humshakals’).

Actor Rishi Kapoor in drag in ‘Rafoo Chakkar’ (1975).

Crossdressing can be extremely subversive through its challenging of rigid gender norms and furthering of gender-fluidity. But the problem is, in Bollywood, that’s not what happens. Often, crossdressing becomes objectification and blatant stereotyping—of not just trans women, but also cis women. Men who dress in drag use it as a means of comic relief (almost in all the movies mentioned above) where the laughs are elicited from the fact that ‘oh look, it’s a man in a dress!’ This further stigmatises the act of gender nonconformant dressing. Why does a man dressing in drag have to be something funny? Why can’t it be normalised, and even, a means of empowerment?

Further, when men dress in drag in Bollywood films, the loss of their masculinity through that act is constantly highlighted, and to perform the more physically able roles, they have to transform back into their masculine selves. Think Some Like It Hot—where Tony Curtis’ character has to change back from drag into his more masculine demeanour to woo and become desirable to Marilyn Monroe—only, in the case of Bollywood, the problems are magnified tenfold.

Some Hope?

Paresh Rawal in ‘Tamanna’.

While the question of trans representation in Bollywood is indeed a concerning one, the situation is not entirely bleak. There are some positive representations, even if they are extremely few and far between. The 1997 film Tamanna had a complex portrayal of a transwoman, who finds an abandoned girl child and raises her as her own. Though heavy-handed in places, it deftly tackles both transgender issues (such as discrimination, misgendering, violence against the trans community) as well as female infanticide. Daayra (1996) is another film which deals with gender-fluidity in interesting ways. It depicts a transsexual character who forms a close relationship with a young girl who takes on a male identity (in other words, who is gender-fluid).

But, these films barely got any mainstream attention, while actually popular films continue to depict trans people in a negative light, even now. And not just Bollywood, regional Indian film industries also treat the transgender community in a similarly offensive manner. This year has already seen some positive LGBT representation in Bollywood, through films like Aligarh and Kapoor and Sons, why then, is the trans community not getting it’s due? It’s high time for real trans voices to be represented, and for the negative stereotypes to end. It’s time for trans actors like Bobby Darling—who often appears in the aforementioned movies where trans people are stereotyped and ridiculed—to actually realise the grave injustice being committed to the trans community through Bollywood and to take on roles which actually tilt the power equation in favour of trans people.

This article was originally published here on Cake.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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