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.
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.
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’.
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’.
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’).
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.
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.