A saree-clad Akshay Kumar with bangles on his wrist, doing the distinct ‘clap’ linked with the hijra community and imitating other stereotypical balderdash goes ahead to make a movie monetarily backed by the biggest names in Indian cinema about a transwoman.
The problem doesn’t end with the fact that the protagonist wasn’t played by an actual transwoman but with the fact that it harmed the community more than it actually helped it. As the movie critics go berserk, throwing limelight on the fact that the movie is poorly made, the fact about under-representation in Indian cinema remains unheeded.
Akshay Kumar’s portrayal of a transwoman was problematic on so many levels.
The tale of cis-gender actors playing the role of a community they barely research about just to capitalize off their stories and struggles goes way back to the past decade. For example, Sadashiv Amrapukar in the 1991 movie ‘Sadak’ goes ahead to play the role of a trans woman villain which never went beyond the stereotypes and the trope of cross-dressing men to further stigmatize the queer community.
The lack of representation in one of the key determinants of what we call the ‘Indian culture’, art and its subsets like cinema and television isn’t just limited to mocking the LGBTQIA+ community but also breeds racism by enabling blackface culture, patriarchy by having lesser women in the lead roles, colourism, ableism & casteism by adhering to the stereotypes, hence giving ground to an inaccurate portrayal of these stories.
Indian cinema, in general, hasn’t till date been able to differentiate between racism and colourism but has been enabling both, simultaneously by showing dark-skinned characters belonging to lower strata of social and economic status, making fair-skinned play the roles of dark-skinned characters with nothing but a layer of foundation that is 12 shades darker than their original skin shade.
The phenomenon which is eerily similar to what they call ‘blackface’ in the west, where white actors portrayed (and continue to do so) black characters by smearing darker shades of makeup on their face. Some may argue that it’s not problematic but in fact helps in storytelling because fair skin actors usually are the ones that have a larger fan base. The former statement contradicts itself and indirectly sheds light on our obsession with lighter skin shades which has inculcated institutionalized racism and colourism in the art industry.
Bhumi Padnekar in the 2019 film Bala, portrays the role of someone disadvantaged due to her skin tone, but the catch is, Padnekar herself is fair-skinned had her skin cosmetically darkened for the role. There isn’t a lack of people coming from these backgrounds or identities who are willing to work in these films but it’s our obsession with the already famed artists that limits the empowerment of those lesser-known artists.
The obsession with patriarchy is deeply rooted and influenced by real-life situations of women in Indian society. As the popular notion goes along the lines of cinema or art in general, acts as a mirror that reflects reality. The patriarchal struggle in Bollywood goes hand in hand with a saviour complex which usually gives cis-gender males the role of a ‘hero’, dubbed as a protagonist in movies about women empowerment. The stories might have been made in a way that it defies the prejudiced lenses of society in the name of ‘feminism’, through a privileged lens, makes the involvement of women in a male-dominated space something extraordinaire.
This further goes against the efforts of normalizing the idea of equating everyone from the gender spectrum limited to the empowerment of usually cis-gendered and upper-caste women whilst turning a blind eye to the way a woman isn’t considered an equally capable and important part of society, as men, even in modern-day India.
Films like ‘Pink’ which focus on the important topics of consent and rape comes with their own version of a saviour complex where the victims aren’t taken seriously until a male, Amitabh Bacchan in a courtroom setting in this scenario speaks on behalf of them. The further dilution of its own intentions comes from the fact that it focuses more on the women who are victims than it focuses on men who are the perpetrators of these crimes.
In conclusion, it doesn’t matter if we don’t talk about if there’s hope for improvement or not and in short, there is indeed a small ray of hope to reverse these effects. For instance, the rise of Dalit-Bahujan storytelling through smaller mediums gives some hope of suppressing the savarna version of their stories and gives a more accurate representation of these marginalized communities.
There have been movies in the past that give a relatively better and nuanced perspective of these stories, like Aligarh, Tamanna, No one killed Jessica, Masaan, etc., though having actors who do not belong to the communities they are portraying on screen or having a ‘girl boss version’ of feminism as its plot have far better storytelling than movies made by people with no association whatsoever with people these movies are made about.
This might be because who is behind the camera in these scenarios plays an important role in how effective the conveyance mechanism of the movies is.
Whilst there remain a lot of differences that we need to overcome, actively initiating or indulging in conversations revolving around these topics might as well help in bringing in positive changes. Rest as the quote from the 2009 film ‘Udaan’ goes “Joh lehron se aage Nazar dekh paati, toh tum jaan lete main kya sochta hoon…” loosely translating to “if only you could see beyond the waves, you could understand what I think”, Indian cinema has to look past the barriers of stereotypes and maybe marginalized groups will be thankful for it shortly.