I decided to watch the movie Super Deluxe today two years after its release.
The main reason behind the decision was to see how a transgender character is portrayed in this Tamil film. I had read a lot of good and bad things about Vijay Sethupathi’s portrayal of a trans woman’s role and I wanted to witness it myself to decide whether it is trans sensitive or transphobic. After watching it, I am even more confused because it is part both.
Super Deluxe brings together three different stories about three different families together.
One of them is that of Shilpa, a trans woman who is married to a cis woman and has an adorable boy. Shilpa has left the family that is unaware of her gender identity and settled in Bombay as a Hijra community member. After a seven years-long hiatus, she decides to come and visit her family and especially her son whose longing for his ‘dad’ is heart-wrenching. The kid wants his friends to meet his father so that he no more teased a test-tube baby.
Shilpa arrives dressed in a beautiful saree and long curly hair to a waiting audience of a large extended family who is shocked to see her like this. They expected Maniackam, the man and not Shilpa in his place. The only person who accepts Shilpa, as she is, is her son Rasukutty. The child and his innocent questions weave a beautiful mother-child story.
The story highlights how trans persons are referred to as ‘it’ like things, how they are publicly harassed and beaten and sexually abused. They are an object of mockery. Even those who feel for them have nothing more than pity. The male toilet scene where a police constable beats Shilpa and assumes that she has kidnapped the child, the school scene where everyone from security guard to principal asks her to leave the school, the police station scene where is forced into oral sex or the market scene where men pass snide remarks; these scenes while exposing the society’s treatment of transgender people are also extremely transphobic and triggering.
While the movie helps to evoke sympathy for the trans community that are seeking acceptance from their own families and society at large, it also furthers some dangerous stereotypes. In the story, Shilpa says that all the Hijras have to do is clap and they are given money.
It displays that as an easy way of getting money rather than the fact that it’s the last resort and it’s the society that has forced them to beg and survive.
Next, she confesses that she has helped in the kidnapping of two kids who were later maimed and pushed into child begging. Trans people are already highly misunderstood and feared and such storylines in a widely watched mainstream movie are dangerous.
While the movie shows in the end that Shilpa is ‘accepted’ by her wife and son, for me the benchmark of a good trans-portraying film is this – does this make families more accepting of trans members? And clearly, Super Deluxe fails in that.
It is a good attempt but lacks soul and definitely doesn’t make trans lives better in our society. It’s time we make better movies on trans stories and also cast trans actors to play those roles.