Akshay Kumar is all geared up to release his film, Laxmmi Bomb on Disney Plus Hotstar. The film is a horror movie, where the protagonist, a transgender woman, is played by Akshay Kumar. Since the announcement of the film a host of people and other actors have hailed this as “brave” and “heroic”. Akshay Kumar himself has stated that this was one of the most difficult characters he has portrayed in his film career.
This film can be added to the nascent lists of films that attempt to depict queer identities in mainstream cinema. Earlier this year we had Ayushman Khurana starrer – Shubh Mangal Zyada Saavdhan and last year there was also Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga, essayed by Sonam Kapoor. There is an undeniable problem in all these movies – the absence of queer people in front of and behind the cameras.
While it’s great movies about queerness are now making their way to mainstream cinema, moreover the fact they are leaning towards more positive representations but there is still an indisputable absence of queer people in the making of these movies. While Ghazal Dhaliwal, a trans woman wrote Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga, the other two movies in context have had no queer presence in the making of these films. In an industry where trans people are actively discriminated against, Akshay Kumar essaying a trans woman isn’t really brave, just appropriation.
We can’t celebrate trans stories without celebrating trans people
How many transgender actors exist in mainstream cinema? How many of them have been protagonists? Well, if you can’t think of many, it’s because there haven’t been that many. There are several problems behind this. Firstly, there is a very skewed resource access. Trans people have to go through several struggles, social, personal, economical, most of which are due to cisgender structures. Colleges deny admissions, there is active discrimination in jobs, and even the minuscule per cent that overcome these institutional problems face discrimination. Trans people have been shown as overtly feminine women with limp wrists, demonized as child kidnappers and those that curse you. And these stereotypes aren’t limited on-screen. In such a situation, when a cisgender heterosexual man- Akshay Kumar playing a trans person is stealing opportunity from another trans woman who could have voiced this story.
Queer messages are hollow when they aren’t backed by representation. They become fabricated, do not show transness but instead what a cisgender audience would like to believe is transness. A cisgender person, who has not experienced the myriad of struggles that plague trans people’s lives will benefit from this movie. Through Laxmmi Bomb Akshay Kumar will earn money and applause for identity and struggles of trans people, a struggle he hasn’t been an ally to. Does Akshay Kumar stand against the Transgender Bill 2019, has he pledged to help the myriad of trans people that have been left unemployed due to the pandemic? Is this support and newfound gender-politics awakening likely to go beyond this movie?
Representation also means narratives
There is also the question of the narrative that is portrayed on screen. A trans woman’s inborn identity of being female is not limited to heavy makeup and overt femininity. The movie keeps the artificial feminine presentation as the cynosure. Femininity is portrayed as artificial and fragile. An accessory, that can be put down at the end of the day. it sees gender as a performance. This adds to the already villainous discourse around cis women being real women and trans women being aspirational woman. Why is media portrayal always restricted to hyper-femininity of trans women?
The movie profits an entirely cisgender heterosexual group. Of course, Akshay Kumar, the brand name and influence he carries will gather a lot of viewership for this movie. It might bring forth this discourse about trans lives to more people. But there are more creative and appropriate ways of doing this. Maybe he could act opposite to a trans woman, and essay who he actually is, a cisgender heterosexual man. This way he could also support a trans actor while continuing to use his platform for furthering this discourse.
Queer stories are yet to be assimilated into mainstream Bollywood. And while we’re at it, it would be nice to ensure these stories involve the identities they claim to represent. This not only means queer people as actors, but also as directors and writers, light persons, technicians, costume designers and whatnot. Portrayed a community is not a one-step thing, but a continuous process, and requires the community to be engaged in every step of it.
Views are the author’s own