Bollywood seldom gets LGBTQIA+ sensitive topics right. So upon seeing the trailer of Chandigarh Kare Aashiqui that released today, starring Ayushmann Khurrana as a gym-obsessive, testosterone-loaded rowdy and Vaani Kapoor as a possibly transgender woman, one is justified in having doubts on whether or not the film will treat its gender issue ethically.
Though not explicitly stated in the three-minute trailer, the indication towards the queerness of Kapoor's character is made when Khurrana's character accuses her, "Tu dhokha deta hai mainu?" This, and a subsequent discussion with his friends on how he had sex with her and didn't come to know there was something "different," has led viewers to presume she is a transgender woman.
First, there is the ever-present issue of the lack of trans persons in the film industry for true representation, which consequently leads to cishet actors playing their parts. It is a primary argument of the queer community that robbing transgender people of the opportunity to portray characters close to themselves hardly stands to empower marginalised groups. Is that really changing the way India perceives, looks at or is willing to normalise the inclusion of queer people into society?
Some measure of answer to that probably lies in the second grievance with films of this nature.
Transgenders and gays have always held status as 'caricatures' in mainstream Hindi films since that is among the easiest, no-brainer ways to sell an idea. Lacking empathy, research or representative participation, insensitive films are churned out with the expectation of eliciting audience laughter and big box office inflows.
Take Laxmii for instance. The Akshay Kumar-starrer, from the get-go, presented itself as a problematic watch. And what was amazing was that the film made no attempt to whitewash its obviously derogatory bits, instead priding itself over them and projecting them as its USP. Kumar plays a transgender role, using Bollywood's offensive cliches of effeminate behaviour and crossdressing to make a point. The only point that was made was transphobia.
Then there was a web series that drew outrage upon release of its trailer. Headlined by Naveen Kasturia and Adah Sharma, MX Player's Pati Patni aur Panga got slapped with a legal notice for its transphobic content after netizens protested. Sharma was playing a transgender woman, the discovery of her gender causing distress to Kasturia's character.
It's true these films have attempted to make a shift from the severely regressive treatment of transgenders in comedies from the early millennium like Kyaa Kool Hain Hum with the caricature use of trans actor Bobby Darling's stock character. That it is entirely "normal" to be trans is positioned to be these new-age films' ultimate message. But despite the shift, are they aiming at real change?
Dr Trinetra Haldar Gummaraju, a transgender rights advocate and influencer, in an ">interview with SheThePeople impressed upon the issue of trans portrayal in films. "Something you find in India, in Bollywood, in popular culture is this reduction of a trans person to a joke," she said. "One of the biggest disservices in portrayal of trans people is in pornography. We become a category on a porn website reduced to a certain set of body parts solely for the voyeuristic fetishising male gaze. That also plays into Bollywood and the portrayal of trans people in popular culture where we are reduced as sex objects."
These characters and films, more than furthering concepts of inclusion, are recycling - albeit in a more sanitised manner - the perception that trans people are figures to be feared, to be disgusted by, that they are only just comedic plot points. The way Khurrana recoils when he comes to know Kapoor's gender truth is an example.
Whether or not the film redeems itself by breaking out of Bollywood's backward blueprint of queer characters remains to be seen. But the film's makers and cast should be ready to take some real-time heated feedback when it comes their way.
Watch the trailer of Chandigarh Kare Aashiqui here:
Views expressed are the author's own.