Last year, Naavya Singh went to audition for Laxmii, an upcoming Bollywood film that is slated for a release next week. It’s a comedy-horror by south Indian director Raghava Lawrence, about a man possessed by a ghost of a transgender woman. Its trailer, which released last month, states, “Aa rahi hai Laxmii, kisi ko hasayegi, kisi ko darayegi (Here comes Laxmii. She will make some laugh, and scare the others).”
Singh, 29, told VICE News that she didn’t make it in the audition for the main character, which is now played by a popular cisgender Indian actor, Akshay Kumar. “And I’m glad I didn’t get the role,” said Singh, a Mumbai-based model and actor who is a transgender woman. “I saw a song from the film, where the character I auditioned for is dancing in a strange, violent manner. My first thought was: This looks horrifying.”
Laxmii is the latest addition to a problem that afflicts Bollywood ever so often. Transgender characters are depicted in an extremely violent or self-deprecating manner. A prominent ‘90s Bollywood film called Sangharsh—which showed the villain dressed as a transgender woman who sacrifices children—is still one of the most violent depictions of the community. In another one from the ‘90s, titled Sadak, a male actor played the role of a villainous transgender woman who runs a brothel.
The Indian film industry is one of the biggest cinema hubs in the world, with an estimated value of INR100 billion ($1.43 billion), as of 2019. It is the world’s leading film producer and is the second-largest film market. In a country of 1.3 billion people, it sells over 2 billion film tickets annually.
In light of the industry’s reach, the film’s trailer was enough to spark outrage. There is also a digital campaign to ban the film.
Early this year, Lawrence, the film’s director, announced that his leading actor, Kumar, will donate INR 1.5 crore ($202,190 approximately) to build a transgender home, arguably a first in the country.
But that has not pacified the film’s critics. “[The trailer is] absolute trash,” Kris Chudawala, Mumbai-based trans rights activist, told VICE News. “Everyone thinks that we’re complaining about representation. But it’s not just about that. Most people don’t know what a transgender person is. So when you see a depiction like this, you believe that. No amount of money will offset the damage this film will do.”
India has been witnessing an increasing number of transphobic violence and murders. Last month, a 23-year-old man murdered a prominent transgender woman activist Sangeetha in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu, because she allegedly rejected the accused’s sexual advances. In September, a transgender person was shot dead in New Delhi. Last year, 21-year-old Alka was murdered in the central Indian state of Chhattisgarh, by two men who realised they had misgendered her.
Many transgender people in the country report violence from a very young age. A survey found that four out of 10 transgender people face sexual abuse before they turn 18. The abuse begins as early as age five.
Chudawala pointed out that the movie Kanchana—the original version of Laxmii, which was also directed by Lawrence—had led to an addition to transphobic slurs when it released in 2011. “Laxmii doesn’t care about the real transgender lives. But it will give a new slur to people,” they said. “Back then, people called transgender people ‘Kanchana’. Now, they will just call us ‘Laxmi.’”
Last year, the Indian government passed the Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Act, 2019, which was criticised for being problematic—including mandating transgender people to have surgeries before legally changing their gender, and reducing the definition of “rape” of a transgender person to a petty crime.
Bollywood was questioned last year, too, when the Netflix series Sacred Games depicted a transgender woman played by a cisgender woman actor. Some in the industry had questioned whether the industry even gave a chance to transgender actors.
Reena Rai, the founder of Miss Trans Queen India, India’s first beauty pageant for transgender women, told VICE News that she is routinely approached by filmmakers and casting directors for audition opportunities for her models. “Many times, their requirements are shocking,” she said. “Some want my models to come with a beard and with a manly voice, while many don’t want to break the myth that transgender women do not look like men.”
Singh shared an anecdote where creators of an Indian web-series modulated her voice to sound more manly. “In fact, when I had come on the sets, I had found that the creators wanted me to clap and act strangely. They had a sexualised transgender character in the script—one who was trying to woo a man,” she said. “I immediately said no.”
Singh said she had to compromise on the voice modulation, though, because of lack of opportunities for transgender people. “This is my bread and butter. Many like me don’t get many opportunities. We have to compromise,” she said. Rai added that this also leaves a lot of room for exploitation.
Last year, Mumbai-based filmmaker Faraz Arif Ansari organised a series of acting workshops transgender actors to create more space for them in the industry. The purpose of the workshop was to find a transgender actor for a film Ansari was making, he had told VICE News. He is yet to find one.
Nikita Grover, an actor and a casting director who helped rope in Indian transgender actor Mairembam Ronaldo Singh for an Amazon Prime series, Paatal Lok, early this year, told VICE News that finding transgender actors is challenging. “There is a dearth of roles for transgender actors,” she said. “As we’re getting newer scripts, we’re seeing representation in some form or the other. But Bollywood definitely has a long way to go.”
Surprisingly, popular Indian transgender activist Laxmi Narayan Tripathi openly showed support for Laxmii. “I would say that the outrage is unfair because they have not seen the movie,” Tripathi told VICE News. She also added that had a transgender actor played the protagonist’s role, the film would not have done as well as it will with “a superstar’s face”.
Chudawala said that the need for representation should be “abolished”. “Representation is about authorship and ownership,” they said. “You’ve not lived that life. You’re never going to experience it. You have no right to dictate it or narrate what that life is like, and then make money off it.”
Grover added that it might be too early to criticise Laxmii just on the basis of its trailer, but that the creators should take such criticism seriously. “If people find [such films] offensive, as creators, we need to take that into consideration, give them a voice and actually try to incorporate their inputs in the work we do in the future,” she said.
Follow Pallavi Pundir on Twitter.