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The Invisibility Cloak: Missing Representation Of Trans People In Cinema And Pop Culture

This issue of Outlook looks at the portrayals of trans people in popular culture, mythology and their struggle for inclusion. I wrote Gauri’s story. After 11 years, I see a version of her story that raises important ethical questions. This is for the sake of those uncomfortable questions.

Reel and Real: Gauri Sawant in the Vicks advertisement
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“My eyes are always hungry. They look at your face and move down and we long for that complete body. It is a strong urge to be a woman and to look better than any woman. We want to be mothers, too. That is an inherent part of being a woman” —

Gauri Sawant to me in an interview in 2012 for ‘The Eunuch Mothers’ that appeared in Open magazine

We were in that typical Mumbai taxi with the inside of the roof lined with artificial leather with a lot of flowers in yellow, orange and pink printed on it. In this city, there are a lot of skies depending on the degree of escape one wants. From where she lived, the sky came to her in bits and pieces. The high-rises around had more sky. The taxi was an in-between space.

Gauri Sawant was narrating her story under the false sky. She looked out of the window of the taxi and said that becoming a woman was impossible for her and others like her. Even with the exaggerated, accentuated projected selves, the truth, as she explained, was that they’d always be half-women, always. It was raining that evening, again. The blue tarpaulin sheets everywhere, the raindrops that broke themselves as they hit the ground, an old Bollywood song about a rainy evening and lovers’ desires in the taxi, and two people who were not in a hurry to get anywhere. A story like that takes time. To listen and to narrate. There are many pauses in such stories. The ride was long. The notebook had many blank pages.

It was in July 2012. I had first met her in Malvani Agar-Gaikwad Nagar in Mumbai where in a part of the neighbourhood lined with shanties and one-room tenements, lived a group of eunuchs. I had gone there to meet Shahnaz Nani, a eunuch, who had married off her adopted daughter that year. She took us to meet Gauri and others that afternoon and Gauri then offered to take me to Kamathipura to meet Zeenath Pasha in Gulli No 1.

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Gauri Sawant at her Mumbai residence; Sawant with her daughter, Gayatri, in 2012 in Malvani. Photo: Chinki Sinha

Gauri was 30 then and was the director of Sakhi Char Chowghi Trust—which works with transgenders and helps AIDS victims. She had an adopted daughter, Gayatri, who was 10 then and studied in a boarding school. She had adopted Gayatri when the girl’s mother had died of HIV/AIDS in 2008. Gauri had known the mother.

She told me then that she had become a mother by accident. Like Pasha, and the others. In 2017, “Touch of Care” by Vicks, an advertisement that featured Gauri, was released based on the story ‘The Eunuch Mothers’ in Open magazine, which was about Pasha and Gauri, the two transwomen who had adopted children. Pasha ran a brothel in Kamathipura and Gauri was an activist who was fighting for more visibility and rights for the transgender community. When the company that was making the advertisement approached us for the story, they had wanted Pasha’s story. But Pasha was reluctant and Gauri was willing. The advertisement featured Gauri and a child actor in a bus as they made their way to the boarding school.

Gauri is not just a story. She represents the struggle for recognition, for dignity and for everything else that we are entitled to.

It has been many years since. Gayatri must be 21 years old now. Gauri became a celebrity. A biopic series was announced. I haven’t seen it. It has Sushmita Sen in the lead role. Sen is a fine actor. But this isn’t just about an actor’s range.  It is about miscasting that de-legitimises trans people’s experiences. Gauri’s fight had been for visibility for transwomen. In the biopic series, the transwomen have been invisibilised, almost. The makers of the series were interested only in the story. It had redemptive possibilities. They would be hailed as those who brought a story of a transwoman and her struggle to the people.

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Screengrab from the Vicks advertisement featuring Sawant Screengrab from the Vicks advertisement featuring Sawant

The makers have said they weren’t making a documentary and they had to sell the series and they had to get a big actor. In an interview, they also said in India, trans people are sidelined, and it is sad. In their series, they have done the same. Sen has said Gauri chose her. She has said it wasn’t a general story but Gauri’s story. But Gauri’s story is also about her fight for the rights of trans people. Cisgender actors are paid to play trans people. Trans actors aren’t even cast in trans people roles.

Scarlett Johansson was criticised for agreeing to play Dante Tex Gill in Rub & Tug, a film about the experience of being a trans man in Pittsburgh in 1970s and 1980s. She announced her departure from the project in 2018 and said she was withdrawing from the film in light of ethical questions. Actor Eddie Redmayne, who played a trans character in The Danish Girl, which released in 2015, said in 2021 to The Sunday Times that it was a mistake. He said there must be a levelling in casting.

“Many people don’t have a chair at the table,” he had said.

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Screengrab from the series Taali Screengrab from the series Taali

The criticisms that come in the wake of such casting are right. Such castings contribute to harmful stereotypes and are often reductive. By casting trans people in supporting roles is not enough.

Gender is a negotiation that is ongoing. It is a struggle that aims to challenge the historical constraints of assigned and imposed gender. That was Gauri’s struggle, too. It remains her struggle. It is tied to her identity, and identity is a complex question. She isn’t a character. She is also the third gender.

***

I remember the first evening in Kamathipura in 2012. It was Z’s birthday and she had worn chandelier earrings and a black chiffon sari. Her adopted daughter was sleeping in her lap. Later, we climbed up to the roof. Z said it was her birthday. Gauri decided to sing a song. Mandwa, her chela, did a little dance. They talked about their lives. They said motherhood was beautiful. They had dreams for their children. Gauri wanted Gayatri to become a doctor.

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Screengrab from the series Taali Screengrab from the series Taali

Over the next few days, we met and talked more. Gayatri was six when Gauri brought her home. She cut her nails and fed her. She enrolled the girl in a neighbourhood school. She spent time with a group of trans women who had found refuge at the trust.

Gayatri was then sent to a boarding school in Pune. It wasn’t a safe environment for her in Malvani, Gauri had said.

Gauri was born in Pune and was the second daughter of a police officer. She lost her mother when she was around nine. The sisters lived with their grandmother. One morning, Gauri was found sleeping wearing a bra underneath her shirt. She said she was made to urinate with the door open so that her uncles could ensure she wasn’t squatting like a woman. Her father would choose her clothes. Pants and shirts. And Gauri, who was then Ganesh, had to keep a moustache. Ganesh fell for a boy in school and wrote him letters and drew little red hearts. Ganesh had felt heartbroken when he saw the boy with another girl at the bus stop.

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Gender is complex. It is a lived experience and a performative act, a social construction and a reality. That reality needs to be acknowledged and not just appropriated.

When she was about 17, her father held the door open for her and asked her to leave. She said she met Ashok Row Kavi, a gay rights activist, who provided her shelter and she went through sex reassignment surgeries to transition from male to female.

“Cutting off your genitals is not easy. It is a part of you that you are letting go of. The truth is, we will always be incomplete women. Not here, not there,” she had told me then.

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In 2014, Gauri became the first transgender person to file a petition in the Supreme Court of India for adoption rights of transgender people. She was a petitioner in the National Legal Services Authority (NALSA) case, in which the Supreme Court recognised transgender as the third gender. The fight is ongoing. Not just for legal rights, but also for acceptance and integration, for dignity, and for visibility.

Trans men and non-binary people have largely been invisible in cinema, and on television. The argument for this is that an actor is an actor and can play any role but can they perform gender is a question worth reflecting upon.

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Gauri and Z are not just stories. They represent the struggle for recognition, for dignity and for everything else that we are entitled to, which comes naturally to us because of assigned gender at birth. But gender is complex. It is a lived experience and a performative act, a social construct and a reality. That reality needs to be acknowledged, and not just appropriated.

This issue of Outlook looks at the portrayals of trans people in popular culture, and mythology and their struggle for inclusion. I wrote Gauri’s story. After 11 years, I see a version of her story that raises important ethical questions. This is for the sake of those uncomfortable questions. For the sake of the view of the whole sky, and not bits and pieces of it. For the sake of stories, for the sake of representation, the right to adopt and marry, and a right to claim their stories. 

(This appeared in the print as 'The Invisibility Cloak')

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