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Is Indian pop culture changing the way we perceive transgender characters?

With theatre and mainstream ads depicting transgender characters with empathy, are we moving away from a stereotypical representation of the third gender?

HT48HRS_Special Updated: Apr 18, 2017 19:10 IST
LGBT

A still from the Vicks ad, featuring Gauri Sawant, a transgender mother who raised an orphaned girl

The ad opens with a young girl describing her mother and the relationship they share. “All I remember of the woman who gave birth to me is that she was sickly, and one day, an ambulance took her away forever. After that, the only memories I have are of my mother: how she cares for me, the things she buys me, the food she cooks, and the fun we have,” she says.

When the shot pans to reveal the mother, the audience is in for a surprise. The adoptive mother is a transgender woman. The video, titled Generations of Care, released on March 29 and is an advertisement for the pharmaceutical brand, Vicks. It has clocked close to 10 million views on YouTube. And if the comments are anything to go by, people have appreciated the unusual theme.

“Our aim was to portray a transgender character as a normal person, who has lived life with dignity, and is capable of having functional relationships,” says Neeraj Ghaywan, who directed the Vicks ad.

Transgenders are also the talking point in rental furniture start-up Urbanclap’s International Women’s Day ad, launched earlier this year. It featured a mother celebrating her daughter (formerly a man) who underwent gender reassignment surgery.

But such sensitive portrayals of the community are a relative anomaly. Popular culture has rarely been kind to transgenders. In the past, they have either been portrayed as vicious villains or as objects of ridicule.

Game changer

A shift in perception towards the transgender community started with the landmark Supreme Court ruling in 2014. It recognised transgender people as a third gender, giving them equal rights and access basic services. The effect of that ruling soon got reflected in popular culture.

By 2016, we saw major production houses, such as Yash Raj Productions and Viacom 18, launch entertainment properties that featured transgenders. It includes the Six Pack Band, India’s first transgender music outfit; and the prime-time TV series Shakti — Astitva ke Ehsaas ki (on Colours), on the life of a transgender woman.

Read more: Meet 6 Pack Band, India’s first transgender music group

Several documentaries made during that period (Black Sheep by British Indian filmmaker Reshel Shah, 2014; India’s Third Gender by NBC, 2016, and Transindian by film-maker Meera Darji, 2016) also highlighted the oppression faced by the community and helped start a conversation around it.

Moreover, the acceptance of transgender characters can also be linked to the feminist movement gaining ground in India. As a move towards gender equality, the movement speaks not just for women but for all genders.

Showing the way

As is the case with most pop culture trends, a sympathetic portrayal of the transgender community started in the West. Actor Jared Leto’s moving portrayal of a transgender prostitute in Dallas Buyers Club (2014), for instance, won him an Academy Award. Leto’s character, shown to be ostracised by the American society of the ’80s for not conforming to gender norms, resonated with many transgendered individuals who suffered social apathy.

In the same year, America saw its first transgender-theme TV show, Transparent. A comedy, it revolves around a family where the head of the house (Jeffrey Tambor) identifies as a transgender woman. Dallas... and Transparent highlighted how characters, that are neither male nor female, could be successfully incorporated in stories involving drama, comedy and action.

Read more: Dummies guide to Pride Parade: What it is, who should attend

In stark contrast, in Indian cinema, transgender characters are often confused with cross-dressers — men who simply dress up as women (or vice versa), without identifying with the gender. Saif Ali Khan in a scene from Humshakals (2014), for instance, is portrayed as a cross-dresser for comic relief. “There is more to being a transgender person than the clothes and mannerisms. It is insulting to reduce the entire community to a superficial dressing gag, devoid of the nuances of their sexual identity,” says Sridhar Rangayan, an activist and film-maker.

Back in time

The insensitive portrayal of the community comes as a surprise, though, given the fluid representation of gender in mythology. The Mahabharata features two instances where transgender characters are celebrated. It includes the story of Arjuna, who was given the divine power to transform into a woman and disguise himself during the Pandavas’ exile. More prominently, the warrior Shikhandi is born a woman, but identifies as a man, and fights the war at Kurukshetra as a male warrior.

“But the general patriarchal tone of the Mahabharata overshadowed Shikhandi’s gender fluidity. And in a country where even female characters take a back-seat, non-conformist characters stand no chance of mainstream representation,” says Faezeh Jalali, a theatre director, who directed Shikhandi: The Story of the In-Betweens, a contemporary play that sheds light on Shikhandi’s character and role in the epic.

Read more: Celebrate the LGBTQ Pride month this weekend

The road ahead

While the community has achieved legal recognition, they are still fighting for the right to lead a fulfilling life. And that’s where these ads make a great impact. For instance — the Vicks ad portrays a transgender woman as an independent mother, capable of nurturing a young girl and dignified in the face of adversity.

With such ads being aired on national television, and more importantly, during family shows which attract a wider audience, makes it a change for the better. It might not be long before we see our version of Transparent.