It’s 2020 and Filmmakers Still Can’t Represent Trans Folk Well

Making the trans community the butt of jokes doesn’t count as representation.

4 min read
It’s 2020 and Filmmakers Still Can’t Represent Trans Folk Well

For years now, the LGBTQIA+ community, and more specifically, the trans community have been ‘othered’ by society. We might claim that things are changing now, with new laws in place to protect their rights and ensure their safety. But legal discourse has hardly ever translated into actual change in society. So, if not legal action, then what actually influences our mindset? Pop culture is the obvious answer, and it’s not wrong.

While our internal prejudices have always existed, misrepresentation in pop culture definitely fuels this pre-existing bias even more. Here’s how:

The Casting

A still from <i>Thangam</i>, part of Netflix’s Tamil anthology <i>Paava Kadhaigal.</i>
A still from Thangam, part of Netflix’s Tamil anthology Paava Kadhaigal.
Photo: Twitter (@kalidas700)

Take for instance the new Tamil anthology on Netflix, Paava Kadhaigal. The first short film, Thangam, directed by Sudha Kongara, follows the story of a trans woman named Saathar (played by Kalidas Jayaram) who despite circumstances, lets go of the man she loves and instead helps him marry his sister. As beautiful and thought-provoking the story is, choosing a cishet man to play the role of a trans woman does not count as representation.

Some might claim that the community still gets represented, which is one step in a good direction, but I’d like to argue that our filmmakers can do better. It wasn’t right when Eddie Redmayne played the role in The Danish Girl (2015), when Sharad Kelkar did it in Laxmii (2020) and it isn’t right even now.

How can filmmakers claim to stand up for the trans community and continue to cast cishet people for those roles in the same breath?

There is no doubt that there are more than enough trans actors trying to break into the film industry, and if Indian filmmakers really cared about their representation, they’d give them the platform to get recognised too.

This ignorance that might seem minor to most audiences actually deters the normalisation of the trans community in society. In such cases, any amount of legal assistance in the form of new laws will only be so helpful unless there is an actual difference in the way the community is treated by society.

Are We Suffering From a Saviour Complex?

If anything, this misguided activism hints more towards a saviour complex than an actual passion to represent a community. And this is not just restricted to one minority in India. Right from casting Priyanka Chopra as Mary Kom for the boxer’s biopic rather than taking on board an actor from the North-East to play the part, to using blackface on Bhumi Pednekar in Bala (2019), Bollywood is peppered with examples of this performative wokeness.

Exactly WHERE is the activism then?

Also, Offensive Jokes ≠ Representation

MX Player’s <i>Pati Patni Aur Panga</i> (2020).
MX Player’s Pati Patni Aur Panga (2020).

MX Player’s recently-released Pati Patni Aur Panga received a lot of flak because of its offensive jokes on the trans community. In the series, Adah Sharma (Shivani) is seen playing the role of a transgender woman who marries a cishet man who is not very accepting of her past, despite her being clear about it from the beginning. A series of crass, transphobic jokes coupled with clichéd scenes where a man is shocked to see his girlfriend peeing while standing up is not just overused, but frankly, in bad taste. The homophobia that Shivani’s husband Romachak displays through most of the series also does not help.


This is Bollywood’s favourite recipe: Add a cishet character, put them in an awkward situation with a trans character, and voila! You now have a comedy sequence in your movie where the cishet character cannot help but be repulsed by the presence of a trans individual, making them the butt of all jokes.

In my observation, ridiculing trans individuals in movies like this has actually enabled most of us to make them the butt of jokes. We do not hesitate in passing lewd comments about their very identity, be it about the way they dress to the way they talk, just because they do not fit our (very narrow) perspectives on how people should act based on their gender.

Pati Patni Aur Panga is a classic case of well-intentioned content going wrong because of ignorance and lack of research. If only filmmakers could imbibe a sense of responsibility to educate themselves before approaching such delicate subjects, perhaps they could achieve something meaningful through their content aside from just creating to entertain.

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