How to Treat the Trans Community: A Lesson for India from Amol Palekar’s Daayraa

Bollywood

How to Treat the Trans Community: A Lesson for India from Amol Palekar’s Daayraa

Illustration: Aishwarya Nayak

In the opening scene of Amol Palekar’s Daayraa (1996), Nirmal Pandey, who plays a transvestite in the film, is eavesdropping on a conversation between a theatre instructor and her student. “Today, the public wants a woman playing leading roles,” says the instructor. “The days of men playing women’s roles are gone.” This means that Pandey’s character – who remains unnamed in the movie – will likely lose his livelihood.

The dejected face of Pandey, who is only beginning to process the loss, affords us a deeper reflection. The trans community, in film and in life, are marginalised – employment and other opportunities like education are severely limited for the community. Daayraa never got a theatrical release in India, but it is just as relevant today as it was 23 years ago, especially when you view it in light of the Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Bill, 2019 which was now been made a law after it was passed in the Parliament and received Presidential assent.

On the face of it, the Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Bill, 2019 might appear to be empowering. It aims to prohibit discrimination against transgender persons in educational institutions, government offices, and while seeking healthcare and using public services. But the bill has led to tremendous unrest among the trans community. One of the key objections is to the part that states that a transgender individual must apply to the District Magistrate for an identity certificate that acts as proof of recognition of his/her/their identity as a transgender person. Giving a medical officer the power to decide who deserves to identify as transgender – a strictly personal choice – is both regressive and downright inhumane.

Not only are the implications of these developments worrying, but they also highlight the negligence of the Indian political class in policymaking. Things have changed adversely for the trans community over the centuries. From being a community that once held religious authority and were sought out for blessings, particularly during religious ceremonies, and held important administrative positions in 16th century Mughal courts, they have been reduced to society’s discontents.

Daayraa

Daayraa is a sensitive exploration of sexual identity and gender stereotyping, with moving performances by both the leads of the film, Sonali Kulkarni and Nirmal Pandey.

Gateway Entertainment/ Saarth Productions

The transgender law disempowers them, but Hindi films have done their bit in portraying them as mere caricatures, stigmatising them even further. In most Bollywood films, trans people are either demonised or are terrifying villains, as in Sangarsh and Sadak. Or have the worst kind of comic stereotypes and transphobic humour directed at them, à la Kya Kool Hain Hum and Masti. In both these cases, there is a sustained pattern of “othering”. Except Daayraa, which strays from convention to offer a deep insight about the struggles of being a trans person in a transphobic country. Based on a story by the award-winning novelist Timeri N Murari (who also wrote the screenplay), the film is a sensitive exploration of sexual identity and gender stereotyping, with moving performances by both the leads of the film, Sonali Kulkarni and Nirmal Pandey.

Set in a small village in Odisha, where men play women in street theatre, the story is centred around a transvestite – played by Pandey – struggling to make ends meet after his profession becomes obsolete. He comes across a young bride-to-be – Kulkarni, also unnamed – who had been kidnapped by a brothel madam, but manages to escape her. Things take a terrible turn when she is raped by another motorcycle gang. After this tragedy, Pandey’s character takes her under his wing and persuades her to dress like a man so that they can pass off as a straight couple and make the journey back to her village in relative safety. But as soon as he is back in her village, she is spurned by her family and friends for being “damaged goods” and driven out… only to be rescued by her transvestite friend.

Murari’s screenplay boasts of a richly resonant central conceit of a love story – both of them develop romantic feelings for each other – between the two protagonists. But it is the film’s exploration of the tension between sexual identity and social circumstance in a bigotry traditional society, which offers little room for these conversations, that makes it stand out. This strange, sad road movie of sorts delicately probes complex issues of marriage, companionship, and romance, juxtaposing it with the journey of a transphobic character (Kulkarni) into one who openly accepts them.

Daayraa strays from convention to offer a deep insight about the struggles of being a trans person in a transphobic country.

In a remarkable scene in the movie, Pandey deconstructs our society’s perceptions of masculinity and femininity. Kulkarni’s character blames Nirmal Pandey for abandoning her, leading to her gangrape. To which Pandey replies that had he stayed, he’d have been raped too. In a fit of rage, Sonali addresses him as a eunuch, neither a man nor woman. He replies, “Must one have rippling muscles to be a man? Or a moustache and a beard? Do naked breasts make a real woman? Or tearful helplessness? A man must be vigorous, a woman a shrinking blossom. I’m a miracle of nature. Within I’m a part man, part woman. It pleases me to reveal the woman within me. It matters little to me whether others accept me or not.”

The Transgender Persons Bill, however, sees no “miracle of nature” among trans people. Rather, it forces them to undergo gender affirmation surgery and get their gender “certified” by the District Magistrate. The sex reassignment surgery in question, has many side effects, it is a complicated and a life altering surgery. The question is, why should as crucial a decision, not be left to the person?

In yet another powerful scene, Kulkarni’s character, points out that a mere change of clothes does not change the wearer – despite the guise, we stay as God made us, some men, some women. To which, Pandey replies, “Sometimes I wonder, God who made this world, so complex, so colourful, how would he have been satisfied with merely creating man and woman? How could he have resisted from making human beings more complex?” This empathy, this humanising of a community is exactly what’s missing from the trans bill.

But perhaps Daayraa’s biggest victory lies in the representation of the trans community alone. Think about Black Panther, which gave us our first black superhero almost two years ago – it has been hailed as a model success story for depicting diversity on screen. A 2011 study conducted by The Opportunity Agenda found that black males in media are usually portrayed negatively, limited to a handful of “positive” stereotypes, painted as flat characters, or missing altogether. Audiences — especially those with little exposure to those outside of their community — typically equate these limited, and harsh, media representations with the real world. It works in the same way for the trans community.

Now, if only our laws could follow that mandate.

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