Usually, film reviews are expected to offer an ‘objective’ perspective on the strengths and flaws of a film. Such an assumption takes into account, that any creator has the freedom to make what they want, provided they are open to criticism and debates. During a panel in the 2018 Jaipur Literature Festival, both Madhavi Menon, Professor of English at Ashoka University, and Nandini Krishnan, author of Invisible Men: Inside India’s Transmasculine Networks (2018) justified the ability of any person to tell stories about others and ‘otherness.’ While Menon described co-panelist, Dhrubo Jyoti’s desire to read stories about Dalit and queer lives, as possibly “narcissistic,” Krishnan countered criticisms of her representation of trans men by insisting that critics should pay attention to the contexts, so that any engagement is feasible. The plea for a civilized engagement on a public platform that Jyoti identified as upper caste, took it for granted that all perspectives (like the slogan, “AllLivesMatter”) are equally important and unstable, without necessarily interrogating the situatedness of the text or the author. Following the Indian NALSA judgment in 2014, there has been a steady proliferation of representations of the figure of the trans people, especially the transgender woman in mainstream popular cultures as well as academic conferences. Most of these representations, barring a select few are authored by upper-caste cis persons who treat the transgender woman as an object to be studied, so that the latter can either appeal to the sympathy of the cis audience, or be further demonized for her acts of subversion. Hence, as I watched Partha Chakraborty’s Samantaral which had released in 2017, I was overcome with a familiar feeling of outrage, directed at cis voyeurism that cannot imagine transness, outside stereotypical transphobic ‘death-worlds.’
The film begins with Arko (played by Riddhi Sen) returning to his maternal grandfather’s ancestral house in Kolkata after 12 years. As Arko seeks out his uncle Sujan (played by Parambrata Chatterjee), he realizes that the latter has been confined to a room on the terrace, and is frequently assaulted by the younger brother, Kaushik (played by Anindya Banerjee). Though Arko tries to help Sujan, the latter cannot take his sympathy for granted. Thus, when Sujan tells Arko’s girlfriend, Titli – “I need a body like you” – and feels her body, Arko calls her a pervert. Though the family subsequently allows Kaushik to take Sujan to a mental health asylum, the audience is told that the latter has been dropped off at a deserted location. Sujan’s reputation is only restored when she finds a way to reach her house, and inadvertently rescues her sister-in-law from being pimped out by Kaushik. In fact, Sujan had also anticipated the road accident that eventually killed Arko’s parents. The former therefore becomes exceptional due to her unique connections with nature and destiny. This sense of difference separates Sujan from the rest of her family members who have easy access to the public, including the constitutional right to vote. As Arko barges inside her room to satisfy his curiosity around the figure of “the woman” whom he had noticed earlier, the audience is finally allowed to access all the evidences of Sujan’s traumatic past.
Chakraborty’s film is at best an insincere attempt to represent the everyday harassment and humiliation faced by an intersex person. As evident from the elaborate account of Sujan’s father (played by Soumitra Chatterjee), the intersex newborn is a sight of horror and gets subsequently claimed by a group of hijra persons. The monologue makes no distinction between an intersex and a transgender person, so that the desire for womanhood is traced to biological differences. Sujan is also expected to counter allegations of being a ‘pervert’ by displaying no signs of sexual desire. Eventually, the director, much like the father figure does not know what to do with an outed Sujan, thereby pushing her to abruptly die by suicide. As the father remembers, “Sujan was a thorn in our throats.” Apart from its bad screenplay, this serves as a predictable end to a film with a gender nonconforming protagonist. In Kaushik Ganguly’s Nagarkirtan (2017), the central character, Puti (incidentally played by Riddhi Sen) is forced to end her life. If directors must kill their trans and intersex characters on screen, do they – the cis bhadrolok artists – have any intention of facilitating the latter’s survival in the everyday society? Even after death, Sujan must be the epitome of sacrifice, so that she donates her eyes to the abusive younger brother, Kaushik. It is perhaps not a coincidence that both these films were released in 2017, when trans and hijra communities across India were protesting against several transphobic provisions of the Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Bill that eventually became a law in 2019.
While Kolkata-based Bengali cinema has experienced somewhat affirmative portrayal of gender nonconforming and trans characters, thanks to Rituparno Ghosh’s contribution as an actor and a director in films like Chitrangada (2012) which was primarily a story of survival, Ganguly and Chakraborty rely on cisgender actors to play their trans protagonists. In an MTV News interview, Indya Moore who played the role of Angel Evangelista in the FX series Pose, remarks – “gender is a social construct, and so is race and that still does not make it okay for white women to play Asian women.” Emphasizing on the importance of having more trans actors on screen, she elaborates – “What is a cis role? What we are conceptualizing as a cis role is just somebody playing a role and telling a story, that has nothing to do with their gender being dissected.” Hence Ganguly and Chakraborty’s audiences look at trans characters, rather than looking with them. In other words, the target audiences are not expected to be intersex, trans or even gender nonconforming people who may object to the brutalization of the trans bodies on screen or have a say in the ethicality of storytelling.
The only strength of Chakraborty’s film might be Indraadip Dasgupta’s music, especially the final song, “Ei Mon” that emphasizes on togetherness and intimacy. It is, however, sung by a cisman, Arijit Singh. To return to the question of what film reviews should do, I must conclude by asserting that any attempt to downplay the politics of a work of art, is an act of violence in itself, and therefore cannot be justified in the name of artistic freedom or democratization. Representation runs the risk of appropriation and erasure, recentering cis people, both on the screen and outside of it. Such artistic endeavours may treat minority bodies as sites of extraction, that are only fit to be documented for the sake of token inclusivity or furthering upper-caste careers.
 The Hindu caste system consists of four broad caste divisions, Brahmin, Kshatriya, Vaishya and Shudra. The Dalit falls outside this system. In the panel, Jyoti pointed out how Indian mainstream media is largely dominated by upper caste people. The same is true for academia and publishing houses. Hence, the positionalities of the authors and their stories cannot be ignored.
 The Union of India v. National Legal Services Authority (NALSA) judgement in 2014, categorized the hijra and transgender communities as the “third gender.” In a relatively progressive move, it allowed for self-determination of gender and instructed the government to facilitate reservation for trans communities in education and employment sectors.
“‘Pose’ Stars M J Rodriguez and Indya Moore On Cis Actors Playing Trans Characters.” MTV News. YouTube. July 13, 2018 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GZc0cRLzp1w Accessed 10 November 2020.
Samantaral. Directed by Kaushik Chakravarty. Produced by Tarak Nath Saha, 2017. Netflix https://www.netflix.com/search?q=saman&jbv=81018238 Accessed 20 December 2020
“Urvashi Butalia, Nandini Krishnan, Madhavi Menon, Malini Subramaniam and Dhrubo Jyoti” Jaipur Literary Festival, 25 January 2019 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=joNrX5A4N1I&t=760s Accessed 25 January 2019.
Rajorshi Das is a PhD (English) student in the University of Iowa. They are invested in queer studies, specific to South Asian diasporas and social movements. When not heavy lifting in classrooms, they write poetry about desires and friendships.