Laws work in tandem with societal perceptions of identities. The Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Act has been staunchly criticised for failing the community in its right of self-identification. In doing so, it casts them as outsiders who need the validation of insiders to ascertain their rights. The author here uses cinema as a mode of articulating and representing identities, as a lesson for lawmakers.
TRANSGENDERS live on the edge even in the best of times and with no end to the pandemic in sight, they now risk eviction and serious health problems – 8% of them are HIV+. In addition to this, they need to mobilize against the draft rules relating to the hotly contested Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Act. The transgender community has petitioned the government for emergency relief during the pandemic including a monthly stipend, food security, a moratorium on rent and access to essential medication. As the government is providing relief to migrant workers and the poor, they want to know why they are being ignored. How is it in cinema? Are we able to accommodate transpeople in our stories? Not really. We cast them as outsiders.
In Transamerica (2005), a transwoman travels across the country with her 17-yr old prostitute son who doesn’t know she is his father. There is so much sadness in the film, it is unassimilable. And in Peranbu, a 2018 Tamil film, Anjali Ameer, a transwoman-actor, stars in a lead role opposite superstar Mammoothy. In the film, Amu is a poor man living with a sick child. Having lost his wife, he marries Viji. But she turns out to be a ‘bad woman’ and he throws her out. Then comes Mira, who is good, kind and caring. But he rejects her because she is a transwoman. Her nature, however, wins him over and they get married. While such an end is unusual for an Indian movie, Mira is caught in a reverse-stereotype. She is over-defined by her virtue which wins her entry into the straight world. Transpeople may not necessarily like these films. Rather than win our approval they might want us to appreciate what they have to offer such as communal living, a subversive sensibility and alternative sexual norms.
Pedro Almodovar, a gay filmmaker and celebrated Spanish auteur, takes these values and fashions a cinematic world that is wild, irreverent and comic. In it, the queer absorbs the straight rather than the other way around. Almodovar grew up under Franco and his renegade creativity is directed against the repression and heartlessness of that time. His films are rooted in the movida – an insolent transgressive artistic movement that explored all that was forbidden under Franco, including queerness. In Almodovar’s first feature, ‘Pepi, Luci, Bom and Other Girls on the Heap’ (1980), Pepi is raped by a policeman. She lures his wife, Luci, in revenge and introduces her to a female friend, Bom. Luci and Bom become lovers. Bom is a dominatrix and Luci realises she likes being a masochist. So she returns to her husband, happy to get beaten by him. Almodovar parodies marriage consistently in his films. He doesn’t like the way straight men treat women. In What Have I Done to Deserve This? (1982), an oppressed housewife kills her husband with a leg of ham and cooks it so that the police can’t find the murder weapon. Straight men are poor creatures in his films. They have furtive sex with transsexuals or watch football on TV while making love or have dementia and mumble.
Almodovar’s All About My Mother was awarded the Oscar for the best foreign language film in 1999. It features a community of women across the spectrum of sexualities – straight, lesbian, bi and trans – and their relationships with each other. Manuela’s 17-year old son, Esteban, dies when a car belonging to Huma, a famous lesbian actress, hits him. She goes to Barcelona looking for Esteban’s father, Lola, a transwoman. There she meets Agrado, a transsexual prostitute who is an old friend. Agrado introduces her to Rosa, an HIV+ nun, who tells her she is pregnant with Lola’s child. But Lola herself remains elusive. The film is unlike any other.
We are not used to people with identities unfettered by gender and class being so naturally kind to each other. Almodovar is giving a finger to society, but with humour and kindness. All About My Mother, as the name indicates, is about mothers. They are ubiquitous in Almodovar’s films. He grew up during a time when children of dissident women were confiscated and reassigned to convents or other families. It is believed around 300,000 children were stolen under Franco’s dictatorship. In this film, when Esteban dies, a heartbroken Manuela decides to donate his organs. In a scene that will endure in the annals of cinema, she hides behind a pillar, crying bitterly, as she watches a stranger leave the hospital with her son’s heart beating in him. Bodies, in this film, stand for a mother’s love, the death of a child and life-giving organ transplants, not to be inspected for gender verification as the Transgender Persons Act mandates.
Almodovar is known to be a women’s director. He is very sensitive to the connection between anti-queerness and misogyny. Hollywood, for him, is a misogynistic institution. According to him, its female stars exist only to prove that the male ones aren’t gay. Almodovar admires women. He was a witness to how they survived Franco. Their passions are comically epic and they consistently defeat male control. In an early short film, a lesbian tortures a man she likes into wearing women’s clothes and in Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (1988), a deranged gun-toting Lucia fakes sanity to escape from a mental hospital and kill her ex-husband whereas Pepa, who has just been deserted by the same man, prepares gazpacho spiked with dozens of sleeping pills for him.
You may ask in what way the films of a Spanish auteur are relevant for Indian transgenders, who are at the end of their tether. Well at least they might laugh with Almodovar when he says out loud what they know so intimately – that gender roles are acts. Just as some of us gape at hijras as they sashay through cars at traffic lights, they must also find the way women ‘act’ like women and men ‘act’ like men quite funny. Agrado, the transsexual prostitute from All About My Mother, speaks for Almodovar in an iconic double-edged speech where she complains that ‘being a woman is very hard’. She reels off all the surgeries she’s had – she’s shaped her eyes, tightened her jaw, straightened her nose and bought herself breasts. But she didn’t go below that because, as she says ‘that’s how men like me.’ This is when you suddenly wonder if there are starlets and models with p____ s. There must surely be some, you tell yourself. This is what Almodovar does to your mind.
Almodovar says he’s not a ‘queer’ filmmaker. Maybe he’s not self-conscious about it but his aversion to authority is a hallmark of queer sensibility. Feelings are more important than power. And in his films, the feelings are so powerful, so exuberant, so haunting, they can hardly be contained within the narrative. It’s like they belong to all humanity rather than any one character. His use of colours and music gives them an extraordinary material dimension which resonates in you. Almodovar’s characters are damaged – they are junkies, prostitutes, transwomen-fathers, lesbian nuns, oppressed, beaten, raped women – but for him everyone is damaged, everyone is queer – not necessarily in terms of gender but because everyone has subversive instincts in them. And those who deny this become all the more queer. If Indian transgenders saw his films, they’d know for sure that he speaks for them. They’d know that if he met them, he’d have them clap and sashay their way through his films – and the joke would be on our legislators and the ill-conceivedTransgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Act.