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Smiley’s Open Letter to Director Shankar

The Epic Film director Shankar:


I watched “I”.

I stand here in Tamil Nadu, where religious fundamentalist forces have ensured that a creative piece of work has been retracted and its author gone into exile, where – on grounds that it hurt religious sentiments – “The Da Vinci Code” was banned, and “Viswaroopam” was temporarily banned and went on to get a lot of publicity, becoming a high grosser.

I stand here today and look at your work. Everyone knows that a ‘Shankar film’ caters to the actor’s hunger for versatility in a role, the producer’s fetish for money, the mad worship of a rogue masquerading as a hero, or  the blatant misogyny underlying the blind craze among fans.

However, you would have known that most critics, barring a predictable few, have found the film disappointing. While they have ridiculed your script and your screenplay, it seems to be beyond them to criticise your ridiculing the ‘nine’* (trans) character in your movie. I am amazed at the wonders of freedom of expression exercised in the making of this particular work. You are, after all, the epic director! You are free to depict us, trans* people as sex freaks, sociopaths, second class citizens, or in any way you want to. I’m sure you would have liked it when one of them took a leaf out of your book and wrote, ‘there’s another villain, a “nine”thara.’

Beyond your magnificent ambition, ostentatious sets,  striking actors, and your grand budget, I would like to reach out to your large and imposing mind. If the appalling denigration of transwomen in “Shivaji” (when Vivek says ‘It has just come back from surgery,’ and our super star moves away, disgusted) was at one level, you have surpassed yourself by taking transphobia to a whole new level in “I”.

This insignificant little girl would like to speak a few words with you about this.

Just ten minutes into the film, Vikram, the epitome of on-screen machismo, stares at the villain and says ‘dei, potta’. I was not surprised. Other ‘pottai-s** like me and I are used to such slander on screen. When Vinoth, director of the socially-sensitive film “SathurangaVettai”, casually uses the word ‘pottai’ as an abuse, and critics ruling this part of the world support him, can we expect any less from you?

Shankar, how are we, the pottais of the world, any less dignified than your masculine ideal? Is that ideal bigger than our realization that our being is filled with femininity, and we yearn to live the truth of our gender? Is your ideal much bigger than the courage to be honest and leave the safety of our home, and the comfort of our families? Is your ideal nobler than us losing our basic rights as citizens, when we run away and become refugees, second-class citizens, in our own country? Is it more magnificent than the scorching pyre of starting life afresh as a woman, without economic or social support? Is it any grander than us bearing with fortitude, the violence of your masculine ideal on our bodies every day of our lives? Or, Shankar, do you simply think we do not feel at all? That we cannot realize our dignity is assaulted?

It’s fine that you wanted five villains. I understand your script required all of them to be from the film industry. But then, you wanted one villain among them to be plush and grand and at the same time comical. I am appalled that you chose to have a transwoman as that villain.

Your transwoman character is a stylist. Just so that you wanted it to be authentic you cast Ojas Rajani – Aishwarya Rai’s stylist in “Enthiran” (I wonder if she knew what she was doing; if you told her how transphobic her character is in the movie). Even while she is introduced as the top stylist by the ciswoman who plays the leading lady, why do the hero and the friend look down on this transwoman? You must know that there are numerous examples of transwomen who have risen to great heights, battling these very same struggles. Do you wish to make the statement that despite our rising to great heights, the fact that we are trans* is reason enough to look down on us? To denigrate us? When you see fans update their vocabulary to use the name of a popular film that strove to bring dignity to the transgender community (I am referring to the film “Kanchanaa” which, surprisingly, against its intention, has lent its title to be used by people to tease us these days), why would you start with that popular song sung by a travelling group of transwomen singer-dancers, “oororam puliyamaram”? Unfailing your ignoble intention, the audience erupted with laughter at this mean usage of the song. Would you have heard the wail of our mothers, who are, just like your “Muthalvan” Pugazh’s mother, in anguish?

Your leading man sees your leading lady only in posters and on the silver screen, falls in love with her – true and honest – and yet manages to not have any sexual desires at all. And your leading lady loves him in return, thanks to guilt and sympathy. When this is okay, how is it that the love of a transwoman is so worthless that it disgusts not just the leading man, but also the lady, and the friend, and the faraway ad filmmaker? This disgust is a tool you have employed to vilify the character in your script, isn’t it? When you wanted to show her as a rich transwoman, your camera lens showed her in a very beautiful light. Immediately after her love is brushed aside as being worthy of scorn, your camera shows her as a despicable person. Shankar, let me tell you, your camera does not just show a despicable Ojas, it shows a despicable you!

You know, right up to this scene I wanted to be civil and polite in expressing my angst. Just when you showed us that Ojas occupied Room No. 9, I lost it. You must know that I have been called ‘nine’ all my life in school. I was poked and pierced on all sides, torn apart, left alone and to nothing but tears, with this number. I still have this number now, thrown at me on the streets. I also have the arsenal of swear words I have picked up on the way, and I would not hesitate to throw back at you. But then, the critics of the world (special mention, Cable Shankar) will take it upon themselves to give me lessons in cultured conversation. I do not want that; so I will continue to be polite.

While the censor board made you place the disclaimer, ‘No animals were harmed during the making of this film’, it turned a blind eye to the blatant discrimination of sexual and gender minorities, and people with physical disabilities – granting you the freedom to hurt and offend these sections of the population. What is the use of questioning the faults in your work without condemning the kindness of the CBFC?

Let’s turn to your leading actor Vikram. He has risen to great heights after much effort and hard work, but he is no exception to this insensitivity – the film that gave him his big break, Bala’s “Sethu”, has him say ‘de, you are going to become an ajak one day, doing this’. His inspiration – the rationalist, modernist, liberal – Kamal Haasan has, after all, used ‘pottai’ with such recklessness, and has famously vilified transwomen and homosexuals in his film ‘Vettayaadu Vilayaadu’. This insensitivity is common to every actor here.

But still, if it will reach, I’d like to say one thing to you – and all actors, comedians and directors. The men of this world are not your only audience – those men who worship that abusive, insensitive, patriarchal, masculine ideal that denigrates people who are courageous enough to live the truth. Your work is also watched by those very same people you denigrate, alienate and laugh at. We have TVs in our homes. We watch your films. We laugh, we enjoy. We also feel. We can also rise in fury when our dignity is assaulted.

* Nine: “ombOdu”, a derogatory Tamil term for transgender and other gender-nonconforming people.

** poTTai: another derogatory Tamil word, loosely translated as “sissy” and used  against gender non-conforming and transgender people, but also used in some communities as a non-derogatory reference to girls and women.

See original letter in Tamil by Smiley here.



25 Comments. Add your own »

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  1. Amazing. Moved me to tears. Let’s hope the film maker has the emotional capacity to learn from this letter.

  2. I’m a feminist. Being a big supporter of LGBT community and a female myself, I feel disgusted after watching the movie. Shankar has such a small mind. No wonder why girls are sexually harassed and transgender people are harassed and discriminated as well in our society, for we have such wonderful directors like Shankar. So disgusted at the discrimination and the awful portrayal of transgender and women in the movie. “I” means sexism still exists.

  3. As a mother as a woman my heart goes with you Smiley…this must stop. Take the initiatives Ardhanaries( shiva and parvathi swaroopas) and hope people are sensible atleast from now on…

  4. One of the greatest director of today Rituparno Sarkar was transgender. And rarely we find one with y chromosome so sensitive to women pain and dignity. But he was hurt and ridiculed personally by ppl like anchor Mir in public arena. He was so depressed he gave up his fight with cancer and we lost him. Why world behave like this is beyond me. In movie they treat violent psycopaths with sympathy as victim but hv no heart for transgender. Its actually sad.

  5. Beautifully written. I’m amazed at just how insensitive the film was. I reviewed the film for Sify: http://www.sify.com/movies/i-review-shankar-s-latest-is-more-like-aiyo-review-tamil-15058871.html#. Though the comment guidelines ask that we don’t paste links, I just wanted to let you know that not all critics ignored this terrible portrayal. It’s amazing how many people think it is all right to make films like this because it shows ‘reality’. As if the rest of the film is very real and it’s the director’s commitment to reality that has made him do this. More power to you.

  6. Well written article. When I watched the film I cringed and felt ashamed when Ojas was on screen. Everything about her portrayal was so crass and narrow minded. These films are watched by children. What sort of message are we passing on to them. That it’s ok to call people names and be cruel. Its definitely not ok and is high time that film makers realise the amount of influence they wield in indian society. Their mindless cinema does affect the behaviour of our youth who by far are mindless also.

  7. Fantastic review of the disgusting aspects expressed in the insensitive movie!
    As a liberal, I am not asking for ban or cuts in the movie. But many of us should express our angst through writing such reviews and share it online and to a larger audience, so next time, when a director even thinks of having such scenes, he should be sensitive!

  8. Transgenders can be portrayed as a villain , negative character or with wrong shades in a movie.. after al its just a movie. But the respect that has to be given to them. Has to be given. Should not used those terms which indicates trangenders in future.

  9. My thoughts exactly when I was seeing the film…Regretted seeing this farce a short time into it…Couldn’t describe the amount of ‘disgust’ I felt on watching the film…how anyone could say they like this film is beyond me…Cheap narrow-minded ass of a director and the people who appreciate this so called film..Unbelievable..Great job on the review though!

  10. I dont understand why this is called degrading..One thing which was degrading was to see the Vikram nd santhanam acting disgusted over Ojas..But thats the common stereotype,but then when it was explained,it was setteled…But the fact that Ojas fell in love with Vikram is natural..What if that charecter was potrayed by a female and not transgender,would you say the charecter was degraded because it potrayed betrayal and jelousy, 2 common emotions…Why do you hav to look down upon urselves..

    1. Kavishna,

      Common emotions they are, as u have rightly pointed out. But is that what the movie implies? Sadly, not. The love of a trans woman is seen as nothing but disgusting, by the actor. I agree, that is the common reaction in our society, but can a narrow-minded mentality be justified simply because it is widely prevalent?

  11. Totally apt! “I” was very denigrating towards transgender individuals.Its about time we started boycotting such movies!!

  12. Dear Sister,

    I can only apologise on behalf on the society I live in. There are a few of us who were also angry. To be fair to such creators, in the past they have also shown women in poor light. I used to be angry to, till i realized that we have to raise above them, and just prove our greatness. They will not see it. Please understand they are blind. Leave them with their insensitivities.
    Just wanted to tell you that there are people like us who care and who love you for all that you are……god bless.

  13. What a powerful letter! I have to say i agree with every single point. Even I was appalled at such an offensive portrayal of transwomen in the movie, I was even more ashamed when some of my own acquaintances laughed for the supposed jokes. Shankar was one of my favorite directors, until he decided to so unabashedly portray such offensive scenes. I also wonder how Vikram and AR Rahman and such big names did not raise any objection to this. After all there was no story value attached to such a track. Whether we agree or not, such a magnum opus movie does influence people and these scenes may actually provide a mental justification to those men who shamelessly tease women and transwomen alike.

  14. Looks like Shankar has lost his credibility and dignity as a director, in the eyes of the commons. Gender insensitivities and other type insensitivities like targeting a particular section of the people, in the name of freedom of expression has become a norm than exception. We do live in a misogynistic society to some extent which has only extended itself to other sections like the LGBT community. Change has to be brought about by only such acclaimed directors, who surprisingly are regressive in their attitude. Hope Shankar is given a chance for retribution atleast in his next film!

  15. As appalled as I was watching a trans woman being projected in such a demeaning potrayal in ‘I’, I was also left with a deep disgust towards the sheer insensitivity of these director, writers and actors part of it. They have terribly failed themselves by not realising the social responsibility they hold owing to the impact their work has over the masses. I walked out of the show as an utterly hurt and disgusted guy.
    Smiley, ur article here is a heart wrenching one, resonating with the views of mine and thousands of others out here. We stand by u!

  16. It’s sad that a director of such repute would put on display such insensitivity. I am shocked infinitely. If Shankar claims to have made an epic film, he must also know, that epics which encapsulate the realities of a culture within which it is produced, have always acknowledged the citizenry of all, and have not been denigrating of citizens, unless they have transgressed some moral codes that hurt others. If he has not been able to understand the simple truth that honouring “differences” is the mark of a true artist, he better not make films anymore. In any case, popular culture in India has always been sexist, predominantly misogynist and homophobic; but, to perpetuate the same worldview in 2015, is something shameful. Shankar should apologise publicly; in fact, such insensitive people like Shankar should not be allowed entry in such powerful mediums as cinema, for they might be instrumental in making this world a more difficult place to survive for those, who are different and do not want to perform.

  17. Being a chennaite and living abroad for many years, I have persoanlly experienced and seen the steady deteriorioration of respect,culture between fellow human beings especially towards women in chennai,leave alone the minorities like transgenders…..giving way to hooliganism, suggestive gestures and vulgar language openly in the roads. Men openly gawk at women (esp foreign women) who feel they are being ‘disrobed’ while walking in roads. I am surprised no one protests anymore when they hear the vulgar dialogues depicting women in some tamil movies,immune???? .so this blatant degradation of transgenders by a so called ‘top director’ is no surprise to me. Where has all the culture gone in chennai??????

  18. This will go as insignificant as any great letter in my great country. It shall be looked at, admired and forgotten by millions while successively having no effect on the cine industry. I extend my sympathies to the author and re-assure that many share the same opinion but ultimately nobody will do anything about it. Now keyboard warriors hall rage over this page until it loses popularity. Excuse my manners but thing deep of what I have just stated.

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