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I stand here in Tamil Nadu, where religious fundamentalist forces have ensured that a creative piece of work has been retracted and its author gone into exile, where – on grounds that it hurt religious sentiments – “The Da Vinci Code” was banned, and “Viswaroopam” was temporarily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