The audience breaks into applause as the central figure on screen snubs a self-righteous stranger on a train.
The actor in question is Vijay, but not that Vijay whose face is plastered all over Tamil Nadu. The character in question is the film’s lead, yet not the now-cinematically-cliched Angry Young Man for whom such wolf-whistle-worthy dialogues are usually written in India. As she dispenses her lines to an antagonistic fellow though, viewers cheer the way they usually do for mega-starrers filled with song ‘n’ dance, melodrama and bombast.
I look around me, pleasantly surprised by this reception for the Kannada film Naanu Avanalla…Avalu (I Am Not He…She) in a large hall at the International Film Festival of Kerala in Thiruvananthapuram. Although festival crowds are often more open-minded than most, I was expecting some degree of conservatism and discomfort in response to this film about a transgender called Madesha/Vidya. Quite to the contrary, the audience here reacts with positivity and plaudits.
Director BS Lingadevaru’s Naanu Avanalla…Avalu is the story of Madesha, born a boy in rural Karnataka. He is a bright student but his peers are too busy mocking his effeminate demeanour to appreciate his classroom acumen. As he grows older and becomes more aware of himself, he begins to feel like a woman trapped in a man’s body. In a journey that takes him from his village to Bengaluru, Pune and Cuddappah, Madesha earns an MA degree and joins the hijra community living on the shadowy margins of society, ultimately asserting a female identity complete with women’s clothes, the name Vidya and castration (termed “nirvana” in her circles). She then experiences discrimination in her quest for a mainstream profession.
The film is about Vidya’s refusal to let this social bigotry force her into a life of begging and sex work. It is about her determination not to allow the chauvinism of others to dictate her life choices. Except for one difficult sequence dealing with the unhygienic conditions in which castrations are conducted underground, this is a truly uplifting film. What makes it even more so is the realisation, in its closing moments, that Naanu Avanalla…Avalu is drawn from a true story, the autobiographical I Am Vidya: A Transgender’s Journey by Chennai-based NGO worker and theatre activist Vidya aka Living Smile Vidya.
Naanu Avanalla…Avalu earned two National Awards this summer: Best Actor for Kannada theatre artiste Sanchari Vijay’s restrained performance as Madesha/Vidya, far removed from the caricaturish portrayals of transgenders in Indian mainstream cinema; and Best Make-up. The film was also screened at the Indian Film Festival of Melbourne in August and the International Film Festival of India, Goa, in November. It got a limited theatrical release in Karnataka on September 25. It ought to be seen by mainstream Indian audiences outside Karnataka too.
The public tends to assume that films with such subjects would be boring, heavy and/or hard to watch. In truth, the lasting memory from Naanu Avanalla…Avalu is of Madesha’s smile when he realises for the first time there are others like him out there, and of Vidya’s compassion, spirit and fire.
Such as the scene mentioned in the opening paragraph, that flash of controlled temper she displays on a train during her brief tryst with mendicancy, when a passenger dismisses her as being uneducated and too lazy to work hard for a living like everyone else. Vidya openly challenges him, pointing out that she is, in fact, a postgraduate who society is unwilling to employ.
These are scenes so commonplace in parts of India that we barely notice — hijras seeking alms, hijras barging into weddings to sing, dance and demand money, hijras blessing newly-weds and newborns. Yet, transgenders are a rare sight in the mainstream. Shabnam Mausi being elected to the Madhya Pradesh Legislative Assembly for 1998-2003, dancer-actor-activist Laxmi Narayan Tripathi appearing on the reality show Sacch Ka Saamna in 2009 to dispel myths about hijras, and the Supreme Court’s landmark 2014 ruling recognising transgenders as the “third gender” have all been uncommon developments.
Over the years, mainstream cinema has lampooned anyone who does not conform to traditionally accepted notions of gender or at best has treated such persons as a source of comedy and little else. Films like Mahesh Bhatt’s Tamanna (1997), with actor Paresh Rawal playing a pivotal character who is a hijra, have been unusual.
Vijay’s National Award for Naanu Avanalla…Avalu has come in a year in which the media has reported other significant milestones: Madhu Kinnar was elected India’s first transgender mayor in Chhattisgarh’s Raigarh Municipal Corporation this January, and last month, the Madras High Court paved the way for Chennai’s K Prithika Yashini to become the country’s first transgender police sub-inspector. For the most part though, India’s transgenders remain an object of ridicule, contempt, discrimination or, at the very least, apathy.
Even the well-intentioned among us usually sweep away such issues into rarely-visited nooks and crannies of our minds where they are unlikely to give us a pang of conscience or an attack of basic human decency. Naanu Avanalla…Avalu drags every discomfiting question out of those dark corners into the light, compelling us to confront them and our own role in perpetuating prejudice by, if nothing else, turning a blind eye to it.
Anna MM Vetticad is the author of The Adventures of an Intrepid Film Critic
Follow Anna on Twitter@annavetticad
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