Pride Month: Love, queer and beyond
As we march past Pride month, let's take a moment to understand queer representation in Tamil cinema, how romance is elemental in telling their stories, and the importance of looking beyond stereotype
A month ago, Tamil anthology Modern Love Chennai, featuring six love stories, was released. The series represented various romantic setups that were age-defying, broke familial frameworks, brushed past economical backdrop, and a lot more. However, it lacked one aspect. Despite the varied circumstances of the stories, the colour remained the same. They were all tales of cisgender heterosexuals. Just when we seem to be moving forward, albeit in small steps, through stories like Natchathiram Nagargiradhu and Peranbu, why has Tamil Cinema just not done enough to showcase the spectrum of characters out there?
As we march past towards the end of Pride Month, actor Anjali Ameer, known for her performance as Meera in Peranbu, says, “We are yet to get more opportunities. The majority of roles are either designed to be for a man or a woman. A queer person can be shown in any way and as I speak, I am also doing a few cisgender roles. As an artist, it should become normal for me.”
Echoing the same, filmmaker Malini Jeevarathinam says that it is high time the industry sees queerness as a rightful act more than a content business. “Filmmakers can discuss with consultants and those from the community, and can see how much effort they have put into it, rather than seeing it just as a business. A team’s ethics will be reflected in their films,” says Malini, who has worked as a script consultant in the upcoming Kaadhal Enbadhu Podhu Udamai, which talks about a lesbian relationship. Malini also worked as a 'sensitivity radar' where she sat during the initial discussions of Sudha Kongara’s Thangam (Paava Kadhaigal) and gave inputs regarding the queer angle and portrayal for the segment. Recalling an incident from a few years back, Malini says, “A section of audience and branding are showing queer solidarity, which in a way is healthy. Once I was not allowed to try clothes on from the men’s trial room and was constantly referred to as ma’am while I kept asking them not to misgender me. There was no hesitation in finding my comfort when they were ready to bill me in thousands for the clothes I buy. So coming from here, to finding crews with ally-ships, it’s an upward trend.”
A romantic gesture
For Tamil cinema, which pretty much stays loyal to genres, romance has been one of them. But where are the queer romances? Pointing out Neeraj Ghaywan’s Geeli Puchi segment that brilliantly encapsulated queerness and casteism, and the empathetic portrayal of lavender marriages in Badhaai Do, Anjali feels that the south industry is definitely lagging behind in terms of representation. “We need to build conversations and an ecosystem for that, in the south. Filmmakers like Onir are now coming up with such stories. I think if we want stories of us, we have to come forth to tell,” she adds.
Theatre director Srijith Sundaram, who runs Kattiyakkari Theater Group which stages plays on themes of sexual-gender minorities, social oppression, and comprises of artists and crew from queer community, feels that art is important and incorporating queer people into the movement will only elevate the stories. He recalls a tender moment of representation in Bombay in which a transwoman saves a child from a scene of riot as she questions for peace and reason for battle. “It was a beautiful scene, but that’s about it and we are yet to see mainstream storytelling with these characters.”
Srijith also points out the responses to Deepa Mehta’s Fire which featured a homosexual romance between Shabana Azmi and Nandita Das. “The theatres were vandalised when the film came out. It was mainly because many saw the film as a disruptor of an 'ideal' family structure. Anything that questions or challenges the existing system is targetted. Looking back, we might have characters exhibiting asexuality or bisexuality, which we might have bracketed as socially awkward or assigned them 'friend' roles. I am curious to see how such orientations will be shown in cinema,” says Srijith.
Trans rights activist and actor Living Smile Vidya also thinks that queer romance is dire in Tamil cinema as she talks about reimagining famous romantic tunes of Ilaiyaraaja, with queer relationships. As she lays hopes on upcoming artists and musicians to recreate that, she believes that it can create a ripple effect in a positive way. “I only hope to have a film or a song that represents my love,” says Vidya with a smile.
OTT, a safe haven?
Given the film industry has come to a space where theatres and streaming platforms are co-existing, many feel that OTTs can be a safe haven to showcase stories from the queer community, especially with the privilege of private viewing creating a safe space.
Filmmaker Rafiq Ismail, whose Rathasaatchi premiered on Aha, opines that as much as theatres are looking for content that “sells”, so are the OTTs. "It is all about the reactions of the audience. If we can reach them about the importance of queer representation, I think it would result in more such content coming up. Popular mainstream filmmakers could use their power and reach to impact a change."
Malini also reveals that a handful of queer-friendly projects are coming up. As they will be marking their debut as an actor in Nandhini JS’ upcoming project, Malini expects more queer representation onscreen soon on different platforms.
Who can be the face?
A debate on who are the rightful takers for queer roles has been ongoing, with the majority feeling that an ally’s caste, gender or orientation should not be considered for casting.
“Even as trans people act in my plays, I don’t make their characters also be one. It is the audience's choice to interpret. A family can have homosexual people as well, and still manage to co-exist without their sexuality being a barrier to a close familial bond. Even queer characters are played by heterosexual people only, which can change,” says Srijith.
Fairly pointing out how the cinema industry is still predominantly run by and for men, Vidya pins her hope on how women representation has managed to break through the shackles. With more queer people finding their footing behind the camera, on-screen inclusivity will be propelled further. “As an audience also, only queer people keep fighting for portrayal. A wave of thought has to come among the public as to why we are yet to talk about queer stories. Given we have had enough tokenism, now I want to see more of right and important representation. We are beyond tragedy. As much as efforts are put in making a cisgender person act like a trans woman, the vice versa can also happen,” Vidya explains as she takes the example of Pa Ranjith’s evolution from portraying a heterosexual love story (Attakathi) to love barring genders (Natchathiram Nagargiradhu).
And if queer representation can also break through shackles, and find not just a breathing space but an expanse of sky to fly in, you never know... it is not just romance that will be in the air. Anjali's hopes of playing a Queen or a top-level politician might not be just a pipedream, but just another day in the life of a queer actor.