While there have been several films related to the trans narrative that have been released over the past few years, I find it important to critique the way the trans narrative has been shown in the mainstream. In most cases, I have found these films to be offensive, misinformed and objectionable in the way they have been executed. One such film is the recent Bangla feature, Jenana. First of all, I would like to say that Jenana should have been named Janina (misinformed) instead because that would capture the true essence of the film.
Jenana starts with a young director, eager to make films. She works hard, writes several scripts but they are all dismissed by producers. Finally she gets a break and is asked to bring something thoda hatka or off-beat which will sell in the market. In order to acquire this ‘off-beat’ material, the director decides to approach marginalised communities and exploit their cause to make a box-office hit. After being refused by almost everyone, she decides that the trans issue is the only thing that’s left for her. When she is refused once again, she decides to barge into the home of a ‘trans woman’. A person, whose trans identity is questionable, sits with her and begins to tell her their story.
Of course the story turns out to be one which doesn’t deal with trans people at all. It is the story of the “exploitation” of the heterosexual cis man, Shomu, a poor orphan boy and his love for Mala. The film begins with Shomu and Mala being in love, getting married and having a child. Shomu is a labourer at a factory where he makes 47.50 Rupees a day which he hands over to his beloved Mala. But misfortune awaits them as the factory he works in is shut down by its evil owner and his unemployment leads to several financial issues at home. He is unable to eat for three days, his child is hungry and Mala’s breast milk has dried up. Unable to deal with this, he runs away to Kolkata in the search of money and work. After an incident which involved his friend stealing money from a tea stall owner; he is mistaken for the thief, beaten up and left on the road. The homeless Shomu starves and develops a beard but never falls ill. Disheartened by his fate and in a sudden burst of homesickness, he starts running around the streets at night screaming for Mala and passes out. The highlight of his difficulties is shown when he is seen waking up next to a bin, feeding and sharing a portion of thrown away rice with a stray dog. Shomu continues running around calling for Mala every night and one day he is met by a car accident. On regaining consciousness, he hears the sound of bangles and heavy voices.
The hero (transgender?) then wakes up clean shaven in a massive rajbari. He recovers and demands to know where he is, but his question is met by a peculiar laughter. When he tries to run away he encounters a group of heterosexual cis men sex workers, dressed as hijras who refuse to let him go. Of course, at this moment of helplessness, Shomu starts screaming for Mala once again.
The men sympathise with him and say that they too were penniless and struggling, but after they ‘became’ hijras, they have led prosperous, comfortable lives filled with money.
In order to teach him how to become a hijra, he is taught Kathak by his guru (a cis woman bai ji). He is then raped by a drunk man who pays the guru. Shomu, bleeds and limps down the stairs where the other members of the house laugh at him.
Having accepted his life, Shomu dresses up as a man and returns home and leaves some money for Mala and goes back to Kolkata where he lives as a hijra. This continues for the rest of his life. The film ends with Shomu finishing his story and demanding money from the director who hands him only 500 rupees. While she leaves, Shomu asks her, “Do you believe this story?” and keeps laughing.
Watching this film was painful and took a lot of patience on my part, but I decided to sit through it because I had spent hundred rupees on the ticket. By the end of it I was outraged. I wonder if the director even remotely understands the sort of exploitation and struggles that are faced by the trans and hijra community. I am certain that in actuality, she has done no research and doesn’t know anything about us.
Why does she feel that she has a right to make herself the voice of this community and take away our agency? Which hijra house has a bai-ji covered with diamonds and pearls like she’s stuck in some kind of mughal-e-azam? Which hijra house teaches Kathak so that they can dance and make money?
The most terrifying thing in the film was the fact that the director has used Ulti (hijra code language) which is filled with translation errors. Does she realize that this language exists for our protection and that when it is exposed, we become even more unsafe? Will she come forward and take responsibility for this and the increased internal violence we will face?
Ulti is a language created by the community to keep us safe from the society that has never accepted us; a society which has caused violence, rape, and only felt hatred towards the community. This language has a history that the director has no idea about. She has misused this completely and has caused a lot of irreversible harm to the community. She is answerable for every line and word in this film which has made the community and its struggle all the more difficult.
Why did the director end the film with that question, “Do you believe this story?” What was she trying to prove? That the entire film is a mystery? The problem discussed in the film is that of poverty and unemployment in the lives of cis heterosexual men. There was no mention of this in the context of the hijra and trans community. Why did they have to forcefully attach this issue to our community?
I feel that either the director knows everything about us and has chosen to exploit our struggles anyway, or she has no idea whatsoever about any of it. Maybe she thinks that because she can resort to unethical means to make money, all of us are the same. Does she know how many people will suffer as a consequence of this film? Fortunately not too many people watched the film so the damage can be minimized. I am shocked that a film like this was made in the first place. I don’t understand the intention of this film, but I feel that it will cause a lot of pain and sorrow in the lives of the members of the community. The director should be held responsible for this. She might say cinema is an art and that this story reflects the life of an individual and not the collective, but these are bad excuses made by a person who has made a terrible film. If this film is shown in a cinema hall again, we will not be silent and there will be protests.
(This piece was translated by Upasana Agarwal)