Venus – A Homecoming: A Conversation With Eisha Marjara

What’s interesting and different about this film is that it is the story of a South Asian transwoman, which is very hard to come across in the mainstream Hollywood’s predominantly white representation of the LGBTQ+ community.

“I’m out of this world. How else can I explain how strange I feel on this planet and in my skin? My body is a costume I cannot take off. I must have landed here from Venus“.

The opening scene – where we hear these words through Sid’s voiceover, and see her in a female form against the backdrop of the Morning Star, along with the accompanying soulful music by Patrice Dubuc and Gaëtan Gravel – powerfully showcases the dissonance Sid’s character feels with her assigned gender.

Within few minutes of the film we get a peek into Sid’s South Asian family, her inability to fit into her expected gender, and her coming out. A poetic moment, where Sid walks out of her parents’ house, frustrated with her assigned gender and on seeing her more confident female-self sashay down the road, there’s no going back for her from that moment onwards. The camera’s warm glow and the accompanying upbeat soundtrack, bring it all together, leaving the audience cheering Sid on.

What’s interesting and different about this film is that it is the story of a South Asian transwoman, which is very hard to come across in the mainstream Hollywood’s predominantly white representation of the LGBTQ+ community.

Thrown into the midst of her transition, is the character of Ralph – Sid’s adolescent son. Just as Ralph is going through puberty, so is Sid – more like a second puberty, with her transition. Seeing her prior to her transition, and during, Ralph’s unconditional acceptance makes Sid feel comfortable in her own skin around other people.

Her trans friends, also act as her anchor during the transition. Coming out can be such a hard task, especially when physical dissimilarities can still be a cause for discrimination and sometimes even violence. By showing the solidarity within the trans community, Indo-Canadian film maker Eisha Marjara aptly shows how the community plays a huge part in the building of the transitioning person’s sense of self. The character of Sylvia normalizes being a transwoman to Sid, something that she needs to see especially during her transitioning period, to make it evident to her that she has all the power she needs within herself.

The beauty with which Eisha Majara captures the interpersonal relationships within the film, does great justice to building Sid as a three-dimensional character, one that is not focused solely on the transition. The comedic tone – one which Eisha brought about, on the suggestion of the film’s producer, Joe Balass  – of the film helps achieve this. Sid’s mother, played by the talented Zena Daruwalla, captures the nuances of being a South Asian mother in a foreign land. The question of “What will others in our community think?” very much hangs in her mind, which brings out her fear for Sid’s future. The father – played by British actor Gordon Warnecke – has a much easier time accepting Sid’s transition, and for most part of the film acts as the mediator between both mother and daughter. It is no surprise that he and Ralph connect so easily, almost like as if they were kindred spirits.

The mother-daughter dynamics in the film are fascinating to observe – having seen her mother be outspoken and brave earlier in his life, Sid craves for that version of her. In fact, having had her mum be the only female figure in her life, Sid wants nothing more than to be like her. Which makes her mum’s inability to accept her, that much more hurtful to Sid. Having Ralph in the story, definitely accelerates the mother’s process of coming to terms with Sid’s transition.  

With changing times, greater exposure through internet, and increasing media representation, young millennials all over the world are becoming more comfortable with new ways of being, new forms of gender expression and identity. It is no surprise to see how open and accepting they are of the LGBTQ+ labels. This is beautifully captured by Eisha Marjara, through Ralph, especially in how unconditionally he accepts Sid’s transition. In fact, the last scene where he wears Sid’s clothing and dances to Indian music, shows how comfortable he is in embodying elements of Sid’s identity, to connect with her.

Coming to Sid and Daniel’s relationship, the movie does a wonderful job of showing the intersection of gender and sexuality. How does one define their sexuality when they or their partner are going through a gender transition? It is interesting to see this play out through Daniel’s inability to fully accept himself and thereby carrying that into his relationship with Sid – something that is immediately noticed by Ralph.   

With the topics revolving around family, parents, blended families and interpersonal relationships, the film embodies a sense of timelessness. Eisha Marjara mentioned in one of the film’s Q&As that she specifically used anamorphic lenses to capture a wider view, so as to let Sid take up as much space as she wants in the world, since it is her coming out story. Added to the cinematography, the color palette – with its dreamy, warm and vibrant colors – gives a soft glow to the film, providing a sense of otherworldliness to the audience.

Eisha Marjara and Joe Balass collaboratively worked on building the story of Venus. We were lucky enough to be able to interview Eisha.

Q. Is Debargo Sanyal, the actor portraying Sid, cisgender? If so, was it because it was hard to find any trans actors for the role?

Eisha: Yes, it was difficult to find a South Asian trans actor in their mid-thirties, who had not physically transitioned to play the character of Sid. We did cast trans actors to play Sid’s friends, and as background performers in some scenes whenever we could. Because this is a film about an inter-racial family, we had to cast so the characters could look like a believable family, so there were additional considerations. It took a year and a half of casting to find our Sid. We found Debargo Sanyal through our trans and South Asian queer connections. I am delighted and proud that the film has been embraced by our trans audience. Many from the community have told me that the film authentically portrays them and their experience. Debargo received the award for Best Trans Performance at the Transgender Film Festival in Germany and the award for Best Performance at MISAFF. Jamie Mayers who plays Sid’s son Ralph also received Best Actor award at the Transgender Film Festival in Germany.

Q. I read in one of your interviews that you are interested in understanding the concept of home, and that you applied that to gender expression and human bodies. Could you talk about how that influenced you while building the story for Venus?

Eisha: That’s such a beautiful question. Yes, it’s so very true. I do begin the film with Sid’s voiceover – saying I don’t belong in this world, and I don’t belong in this body. So, yes there is a connection between how we belong in our spaces, in our relationships, and how we belong in our human form. There is definitely is a connection, and the disconnection that happens here reflects out, and the disconnection that happens there also reflects in here. There is probably that subtext, that I had brought it in through Sid – instead of focusing on her physical transition, which I did not want to do, I do it through her relationships. That is why Ralph, the son is so important. Because he accepts her unconditionally. That is something she has not experienced before. When you have somebody see who you truly are, being perfect as you truly are, then you begin to question everybody else’s prejudice against you, which you may not have seen previously. That allows you to accept yourself. There is that connection between the world and the body that I wanted to preface the film with. That is how it begins with Venus – I’m out of this world. I think that, in a way, all my films are coming of age stories, they are about home and family.

Q. Was it a conscious decision to make Ralph 14? You have Ralph accepting Sid’s coming out very easily, but in the scene where Sid tells him has soft skin, he seems to have an issue and wants to be called rough – a possible by product of the kind of indoctrination into gender roles that begins in early teens but happens mostly in late teens. Did you want him to be early teen, to bypass this and ensure the character’s ability to organically accept Sid?

Eisha: Yes, it was a conscious decision for Ralph to be 14, for many reasons. Firstly, for the story and timeline to make sense, Sid (mid 30’s), could only realistically have a teen child while in college, that was 14 years old and no older. Otherwise Sid would have had to be dating Kirsten in high school, which felt too young for me. Secondly, Ralph as a younger teen still has the youthfulness, simplicity, and clear mindedness in his outlook of the world, untainted by prejudice and cynicism that made him more open and accepting of difference. He offers Sid a mirror of what true unconditional love looks like. He’s not reached the jaded, self-conscious stage of adolescence with the desire to fit in, although I don’t think Ralph will ever become jaded and self-conscious. Ralph does not care what other people think of him, which is what Sid says to her boyfriend Daniel later in the movie. Of all the characters, Ralph is most at home in his skin. Which brings me to address the first point about Ralph insisting that he is “rough”. That is mostly for comedy, and the humour comes from the obvious fact that he is anything but a rough street kid. That is what makes it so funny. Thirdly, in the parent-child relationship, I am showcasing two people who are coming of age at the same time. I wanted to draw a parallel and point of intersection between Ralph and Sid who are in the process of discovering their respective identities. Sid says to Ralph that she’s going through a “second puberty”. This also strengthens their bond and makes this parent-child relationship atypical and special.

Q. A lot of times we have white people renaming BIPOC names, simply because they deem them to be unpronounceable. Did you want to show this when Zena’s character renames Ralph as Rajinder? Or, was it to more so to show that she wanted her grandson to be Indian and carrying their family name – as she mentions in a previous scene about the lack of grandkids and hence the improbability of the family name passing on?

Eisha: Part of the humor comes from the surprise in ‘flipping the cultural script’, so to speak, around names and naming, and having the preferential desired name not to a white one but a desi one – even though it comes from a proud Indian grand mom bringing her grandson into the family fold. Immigrants, especially of the grandmother’s generation, live with the constant fear and threat of losing their culture to the dominant one, so there is an added motivation of renaming Ralph [as] Rajinder. It is planting a cultural stake into the family and into the adoptive land. The way she “announces” his name, “I will call you Rajinder” in particular, is significant by making it official. This is something I will explore further in the TV series Blended.

Sidenote: Eisha Marjara is currently developing a TV series, inspired by Venus called “Blended”. It is the story of the film but follows up from where the film left off.  It will go deeper into exploring each character, and how this new (blended) family will get along, and what it will look like.

Q. Most adults get wrapped up in their daily life, that it leads them to think that physical presence makes up for the lack of emotional connection. I related a lot with Ralph’s inability to share with his mum, every time she was half present, while having conversations with him. Did you want to show that lack of emotional connection there, so as to be able to show Ralph’s desire to discover his own home – I mean this figuratively of course – which he was easily able do so around Sid and her parents?

Eisha: Ralph’s disconnection with his mother comes from him feeling left out in her relationship with Max, his stepdad, whom he does not like and does not get along with. But more deeply, it’s her lack of truthfulness and transparency about Ralph’s biological father, and therefore Ralph’s own identity as a mixed-race kid, which fuels his curiosity to know who his father is.

Q. The mother daughter relationship between Sid’s mum and her – with her wanting her mum to be the brave, bold and living on her terms, a version she was when Sid was in the closet – shows clearly what kind of a mother role Sid wants to see. How do you think this influences the kind of mother, Sid is to Ralph?

Eisha: Sid is grappling with so much in the movie that I think most of the time she is just winging it. She is juggling her transition, her rocky relationship with her boyfriend Daniel, and with her mom, finding her place at work, she has yet to figure out what kind of mother she wants to be to Ralph. The best parenting is modelling, and Ralph sees that Sid is living her true self, and Ralph is echoing that to Sid. So, Sid is learning how to be herself and through that, her role as mother is emerging. Her deepest desire is to have a family with Ralph and Daniel. What Ralph wants from Sid is presence, emotional connection, so he can nourish his desire to know himself. 

Q. Most of Zena’s scenes show the character’s fixation over what makes a woman a woman – like when she asks Daniel if his brother is marrying a woman-woman, or the conversation with Sid about the surgery and the inability to accept Sid as a woman without it. Do you think this fixation on restrictive gender roles is something that is more common to BIPOC cultures, or is it more to do with the generational gap?

Eisha: The fixation is more ubiquitous and not specific to BIPOC communities. Of course, if you live in artistic, activist and academic circles there’s a different level of awareness. Sid’s family does not. Sid’s mom is still grappling with Sid’s gender identity and transition, trying to figure out what it all means. Most people still know and believe that gender is binary. Anything that deviates from that is not normal, a sin, or the very least, radical. The topic is so loaded, I tried to address presumptions around gender expression, passing privilege, and heteronormative biases, at times with humor and others dramatically, particularly in scenes between mother and Sid. When mom says she’ll help financially with Sid’s gender confirmation surgery, Sid becomes angry. This confuses the mother who believes that becoming a woman means being physically and anatomically a woman. Sid’s anger comes from her frustration for not being accepted as she is, regardless of her how she chooses to express her gender. The drawback for many trans folk who have not medically transitioned is that not passing (for a cis woman or a cis man), makes life difficult and attracts negative attention, discrimination and possible threat and abuse. As Zena Daruwalla who plays Sid’s mom put it so well, she loves her child but is afraid for her. Understandably, as a mother, she wants to protect her from any pain and possible harm or threat. It’s hard enough being a visible minority and face racism, why would Sid want to inflict more scrutiny and ostracization upon herself? Whatever the upbringing or background, it is one thing to have an intellectual grasp of gender roles and identity, but another to experience it personally with a loved one and/or family member.

Q. I know you mentioned how you wanted Venus to be a more 3-dimensional representation of trans lives, and hence you wanted to focus less on the transition and more on Sid’s relationships. I wanted to get a more in-depth understanding of what you hoped the movie would do for the trans community as well what influence it would have on its cisgender audience.

Eisha: Developing Sid’s character as three-dimensional seems obvious to me as a writer. But this came from observing the media’s complete lack of respect and voyeuristic focus on the bodies of trans people. The way trans bodies were spoken about, captured visually, and represented in “before and after” makeover capsules praising trans people who “passed” for a cis person and humiliating those who did not, even if unintentionally. I found the narratives around trans people reductive, objectifying and dehumanizing. There seemed to be an obsessive attention (and still is) placed on sexual anatomy, genitals, and on medical and cosmetic transitioning and not on their emotional, intellectual and spiritual lives or on their relationships for that matter, and roles as professionals, daughters, parents, lovers etc. Not to say that physical and medical transitioning is not an important matter. It is extremely important for trans people, and for family and close loved ones and there are resources, quality documentaries and films that address that, however that was not the film I wanted to make. Sid’s body, her choice of transitioning was her business not anyone else’s. I wanted to naturalize (rather than say ‘normalize’ which is problematic) Sid’s life, and show her humanity.

Q. You had mentioned in one of you interviews that you felt like you did not belong and out of place among the francophone filmmaking scene in Montreal, has making Venus changed that? If so, how?

Eisha: To a certain degree yes it did. Montreal is very culturally diverse city, but like most anglophone artists and filmmakers, it is harder to find your place in the majority francophone province. The cinema coming from Quebec is very strong and established which makes me proud as a Quebecer. However, my perspective as a woman, feminist, as a South Asian and anglophone, has been shaped by multiple influences, globally and culturally, which makes my art different and not easily definable, and categorizable. I have seen this in the films and art of many minority artists, and it makes it harder for them to be understood and get the same amount of exposure. I think however, the world is getting smaller and there’s a greater hunger and openness to new and diverse ways of telling stories.

Note: The film can be viewed on Vimeo, on demand. Here is the link to access it: https://vimeo.com/ondemand/venus4pride

Also, give a shout out and check out the Facebook page for Venus: https://www.facebook.com/Venusfeaturefilm/

About the author

Nikhila Eda

Love for life. Yet, usually left overstimulated. Nevertheless, walking the tightrope towards discovering my authenticity. Hopeful for a world that’s equitable for everybody. Usually found in the world of stories - a safe haven where I can let myself lean into my high sensitivity. Books, music and films, are how I feel and travel through this world.
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