Laxmii is a remake of the 2011 Tamil movie Kanchana by the same director, Raghava Lawrence released on Hotstar to negative reviews that prefaced even the release of the film. One of the hardest parts of this review has been that it required me to sit through the film that is Laxmii. It follows the story of Asif (Akshay Kumar) who is possessed by the ghost of a transgender woman who seeks revenge on those who wronged her. The promotions that accompanied the release of the film show a serious Akshay Kumar announcing, “Ab humaari baari hain” (It is now our turn) to extend respect and support to the trans community. This social media ad campaign was to resound in tandem the message that the film was supposedly putting forth – humanizing transgender persons and empowering them. Towards this end, the film is a 140 minute shipwreck that does more harm than anything. And this is not to say that it has any basis for value on other cinematic grounds – it does not.
The film falls under the genre of horror – comedy, although it fails to elicit any response that is suitable to this label. Infuriatingly, most of the film’s comedy and horror hinges upon the supposed dissonance of watching a cis man perform the mannerisms societally deemed “feminine”. A teary-eyed Kiara Advani who plays Asif’s wife and her family watch in outright horror and disbelief as they peek into the bathroom to see Asif rub turmeric paste on his face – an act so incongruous to the macho, moustachioed hero that Asif is, that the entire family is left trembling in fear. The film is filled with such instances of gross overreaction for the sake of comedy or horror and watching these instances were extremely disturbing. Aren’t these the reactions that are directed towards trans persons when they express themselves, and won’t this film inform its viewers of the normalcy of such continued harassment? And importantly, is there any empowerment that can be achieved without breaking down the gender binary? These questions might have been far from the minds of the writers as the viewers are repeatedly treated to Akshay Kumar announcing he would wear bangles if he were to see a ghost as if the “emasculation” were the worst that could happen to a cis man.
The self – indulgence poorly disguised as good will in choosing to narrate a story with a trans person is apparent in the sappy storytelling and the pretentiously didactic voice of the lead characters. All of the lead cast in the film are cis actors and even the role of Laxmi is played by cis actor, Sharad Kelkar, whereas trans persons appear for a minimum amount of screen time as extras. The choices in such representation mirror the transphobic understanding of trans women as men in “women’s clothes”. This is coupled with further poor choices in direction to show the switch in characters from Asif to Laxmii with the “creative” input of body language like exaggerated chattering of teeth. One of the songs in the film, Bum bole, supposed to depict the ritual dance of the trans community on a full moon night further enmeshes the identity of trans women into Hindu mythology which is repeatedly raised in the film by other characters – Laxmii’s guardian who compares her to Ardhanareshwar or when the villain says about Laxmii “Her curse could’ve turned our lives into hell”.These representations even when used to positively describe the characters as “holy” only work to further distance, and dehumanize the already horrifying representation of the only trans character in the film.
Towards the end of the film is when we hear Laxmii’s story as narrated by herself which is when it becomes apparent that the film is working to create an image of a “respectable” trans person. Laxmii recounts, “Society hates us because we beg and do other wrong deeds. So I decided not to follow that path”. This dialogue shows the lens through which the film has been written – one which puts the onus on trans persons to make the “right” choice without taking into account the structural barriers created by the cis-tem which forces trans women into Into occupations that might not be their ideal. The lens furthers the idea that sex work that is consensually praticed by many workers is ‘morally wrong’.
Trans people have fewer options, and that is because of the cis-tem, not because of our ‘lack’. Laxmii Sharma is from the upper caste, her daughter competes in the local election, and together they aim to build a school, housing complex, and hospital for the transgender community. At a time when the regressive trans act has been passed and a lot of trans persons have protested against it, the film seems to be imagining trans characters as the act would have them be – compliant to a brahmanical Hindu state, distanced from cis realities and institutions of all kinds.
At a time like this, with the pandemic and the loss of livelihood of trans persons across the country, it is necessary for cis persons to extend tangible support to the community by means of job opportunities or financial aid. Trans people can tell their own stories and we definitely do not need a film mired in superstition, ignorance, and lack of nuance to be doing the job – especially when it is such a dismal one.