I recall watching “Shubh Mangal Zyada Savdaan” (2020) and crying happy tears with my queertrans friends because for once, there was a gay romance on the big screen being flamboyantly celebrated and actually ending on a positive note.
We left that theatre feeling grateful for the films intent and impact, but with an important and nagging question: “Why were the queer characters played by cis-straight people?”.
In December 2020 the disturbing online series “Pati, Patni Aur Panga” released, proving once more that trans narratives in mainstream media are meant only to add spice and unforeseen “twists” to the same old cis and heteronormative stories. The series was marketed as a romantic comedy; the “comedy” aspect being that the storyline and dialogues were blatantly rooted in transphobia.
Adding to the list of Bollywood films indulging in queer appropriation is the 2021 release, “Chandigarh Kare Aashiqui”, where there appears to be yet another cis actress portraying a transgender woman. She plays opposite Ayushmann Khurrana, who plays the role of a cishet man who grows to become a trans ally, as their onscreen romance unravels. The actor appears to have snagged the title of torchbearer for “battling social norms”, or so his Wikipedia reads.
Cishet actors playing out queertrans narratives is problematic not just for the sheer erasure and lack of relevant opportunities for queertrans talent, but also the inevitable amplifying of misinformation: “Chandigarh Kare Aashiqui trailer: Love sees no gender in this Ayushmann Khurrana-Vaani Kapoor movie” reads the latest Hindustan Times headlines. This title itself contributes to the transphobic and heavily upsetting notion that there must be a divide between cis- and trans- women.
This is yet another disappointing moment for LGBTQIA+ representation in Bollywood, even if it is likely to contribute to the normalization of trans narratives (on some scale) to mainstream audiences. I cannot phrase it better than the remarkable Dr. Aqsa Shaikh has: we are all “hoping against hope that this creates trans awareness”.
We are a lot more than just a plot twist or an ingredient to be added to an industry filled with media artefacts that have excluded LGBTQIA-positive narratives for decades. Casting and plot choices matter, because the intent of normalizing trans identities has to actually include amplifying real trans identities first, and portray trans lives that mirror our lived experiences. Not only does “Chandigarh Kare Aashiqui” contribute to the harmful fetishization of trans women, but also caters to the male gaze way more than it caters to trans representation.