Sanjay Leela Bhansali rarely ropes in actors who aren't flawless in their roles. In Alia Bhatt starrer Gangubai Kathiawadi too, the director picked Vijay Raaz to play trans character Razia Bai, Kamathipura's ruling "Gharwali".
The seasoned actor, no matter the character or screen time, almost always gets it right. But, despite his best efforts, he falls short this time. Not for his talent, but rather because of casting choice. He pales in comparison to a trans actor who would have lent the role a seamless authenticity.
Since Vijay Raaz's appearance in the trailer, there has been a discussion on social media over the problem of trans-inclusivity, or rather, the lack of it, in Hindi cinema.
Loved #GangubaiKathiawadiTrailer and it look very promising but then again another CIS male is playing a trans role. I know Vijay Raj will do it good but this is a pattern in Bollywood from a long time and maybe it's high time to change it.#VijayRaj #GangubaiKathiawadi pic.twitter.com/DkbR2nRDcz— 𝕂𝕒𝕦𝕤𝕙𝕒𝕝 (@optimistclysure) February 4, 2022
Chandigarh Kare Aashiqui, starring Vaani Kapoor, was engulfed in a similar uproar only a few months ago. The film, which attracted attention for being a trans-inclusive love story, sought to cast a cis-woman as the lead character.
These movies certainly stimulate conversation and are far more sensitive than prior Bollywood attempts, but don't they need to quit taking chances that truly belong to trans-actors?
Pretty much every single time, these conversations get shut down with justifications such as a well-known celebrity will engage viewers or stardom will eventually help bring attention to LGBTQ+ matters. While this may be true to a certain extent, it's also being used as an easy excuse to justify miscasting.
Razia Bai isn't the project's lead; it was Gangubai. So why wasn't a trans-actor cast in the supporting role? Alia Bhatt was indeed the protagonist of the semi-biographical flick, and viewers are anticipated to throng to cinemas to see her. Would it then have really affected viewership to such an extent, that a trans actor could not be cast as a trans character?
No, I believe. It would have also been a step forward in normalizing the portrayal of trans actors in mainstream cinema - a much-needed step that has the potential to affect their inclusion in society.
Prior to it, Sharad Kelkar portrayed a transgender in the horror-comedy Laxmii, which also starred Akshay Kumar. Initially billed as a bid to encourage exposure of the transgender community's predicament and advocate for their rights, the film failed spectacularly on both counts. Unfortunately, it reinforced our society's misconceptions about the marginalised, which it is already reluctant to see beyond.
Sharad Kelkar, who also had a supporting role in the film, delivered one of his finest works as Laxmi. However, even the best performance can't hide the truth that this opportunity could have easily gone to a trans-actor.
Now, Rajpal Yadav appears to be gearing up to play a transgender in Palash Muchhal’s directorial debut. Recently, he unveiled his first look poster on social media from his film Ardh.
Bollywood is notorious for its own flawed representation of not only the trans population but also other LGBTQ+ communities. Hindi cinema has done practically everything we never needed, from featuring trans characters for comedic relief to tone-deaf plots.
So, amid a swamp of profoundly regressive films, even the most basic efforts of not "demonising" such individuals or an empathetic perspective towards the community are really a step ahead.
The initiative seems half-hearted when filmmakers continue to cash in on inclusive narratives while failing to include trans-actors in such projects. And for those who claim that the industry lacks viable trans-actors, it may have been an issue in the past, but not anymore.
The OTT space, which is a far more progressive platform than mainstream cinema, has already passed the baton forward. Mairembam Ronaldo Singh alias Henthoi Mairembam, a trans-actor, made her debut in Pataal Lok. In the crime thriller series, the actor played a trans woman who'd been abandoned by her family.
The sub-plot, which was meant to serve as a mirror to society, did a brilliant job of doing just that, and so much more for the entertainment industry.
Meanwhile, trans-actor and dancer Ivanka Das featured in a brief role in the Netflix series Bombay Begums.
Happy to see my self in Bombay begums..— Ivanka Das (@DasIvanka) March 8, 2021
On @NetflixIndia thank u to @ShrutiMahajan01 for lovely opportunity and thank u to @alankrita601 who gave that bless hand on my head .. thank u everyone #daughter #inspiration #ViralVideos #mondaythoughts pic.twitter.com/rmljSkSpUw
While the first thing in an acting profession should be acting. But in a world and industry that has been less than courteous to LGBTQ the least they can do is give them a platform.
Although even OTT films or series don't yet have a lead character played by a trans-actor, they don’t flinch away from casting one. So, while Bollywood is gradually widening its eyes to genuinely progressive content, it should also consider moving towards being truly inclusive, even if with baby steps.