When Kannada film director B.S. Lingadevaru approached Living Smile Vidya, a trans woman activist, thespian and author of an autobiography in Tamil with multiple award-winning translations, to adapt her book to the screen, she requested him to cast a transgender as the film’s protagonist. In a 2015 interview to The Hindu, Smiley, as she is better known, recounted this when asked about her reaction to the film Naanu Avanalla Avalu (I Am Not He, But She), which won two national awards that year—for best actor and best make-up artist. Kannada actor Sanchari Vijay, a man, essayed the role of Smiley.
The question of representation of trans people in film is an important one and a subject of much discussion, even globally. The makers of 2015’s The Danish Girl, based on the true story of Lili Elbe, considered to be the first trans woman to have undergone a sex change operation in the West, were criticized for casting Eddie Redmayne instead of a trans woman as the protagonist. On the other hand, another 2015 film, Tangerine, about two trans women sex workers, won accolades for casting trans women as protagonists. The indie film which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival was praised for its portrayal of the trans street culture of Los Angeles and an article in The Guardian said the film offered “a big leap for transgender people on film”.
Smiley is among a clutch of trans activists addressing concerns of self-representation. After the publication of her book, Naan Saravanan Illai, Vidya (which was translated into English as I Am Vidya: A Transgender’s Journey), Smiley, who has acted on stage as well as in films, started a mixed-caste cultural group in 2014.
Together with Gee Imaan Semmalar (who goes by the name Gee), a trans man social activist and Angel Glady, a trans woman theatre artiste, Smiley started Panmai (which means diversity in Tamil). Their flagship production, Color Of Trans, is an evolving piece that details the ways in which caste, class and gender oppression informs the lives of trans individuals. It mixes different styles from clown theatre to cabaret to narrate the performers’ experiences in seven episodes. Its latest version is Colour Of Trans 2.0.
Gee and Smiley have also acted in a short animation film titled Transformers and co-directed by Namita Avriti and Gee, which premiered at the Bangalore Queer Film Festival in February this year. The film was uploaded on YouTube last month.
The film starts by introducing its gun-toting characters, Gangster G and Sexy Smiley, played by Gee and Smiley, respectively. We see them on a seesaw called gender, we see them enact boy and girl, interchangeably and playfully, we see them vulnerable, hounded by caste and class, and we see them emerge heroically.
For a 6.35-minute film, there is no missing the message. Here, the superhero is the trans person who battles class, caste and gender oppression every day, even as the rest of us, who benefit from social hierarchies, fight to keep these in place.
Watch the film here