It has become fashionable to tell ‘queer stories’ through cinema, the world over. It is increasingly happening in India, as queer visibility has increased in the last decade or so with controversial judicial decisions, increasingly attended pride marches, and legislative attempts like the Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Bill, 2018. And it has been a largely unquestioned given that cisgender people will play the roles of trans characters, just as straight people have forever played the measly few queer characters we have seen on film.
These are the first thoughts that flit through my mind as I walk out of a recent mainstream-type film about a queer love story, which has been much lauded. But then there is also a film like Goodbye Beautiful . . .
I go into conversation with Debadrita Bose, who has directed this Bengali short film, with little idea of what the film is about. I often prefer to do my research after I do the interviews. This lets me get a good impression of the work from the point of view of the people involved, without any pre-conceived notions. Moreover, I have not seen the film and my intention is not to write a film review. My aim is to get some insight into the process behind the making of the film, and maybe, to think about its implications for the queer communities post-reading down of Section 377, Indian Penal Code.
I arrive at the agreed location to speak to the director and Sudeb, the actor who has played the female lead in the film. I am enriched far more than I expected when half the crew comes over to talk to me. The making of this film too has had its share of struggles that independent filmmakers and their teams face in this juggernaut of an industry. But there does seem to be a departure from what ‘mainstream’ and ‘art house’ cinema has been doing for long. The female lead character, that of a cisgender woman, is played by a trans woman.
Debadrita Bose says, “We saw absolutely no reason why this couldn’t be done. In fact, it seemed to us that it was high time that this should be done. If cis women or cis men actors can so often play trans women, if straight actors can routinely play gay or bi characters, why not the other way round?”
The film itself is a mystery / thriller, and for the film financers and other commercial actors like Kamalika Banerjee and Shankar Chakraborty who are part of the cast, the inclusion of a trans woman in the cast seems to be important but not a defining element. I am informed that the final version of the script was arrived at after many track changes, internal arguments and creative differences, in which Sudeb contributed as much as any other member of the film team.
The focus has also not been on making an ‘arty’ sort of production. This does not mean that the film is a commercial and populist ‘Balaji type’ film. It has simply been a team decision to make the film more accessible and enjoyable than the usual arty film is seen to be. The idea has been to create greater appeal without compromising on the political stand and the quality of the work. And so, the story is of a party where the guests do not know the real reason for their invitations, where everyone is more or less drunk and behaves in rather politically incorrect ways. There is also an angle of murder in the film. Sounds like fun!
There is no ‘men are pigs and women are all pure-minded victims’ sub-text. Everyone is equally flawed and improper, regardless of gender. The film also includes clips of videos showing different movements of resistance from various parts of the world. This adds layers to the story, and is in tune with the film team’s desire to express solidarity with all marginalized movements, including but not limited to the queer movements.
For Sudeb, an amateur first-timer whose primary vocation is trans community mobilization, acting in a film with a cast full of professional and veteran actors has been challenging to say the least. She adds insightfully, “In a way, all our lives are acting, isn’t it? Especially for queer people and trans men and trans women. What I am and what I have to do to survive have never been the same. I have often acted out a male role, performed the male gender required from me by family, employers, society. So, in a way I think I had the acting skills already. But it has been a new experience to ‘act’ on camera, to a film script.”
“My logic is also that as an actor it is my job to portray any given role to the best of my ability,” Sudeb continues. “Just as a cis person, while playing a trans person’s character, taps their acting skills to do justice to the character, why can’t I, as a trans woman, do the same thing to play a cis woman?”
Somewhere the idea is also to question the way trans people are portrayed in most cinema, say both Sudeb and Debadrita Bose: “In the mainstream industry they are simply shown as a bhaand, crude comic characters. And in artsy pro-trans films they are so very often seen only through the lens of their pain and agony. We want to show a trans person in film and not have them be in a trans role, and not be seen as pathetic in any way, but just as another face in a line-up of characters. Let the measure be only of acting skills, nothing else. In fact, another crew member is also a trans person, our make-up artist Abir. The idea is to open up more and more opportunities for queer community members.”
Moreover, if one looks at India’s folk arts, then persons assigned male at birth have often played female roles. Some or many of these actors may identify as trans women if asked or aware of the term. So Sudeb playing the role of a cis woman is quite in keeping with this tradition!
There have been other challenges too. A number of commercially established actors who were approached for different roles in the film summarily refused, offering the flimsiest of excuses to save face. Many people in the industry promised help and contacts, but these never came through. But the film team has shown courage in soldiering on. Co-producer Swagatam Basu comes in for a word of praise from the film crew because of his constant help with the marketing and distribution plans for the film.
Finance has been a major stumbling block for this film shot over all of five days towards the end of December 2018. Unfortunately, many unfulfilled offers of help have been made worse by a not-so-successful attempt at crowd funding. In fact, as the film goes into final edits (even as this article is being written and published), the team still has to come up with quite a bit of money to pay a lot of people. Debadrita Bose says, “There were days when we didn’t know, till 45 minutes before the shoot, whether we’d have enough money to manage the day’s work. Finding the correct location, within budget, was another challenge.”
Arnab Bhattacharya, the film editor, chips in, “We have come this far and we won’t stop now. We’ll continue to make more films. And to do that, this one must reach people. We want people to see it, discuss it, argue about it, so that we get the courage to continue, and maybe inspire others to speak out.” The rest of the crew agrees. They feel a personal connect and it is a matter of pride for them. For many of them, the filmmaking process has helped them question their own understanding of gender and sexuality stereotypes. They are eager for the film to make a start with queer film festivals in India and then the festival circuit abroad.
It is also important to note the ‘when’ of this film. The film will see a release when queer people in India have finally been decriminalized. At the same time, a Bill on transgender rights is still in limbo and there is a growing atmosphere of forceful imposition of a ‘tailored’ culture of hetero-patriarchy on one and all. Artistic efforts that question these impositions become all the more important, and Goodbye Beautiful hopes to contribute to this objective through its own questioning of stereotypes.
About the main photo: Actor Sudeb at the film shooting location. Photo credit: Pawan Dhall