Lili: “Am I now Lili?
Greta: “You’ve always been Lili.”
Lili: “Yes, but if I were to look down there, what would I see?”
Greta:“Don’t think about it like that. That’s not the only thing that makes you Lili.”
David Ebershoff’s book The Danish Girl was not based on the author’s personal experience, but his attempt to craft the story carefully and delicately is evident. He sticks to the position of an observer, never forgetting that he is only a bystander to the chronicles of the protagonist’s life, a biographer who must sincerely gather facts and leave gaps unfilled wherever needed.
Experiences cannot be improvised. Truth cannot be confabulated. A cis writer lending the voice or language to a trans person’s experience should be aware to never violate its integrity. The gaze of the storyteller must be silent, existing only peripherally, never interfering with the sanctity of lived experience. But Abir Sengupta’s Pati Patni Aur Panga, an MX Original series, does the very opposite and imposes on us his personal misconceptions about other people’s lives.
The story is based on a married couple who are on the brink of divorce, after the husband Romanchak (Romu) is scandalised upon discovering that his wife, Shivani, had undergone a sex reassignment surgery a few months ago. He believes he has been deceived since he had consented to the marriage only on the premise that Shivani was assigned female at birth (there is no instance in the story where he mentions anything about this being a dealbreaker, but that’s because he has assumed her gender from an “assessment” of her body).
Romu is haunted by abominable mental images of Shivani being a man, literally puking once while imagining them making love. From his ill-informed perspective, Shivani is “naturally” a man and her womanhood is artificial and contrived. The director makes it clear from the beginning that Romu was captivated very specifically by her femininity; his sexual desire shaped by the conventions of beauty and cultural conditioning which turn the body of a woman into an object of sexual gratification for a man, meant to entertain his needs and realise his fantasies.
The interrogating gaze of the camera scanning her body in detail, the objectifying conversations on how sexual consent can be easily obtained by getting a woman intoxicated, and the overcompensatory assurance of the lead that he “respects women” remind us that he definitely does not respect women. He respects the two dimensional trope of what Gillian Flynn defined as “the cool girl”: a woman who adheres to the neo-liberal fashion- industry-sanctioned definition of femininity but has traditionally “boyish” interests like bike riding or drinking whiskey; a woman who styles herself inspired by western bikini models but doesn’t forget her Indian moral values, who gives the man a good time but without asking for too much in return.
Comedy is a brilliant device to use as a means of dissent. But when owned by the dominant group, it runs the risk of objectification and humiliation – like it did in the case of Pati Patni Aur Panga. Since the story follows Romu’s perspective, his transphobic cis-gaze is central to the series and Shivani’s life lurks in the margins only for the sake of a thrilling plot point. The director participates in Romu’s prejudices by making them seem like lighthearted mistakes, reasonable anxieties and valid responses to a “cultural shock”, without holding them accountable for the trauma inflicted on Shivani’s life.
For Romu, and many other cisgendered people, a relationship is a source of self validation and increase in social status, which is the main reason why beautiful women and rich men are considered as better marriage prospects. This reciprocal catering of self interest is labelled as love and not questioned further. Every step taken forward is aware of society watching and strives to make an uncontroversial impression. Naturally, the confrontation on Shivani’s transness, which should concern only the lovers involved, gains an additional angle of ”shame” in the presence of an external audience.
Also read: What Makes You A Woman?
The commodification of stories related to the lives of marginalised communities, and the deliberate and insincere inclusion of contemporary political issues into films even when the filmmaker isn’t educated about them, is a way to make money by selling wokeness. Uninformed appropriation belittles and oversimplifies problems which are very real for the community in question. These films, with flawed representations, go on to become the symbols of certain political stances. As if our opinion about Abhinav Sinha’s Article 15 could reflect our stand on Dalit rights. As if we must love Veere di Wedding and be its implicit defenders if we are feminists. As if one can’t truly love the nation if they hate Akshay Kumar. Politically correct intentions are expected to be quietly accepted as politically correct filmmaking, however wrong in their execution.
There is a scene in the first episode where a transwoman is perceived as a lewd sexual predator, making Romu uncomfortable with her presence alone. This mental image of a transwoman as a sex worker, as a perverted hyper sexual being worthy of no one’s trust, corrupt and undignified, is one painted by the lack of rightful trans-representation in cinema and books. We are afraid of the unknown and obscure especially because the few images we have ever come across of the community is through films or web series like this one.
Transness in the series seems to be all about the genitalia, which is clear from the enumerable times Shivani insists on having modified her body to “turn into a woman”. If there isn’t any anatomical anomaly and she can fornicate, asks every second character in the story, does her trans experience matter? A sex reassignment surgery solely alleviates the gender dysphoria, but the journey of transition continues since there is a whole lifetime of gendered experience to be lived. The overemphasis on sex-change makes one believe it’s a mandatory part of transitioning, even though it isn’t. In its shadow, a huge realm of trans experience is ignored.
Cisgendered people look at trans persons with a certain degree of ignorance and confusion. The “cis gaze” is condescending, demands you reveal yourself, offer yourself up for evaluation and sexualised assessment. The cis gaze is blatant, unapologetically intrusive, basking in privilege as it makes public appearances unbearable for the transgender. You might move on, but the gaze won’t. The gender binary remains and stalks you every time you pick up a book or watch a film which turns out to be a boy-meets-girl story, every character born in a body they can relate to.
Juliet Jacques wrote in her memoir Trans that to be trans is to have the fight against gender oppression inscribed on your body: “The difficult part is not living as the gender you identify with, it is living in a neoliberal patriarchal society.”
For the cis, biology is predestined and permanent. Like their idea of desire is limited to the body, their identity is contained in anatomy. They are fascinated by the idea of changing bodies, reducing your entire life into a “before” and “after” photo series. Trans bodies are perpetually scrutinised, verified and reaffirmed, by strangers, families and the governments. The gaze is internalised by the subjects and they must always remember to be extra careful about coming across “cis-enough”.
Cis people are inquisitive and critical about trans bodies because it’s an extension of their insecurity regarding their own bodies. Cis-women are raised to hate their bodies and taught to hide them. Cis-men have literally gone ahead to build organisations like RSS, VHP and Bajrang Dal to channel the apprehensions regarding their manhood in terms of violence. Despite relating to the sex they are born with, they are obsessed with gender conformity. They know better than anyone else how masculinity is not a given for those born with a penis and femininity isn’t inherent to those born with a vagina since like gender, masculinity and femininity are spectrums too.
“Gender identity is a lifetime of changing feelings, experiences and attitudes,” writes Ray Filar. “If gender is a set of relationships – to ourselves, to others, to the boxes others put us in – then no adults are the same gender, really, as when they were born, and in ten years they will be different genders still.”
Is it possible for Romu to ever truly love Shivani if he thinks of her as less than a full person, unless love is domination in effect? Can he think low of transwomen in general but still form an equal, respectful relationship with one of them? Does love transcend the thick boundaries of prejudice and make an exception for a certain loved one? These are the questions which one must genuinely be curious about.
Bijaya Biswal is a doctor and social activist working for LGBTQIA rights in Odisha. You can find her on Twitter @bijaya_biswal
Featured image: MX player