Chandigarh Kare Aashiqui and Mental Health: Why Good Trangender Representation Matters

 Chandigarh Kare Aashiqui, a movie starring Ayushman Khurrana and Vaani Kapoor, is a film about a Manu Munjal’s- the male romantic lead in the movie- journey to come to terms with his girlfriend being transgender. It is a genuine attempt at starting conversations about topics labeled  ‘taboo’ by and/or in mainstream media. The movie takes ideas that are unconventional to much of the country and cocoons them in a palatable romance in an attempt to normalize them. While some found the movie lacking in authenticity other reviews applauded the effort. Screenwriter Gazal Dhaliwal said,

“I was moved (by the movie)…There are so many nuances of the life of trans persons that it gets right… I felt seen.”

As sincere an attempt it is, there are a few flaws that could’ve been avoided. Maanvi’s transness is secondary to Manu’s character development, of which little is explored. And yet we get a detailed look into Manu’s goal of securing the title of ‘Gabru Of All Time’ (GOAT). The movie is also rife with slurs, which could be triggering for trans audiences.

Trans Representation in Media: a Brief History 

Trans representation in media has witnessed a diverse array of portrayals- ranging from well-intentioned yet ill-executed attempts to transphobic nightmares.  Bollywood has been far from kind to the trans audience. A particularly haunting example is the 1991 movie ‘Sadak’. Maharani is portrayed as a controlling brothel owner with sinister intent. ‘Sangharsh’ (1999) is yet another example of trans women (played yet again by a man) being villainous and in this case downright evil. In the movie, Lajja Shankar is a cannibalistic child-abductor. 

Western media, too, unfortunately, mirrors similar tropes that ridicule trans women. ‘Psycho’ by Alfred Hitchcock is an example. The story is about Norman Bates, a cross-dressing man, who runs a motel where he kills women. At the end of the film, a remark suggesting that Bates is trans is denied, sure. But, the image of a man dressed as a woman- a concept synonymous in the minds of the masses with being trans- is still damaging to the trans community. Portrayals like the ones mentioned above are reflected in Janice Raymond’s ‘The Transsexual Empire’ which is an important work in ‘gender-critical’ literature. 

“All transsexuals rape women’s bodies by reducing the real female form to an artifice, appropriating this body for themselves”

 Movies like ‘Ace Ventura: Pet Detective’ use transness (usually a man dressed as a woman) as a plot device to reveal the character’s duplicitous ways. More times than not, the reveal is followed by heaving or retching to provide “comic relief”. The reveal is meant to shock, to scare. Not only does this trivializes trans people, but it ridicules them and their experiences to provide “entertainment” to a largely cis audience. 

Many of us harbor an overly simplified view of media, of it being a mere source of entertainment. That isn’t so. Media informs just as much as it entertains. It informs how cis audiences view the trans community, but more importantly, it influences how trans people view themselves. Rahul Das- a transgender model in new Delhi told Media India Group:

“As an Indian kid and a keen lover of mainstream cinema growing up in the late 1990s and 2000s was a perplexing time – because the pop culture I consumed gave me some warped ideas of gender and sexuality,” 

Cis Actors in Trans Roles

Aryan Somaiya, a trans man who is a clinical psychologist in Mumbai, told MoneyControl that filmmakers are reluctant to cast trans actors in trans roles because it would mean asking their audiences to question their perception of gender binaries. Chandigarh Kare Asshiqui, in hiring a cis woman, does the same. It is slightly more preferable for a cis woman to play a trans woman rather than a cis man, but the fact of the matter remains: trans actors were stripped of acting opportunities. This would’ve perhaps been excusable had trans actors been given cis roles, but that seldom, if ever, happens. 

Cathay Moriarty in ‘Soapdish’, Vanessa Ray in ‘Pretty Little Liars’, Kubbra Sait in ‘Sacred Games’, Konkana Sen in ‘A Monsoon Date’ are only a few examples of cis women playing trans women. It was only in 2018 with the Tamil-Malayalam film ‘Peranbu’ that a trans actor became the lead. Cis women who tend to play trans women are often hyper-feminine and have, more often than not, medically transitioned. Not all trans people medically transition. Some can’t afford to, some don’t feel the need to, and various other reasons. Some trans people might transition socially by coming out to friends and family, or by telling people to refer to them by their true pronouns, etc. 

 When the media fixates on portraying trans women through cis men or women, they inform the way society views them. Society begins expecting hyper-femininity from trans women. Cis men playing trans women puts forth an even worse narrative: trans women are only men in women’s clothing. A notion that is completely untrue and incredibly damaging. This can take a major toll on the mental health of trans people. According to research conducted by Brown University,  

Exposure to such defamatory portrayals was associated with a 28% elevated risk of experiencing psychological distress. This includes a 26% higher rate of anxiety, a 25% higher rate of PTSD, and 18% higher rate of depression”

Bollywood isn’t having these conversations yet, but cis actors in western media are beginning to realize their errors. Actor Eddie Redmayne recently called his playing a trans woman in ‘The Danish Girl’  “a mistake” saying that it was with the best intentions that he took on the role, but he would not do so today. 

Trans women have been depicted in media in a variety of ways, but trans men and non-binary people have rarely been seen in mainstream media. Not only does this have dire consequences on mental health, but it contributes to the vast history of erasure trans men and non-binary people have had to endure. 

Transphobia: Causes and Consequences 

Janice Raymon’s argued (wrongly) that trans women should not call themselves women or lesbians or feminists because they aren’t women. Talia Mae Bettcher, Professor and Chair of Philosophy at California State University, Los Angeles in her essays  “When Tables Speak”: On the Existence of Trans Philosophy and “Brainsex” says that at the heart of most of the transphobia she has encountered and researched is what she calls metaphysical skepticism. 

Metaphysical skepticism is the belief  (incorrect belief) that trans people aren’t trans but the gender they were assigned at birth. This skepticism is what justifies misgendering, deadnaming, denying the need for reservation, etc in the minds of transphobes. They remain largely unaware (willingly or otherwise) of phenomenons like gender dysphoria and the psychological harm(and physical harm) their actions cause people from the trans community. A comment on a Reddit thread about deadnaming and misgendering said,

When it comes up it gives me a split second of adrenaline panic, but almost just as quickly my rational brain leaps into action and pulls the E-break as I realise it’s not someone talking to me and I’m still ok.” Another comment said, “It feels like a pang of anxiety. Like do I correct them and risk further delegitimization or just accept it and feel shitty for not standing up for myself. Sometimes you are feeling peaceful and then misgendering reminds you that the way that you see yourself is not the way that the world sees you.”

In India today, many refer to trans people as the ‘third-gender’ which is inaccurate. Trans is an adjective, not a gender. Statements like trans men are men and trans women are women are intended to dispel such myths. Though the idea behind the third gender label was well-meaning, it misrepresents them and reinforces the othering of trans communities- doing more harm than good. 

Transphobia affects every aspect of a trans person’s life. Transphobia isn’t just a cis person screaming slurs at a trans person, transphobia can manifest in institutional forms too. In 2017, Kerala’s Kochi Metro Rail Limited employed 23 transgender persons, while eight out of them quit their jobs within a month due to refusal by several landlords to give them accommodation. As per 2011 census data, India’s trans population consists of 490,000 people, out of which only a handful of them make it to gainful employment. These are only a few ways in which institutional transphobia negatively affects the trans community. Such inequalities can create income insecurity which, on top of dysphoria and the psychological distress caused by misgendering and deadnaming, can be incredibly damaging to mental health. 

How to Be a Better Ally 

Chandigarh Kare Aashiqui is a movie that attempts to break barriers and create room for trans stories in mainstream Bollywood.  Media, in India and beyond, need to explore stories that talk about trans joy, about people from the trans community thriving. Trans people need more representation that doesn’t revolve around them coming out or cis people around them learning to accept them. Trans men and non-binary people, especially, need to be represented more in mainstream media. 

But what can we as individuals do to be better allies? Kai Isaiah-Jamal, a trans activist, poet, and model suggests the following:

  •  Respect people’s pronouns. If the pronouns are gender-neutral, respect them. Do not expect trans people to adhere to a binary.
  • Call out transphobia even if the person was trying to be “funny” or made the remarks in “jest”
  • Don’t make sweeping generalizations about every trans person. Every trans person is an individual with different opinions.
  • Reject the idea that transitioning looks like one thing. Trans persons who don’t medically transition aren’t “less trans”.
  • Never ask anything about genitalia or body.
  • Don’t make a person’s being trans their only identity. People have interests, why would trans persons be any different?
  • Support trans artists, activists, organizations, and charities.
  • If you’re dating a trans person, try to understand their triggers. 
  • Trans issues are not for profit. Don’t use them as such. 
  • Correct others when they misgender trans persons.
  • Trans people are valid. That is not up for debate-so don’t try to.

About the writer: Bhargavi Barnabas is a Content writer, English literature student, researches and writes on feminism, mental health, and LGBTQIA+ issues, she is also a Bouncbk user.

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