Chandigarh Kare Aashiqui and Transfeminine Identity: Representation or Exclusion?

Chandigarh Kare Aashiqui fits in with a trend initiated in recent years by a new generation of filmmakers, experimenting with characters and narratives that yield a more empathetic and mature representation of sexual minorities. The film has Maanvi, a trans girl, in a pivotal role, attempting to define her beyond her "transness"—highlighting her love for dance and life, her spiritedness and vulnerabilities. However, the process through which Maanvi, the trans girl protagonist, is "normalised" calls for some unpacking.

Director Abhishek Kapoor’s Chandigarh Kare Aashiqui (CKA) is a love story between a cisgender male fitness enthusiast, Manu Munjal (Ayushmann Khurana) and a trans woman Zumba instructor, Maanvi (Vaani Kapoor), marks a rupture from the staple heterosexual romances of Bollywood. This comes as a welcome shift in mainstream Hindi cinema that has routinely represented trans persons as objects of ridicule and transphobia (Masti 2004, Kya Kool Hai Hum 2005) or as aberrant and villainous (Sadak 1997, Sangharsh 1999, Laxmii 2020). CKA fits in with a trend initiated in recent years by a new generation of filmmakers, experimenting with characters and narratives that yield a more empathetic and mature representation of sexual minorities. In many ways, CKA is unique in that while quite a few films have dealt with homosexuality, there has been an absence of serious engagement with transgender lives. Shubh Mangal Zyada Saavdhan (2020), considered by many as a milestone in depicting gay love in commercial cinema, confines itself exclusively to cis-privileged male homosexuality ignoring the issues of transgender life, love, and intimacy. CKA, in contrast, has Maanvi, a trans girl, in a pivotal role, attempting to define her beyond her "transness"—highlighting her love for dance and life, her spiritedness and vulnerabilities. However, the process through which Maanvi, the trans girl protagonist, is "normalised" calls for some unpacking. Ironically, her "acceptance" is earned through exclusionary moves. Maanvi barely represents the harsh existential struggles of the majority of transfeminine persons and communities in India. Her trans femininity is configured as immaculately transitioned without any trace of the pre-operative body. She passes off as any attractive urban upper-middle-class girl— confident, carefree and untouched by mundane concerns. The only clue signalling that Maanvi might be on a medical regimen is a shot of her taking two innocuous-looking pills, blended into a sequence of her applying make-up with the panache of a supermodel. The camera’s gaze lingers over her glossy lips, perfectly made-up eyes and face. It is not accidental that the brand logo of the compact and lipstick used by Maanvi—Nykaa—is made ostentatiously visible to the audience. Maanvi’s body, coded through high-end beauty brands, sporty haute couture and a free-spirited style, invokes a cosmopolitanism where gender fluidity heightens the aura of diversity and coolness.[1]  One may recall that Nykaa had launched a television commercial in 2021, featuring the stories of six influential women challenging gender stereotypes—a rapper in hijab, a mid-life chess master, a biker stuntwoman, an entrepreneur, a mountaineer mom and a transgender doctor. Nykaa draws together unconventional, super-successful femininity and a market premised on the desire for "perfection" into a seamless articulation. Maanvi’s identification with the brand is clearly not insignificant. 

The trans femininity of Maanvi is revealed to the world only when she herself informs the male protagonist- ‘Manu Munjal’, during one of their dates. The raucous transphobic insults Manu subjects her to upon the revelation of her past identity and trans status wins the sympathy of an audience already identified with this beautiful, sweet girl, "ideal" in every way, except for a single unfortunate "difference." But this clouds the more significant and substantive issues of the everyday struggles of transgender persons and communities. The question is whether Maanvi’s (trans)feminine chic and sophisticated post-operative persona represents the average majority of transwomen in India. What about the transfeminine (and/or transmasculine) persons who do not wish to transition yet strongly articulate their transgender identity? There are many transwomen, in fact, a majority who wish to pass off as cis women but are not fully able to erase all the markers of their pre-operative body, while others are fine with not passing off as cis-feminine. It is not rare to find transgender persons who cannot afford the cost of sex reassignment surgery, while others wish for partial transition for various reasons. There are still other transgender persons who defy the gender binary by self-consciously articulating an identity that fits neither into the male nor female persona. Even the affluent English-speaking post-operative trans person who aspires for femininity may not reflect the "perfect" cis-feminine body which Maanvi possesses. The life and persona of the transfeminine person in a gentrified neighbourhood with the ability to fully transcend her pre-operative existence and appearance transforming into a sophisticated, single, desirable cis woman do not represent the complexities of transfeminine identities in today's India. In many ways, Maanvi resembles what Puar (quoted in Edelman 2014: 176) calls the "celebratory queer liberal subject" folded into life (queerness as subject) against the sexually pathological deviant population targeted for death (queerness as death). Maanvi is unlike many other transgender persons who are perceived as criminal and deceptive (Azura 2014) and risk physical violence and/or decimation just for their gender transgressions. The famous case of Brandon Teena in Nebraska, who was raped and subsequently murdered in 1993 for cross-dressing, is a case in point (Sloop 2009).  

Let us take a look at the class milieu that Maanvi inhabits. In a conversation with her affluent, concerned father, Maanvi clarifies that she has taken up a job not for the money but because she cannot really "live in a shell" all her life. While this invokes transpersons' spatial and social segregation, taking up a job is a distraction for Maanvi. Her familial background, expensive lifestyle and aesthetically designed home are represented in a taken-for-granted mode, erasing the grim struggles for livelihood and survival that transpersons are routinely faced with. Maanvi chooses a job as a Zumba instructor—a feminised role—her classes are attended only by women. Her lack of concern for money displaces her (trans)body onto an aestheticised terrain (fitness, Zumba, top brands and all things soft and pretty). Maanvi fits into the Bollywood template of the flawless feminine protagonist, designed and marketed by directors like Aditya Chopra and Karan Johar with tremendous success; it earns her both acceptance and recognition. 

In contrast, many transfeminine persons engage in sex work and begging in India. There is another trans woman in the film who begs at the traffic signals even though she is a graduate in English literature. What prevents her from enjoying a lifestyle similar to Maanvi’s? This is not even touched upon in the film. The begging trans woman and the heroine trans woman are never in dialogue. They stand apart and are disconnected. It might appear from the film that only a successfully "transitioned" affluent trans woman can afford an existence separated from her (trans) community and stand a chance of actual and potential absorption into the heteropatriarchal upper-caste family. Manu and Maanvi's relationship closely adheres to the heteronormative familial ideal, except that she has a "past"—she sets up the breakfast table while he is still in bed. When Manu is about to lose the G.O.A.T (Greatest of All Times Athlete) championship to another hulk (as he had several times before), it is Maanvi’s arrival in the audience gallery that prods him to victory. Manu’s machismo is perfectly complemented and, in fact, boosted by Maanvi's femininity.

One is sceptical if Maanvi would become an object of desire for the brawny hero if the role was played by a dark, half-transitioned, lower-class/caste trans woman. When director Abhishek Kapoor cites "the need to talk to people in their own language" as a rationale for not casting a trans actor as Maanvi, he is clearly pointing to the "normalisation" necessary to make a trans woman "desirable" for the mainstream audience [2]. Maanvi does not have to encounter police hostility, unlike many trans women walking on the roads who face police and public brutalities on an everyday basis. In many cities in India, trans women avoid public transport as they are unable to cope with the public gaze and possible harassment from commuters. Maanvi does not have a flamboyant and hypervisible body like many trans women. Hypervisibility subjects transwomen to violative gazes (Ganesan and Dadoo 2020) and real and potential threats of violence in public spaces, compelling them to hang in groups for safety. Maanvi can walk, jog, cycle around in the city park comfortably and move around in the middle-class spaces, including the high-tech hospital, without eyebrows raised. The majority of trans women are asking for trans-friendly healthcare and hospitals, washrooms, and gender-neutral spaces in educational and public institutions. Maanvi clearly does not require any of the above. Her cis-normative (trans) body is only troubled when it comes to intimate relations with a "straight" man like Manu Munjal. The trans women narratives are filled with exploitation by cis-male partners who desert the former after extorting sex and money. Physical violence and mental trauma in intimate relations are not uncommon, with many trans women ending their lives on account of "love failure."

The contemporary moment witnesses a crucial critique and assertion from Dalit transgender groups demanding horizontal reservation (Rajmane 2021). Grace Bano, the Dalit transgender activist, believes that "untouchability" also operates within the transgender community. While Dalit transgender and queer persons claim and foreground B R Ambedkar, Maanvi and her transfeminine identity are unmarked by any spot of caste and class vulnerabilities. The Dalit trans community is waging a battle not only against transphobia but also caste discrimination both within and outside. A chic global transfeminine body with immense ability to replicate cis-femininity may feel disconnected from dalitness and transness, as reflected by Maanvi’s distance from the un-named and "insignificant" trans woman in the film who begs at the traffic signals. A substantive concern with transgender life can only emerge through a representation of the collective everyday struggles of transgender persons and communities without generalising transgender subjects through an iconic, unmarked, affluent entity like Maanvi.
 

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