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On Representation And Authorship
The obsession with good or bad representation of marginal identities, leaves out the more important, perhaps Marxist, demand for authorship and pay
In a situation where the miserable reality can be changed only through radical political praxis, the concern with aesthetics demands justification.
- Herbert Marcuse
Sitting through the blandly, if not badly, written, but brilliantly acted Tamil anthology on Netflix, Paava Kaidhaigal, I was wondering, looking at Kalidas Jayaram playing a trans-woman with deep empathy, and disconcerting ebullience- is this good representation?
It took me another second to realize how stupid the question is. Not because it doesn’t have an answer, but because it doesn’t ask the question correctly- good representation for whom? Are we going to assume that the trans community has one voice that assents and dissents to art uniformly? (If it is as ill-informed as Pati Patni Aur Panga, then the uniform uproar is understandable. I had written about the show’s ignorance that congeals on its good intent. Imagine a show that seeks to represent trans persons but doesn’t distinguish between a gay man and a trans woman.)
I was struck when a colleague sent a video of transwomen in Tamil Nadu articulating the joy they felt watching Kanchana, a film that many trans activists have otherwise labeled transphobic and stereotypical, while a film that was lauded by most progressives, Super Deluxe, was dismissed by those very transwomen, as a film that was doing geli-kindal, making fun of them, pushing the trans community back 20 years. People within any community will have differing responses to art made in their name.
So, the point is that when we ask “Is this good representation?” we are forgetting two things:
One, “good representation” for whom? For the upper class, anglophiles of the community, who get to be published? The articulate voices of the community?
Two, if the answer to this question even matters, given no community assents and dissents to art in uniformity. We will always be stuck with some demographic that takes offense, and some demographic that holds that same work of art to their heart. (Look at how gay men reacted to Dostana, some embraced it for the possibilities it opened up, and others criticized it for the doors it closed. Both are valid, contradictory stands. So then, what is the point in engaging with a dialectic where the two stands are valid and in contradiction?)
The problem with representation, for me, is its entire focus is on intent, not impact. Because intent is abstract, and varied, and thus it is hard to pin it down and say definitively that yes- this is good representation.
Instead, like Kris Chudawala, a trans activist, has pointed out- we should shift the conversation from representation to authorship. Instead of thinking- will this film offend trans persons, will this film offend Muslims, will this film offend women- hire trans persons, Muslims, and women. Not just to tell their stories, but to bring their voice in- a voice that is inherently intersectional. Let them write stories, enact characters, and infuse their intellectual and imaginative dialects into the story. Pay them to write and act, elevate their material circumstances while they elevate your artistic circumstances. (Bhaskar Hazarika, the Assamese director, for example uses Assamese cast and crew for all his films, thus not just telling Assamese stories but building an ecosystem of Assamese cinema, what Hazarika calls “capacity building”.)
This is impact, not intent, and even if the film is trash, at least you got a trans person’s annual rent taken care of. I understand that this is a very odd way to talk about morality- in terms of money. But the reality is that if an art form postures itself as “good” for a community, that “goodness” cannot be a mere abstract thing. If you are utilizing the capitalist-market enterprise to do goodness, then that goodness must also translate to capitalist-market consequences for the people you are intending to do “good” for. Otherwise, it’s just posturing without pay. (This is, I confess, a very Marxist approach to art, connecting the realm of art to the realm of material circumstances, and the relations of production. But I think it’s an interesting way to deal with the “moral” aspect of cinema.)
A caveat here is that this, of course, won’t guarantee good storytelling. The most mediocre Indian commercial queer film, Ek Ladki Ko Dekha To Aisa Laga, was written by Ghazal Dhaliwal, a trans woman. Sridhar Rangayan’s movies while pioneering are quite ill-formed and quaint. But this is understandable because the goodness of good art is not an entirely ethical question. It is also an aesthetic question.
This posits one problem: How to judge such work of art?
Baradwaj Rangan often says that the job of a film critic should be to talk about what exists within the four edges of the screen. This is a tricky opinion. (For many reasons, one of which is ceding power to the “seen”, while the “unseen”, and “unsaid” remain out of the purview of a review.)
For example, it is hard to not think of writer-director Sudha Kongara’s insistence on her female character’s autonomy in Soorarai Pottru against the will of her mostly male writer’s room, when seeing that ferocious female character being played out on screen. The argument, again a valid one that I don’t entirely jibe with, is that the job of a critic must be point out the ferociousness of it, without necessarily contextualizing the ferocity with Kongara’s insistent voice in the writer’s room. I think it adds heft and meaning to the ferocity, and pointing it out too might have that impact.
You recognize that the unfenced voice of a real woman was used to flesh out the voice of this unfenced reel woman. Taking a thread from that, if we see a trans character being portrayed badly, it is impossible for one to not wonder, “Were trans persons even consulted in getting this written?”. That thought thus becomes part of the many thoughts one has while watching the film- that beautiful shot, that odd angle, that wonderful acting, that tactile prop, that awful representation.
Of course, there can be nuance here, as there was with my discomfort with Kalidas Jayaram’s performance of a trans woman. Jen Richards, the transgender activist, actress, and writer wrote it best (but perhaps a bit dramatically):
I loved Jared Leto’s performance in Dallas Buyers Club, and I was livid that it happened. I came to adore Eddie Redmayne while working with him on The Danish Girl, and I don’t think the movie should have been made. I know Matt Bomer as a really sweet guy and talented actor who is breaking barriers, and I wanted to see Anything disappear without a trace. I’m fully capable of holding all these seemingly incompatible thoughts because I know that there are two distinct issues at play here. They may seem to have little to do with each other, but the stakes are life and death.
Now, whether it is the job of a critic or a commentator, a journalist or a philosopher to point this out is a semantic question. My point here that we must talk about the morality of cinema-with-intention- but through the lens of authorship, and not representation with its many caveats; to worry more about stories BY and not stories ABOUT.