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I recently watched Vikas Khanna's The Last Color, this was a movie which highlighted the exclusion of widows from social gatherings and festivals -Holi to be specific in this case. The movie was also a quite realistic depiction of how life in India can be for persons who are marginalized - a widow, a transwoman and a small, orphaned girl who performs on the Benares ghats, trying to gather money for her own education.
I have written in my previous articles about the misrepresentation of trans characters in Indian cinema, so, The Last Color was like a breath of fresh air in that respect. I had a chance to speak with Rudrani Chettri, who played the role of Anarkali in the movie. As Rudrani is well-known as an activist and runs her own modelling agency for trans-persons, I had an image in my mind of someone who would be very matter of fact. Instead, Rudrani is someone with whom one could chat for hours and talk about everything under the sun.
Her journey from being an activist, then an entrepreneur, starting and running a modelling agency, and to acting in films, nothing was planned. Rudrani has learnt a lot from her experiences and done whatever was "the need of the hour." She does not really identify as an activist and feels that as a human being and as someone from the community it is her responsibility to do something if she has enough resources.
The modelling agency happened because of an incident at the mall where she was not allowed to enter. The security guard said to her face, "Madam, aap jaise logon ke liye yahan kuch nahi milta." (Madam, there nothing here for people like you). This was something which Rudrani couldn't get out of her mind, "If the shopping mall is for fashion, good food, accessories, we don't have a place in it. Fashion is not something that is not a part of the LGBT community, or entertainment. I mean, there are the finest people out there who can do a million times better - I'm not comparing - but they are just so good that you have to give them credit. For how long they can do nothing or you can just sideline them because let's say they are born differently, or they have different choices?"
While the world perhaps collectively rejoiced at Indian cinema not misrepresenting a trans character, Rudrani's story of how she was cast is also quite interesting. A friend, named Neeraj, asked her if she had a modelling agency and told her that there was a role for a trans person, so Rudrani accompanied two models from her agency as they did not want to go to the audition alone. They were just leaving when Neeraj stopped her and convinced her to do an audition just for fun.
"They showed my audition to Vikas, and then he called me. I told him that I wasn't really ready to do it, but he said how important the character was and he didn't want to see a man dressed in a saree." 'I want to nominate somebody who's real, who's genuine.' Like that he was able to see the same character in me and then I got emotional and said I will do it! Even during the audition nobody was discriminatory, not in a positive way or even negatively. Some of us play this card of privileges and want to get treated differently or in a special way. So, it is participation from both the parties."
It was quite an experience for Rudrani to work with Neena Gupta and the crew. Even though in the movie they did not have any scenes together, Neena was a very "chill and a sweet person" throughout and they had quite a bit of casual conversations with each other.
"But besides her being somebody who was a very known face and a superstar kind of a person, even the people who were helping with makeup, my dresses, my costume designer - everyone was so nice to everyone. They did not let me feel that something was different about me. So, it was a fun experience. I made a lot of good friends there, which was the good part. And now I do have one, biological, gender heterosexual female who's my kind of good friend."
It is also interesting to observe how Rudrani views her time acting with the children. Especially the children who can be quite difficult for adults to understand and interact with, let alone shoot scenes where friendship and camaraderie must come out in the acting. It is a mark of Rudrani's ease around children when the crew members insisted that she accompany Aqsa to a shoot where the latter had to be in the water for quite some time - they believed that Aqsa would feel more comfortable with Rudrani around and so she went even though her scenes weren't scheduled to be shot on the day. Perhaps it was this easiness which gave their scenes together so much depth. Aqsa, according to Rudrani is a talented child and must be given more opportunities.
"For me, others are difficult ones. With kids, I can really do a good job. Aqsa comes from the northeast part of Delhi. She was sharing stories about how they found her. So it was interesting and I see so much potential in her, if she doesn't get any more roles, I think it will be such a waste. As artists and the kind of work she has done, she definitely deserves more work and more recognition."
When I asked her if she felt any connection with Anarkali - whom she played in the movie she said that Anarkali's connection with Chhoti is like what she has with her neighbours. She can call upon them if she is in trouble or needs something. But she laments the fact that even after the Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Act 2019, the trans persons haven't been able to get what they wanted. Coming to how the theme of justice ran in the film, Rudrani was a bit disappointed that Anarkali did not get any justice - not when she was alive or even after her murder.
"Though this film is very inclusive, it talks about a person's emotions and everything, but the justice part... If you watch the film again, I feel so..not treated as human. I think if there were a few second scenes where somebody got arrested, where the cop got arrested when Anarkali is dead, it would have made a little bit sense (about) how things are happening. But usually, that is the bitter truth, I believe, nobody cares, and carry forward (with justice) if this kind of thing happens."
In a country where roles requiring trans persons are given to cis actors, when it comes to cis characters being played by trans persons, as Elliot Page has done in Hollywood, Rudrani's reply is a resounding, "Why not?" She strongly feels that if trans persons feel that they fit into a role and match the casting people's demands, they should get the roles. She also believes that the Indian Cinema will change and give roles for cis characters to trans persons as well. "The way our country, you know, is kind of crazy, and behaves sometimes silly and sometimes very impulsive, I think they will do something. I mean, this will happen. (sic) They will do it just for the sake of being first in the race of how socially enriched they are. This will give the opportunity to a lot of people."
We go on and talk about the recent spate of movies and shows where there has been such a misrepresentation of queer characters - from Laxxmi to Paurushpur. Even as we hope and are optimistic about transpersons playing cis roles in the not so distant future of Indian cinema, there is also anguish each time harmful stereotypes about the queer community are propagated and our lives are appropriated. "I think it's very much needed when I see big damage to the queer character. I think we as queer people should have some kind of collective of entertainers or authors, artists, writers and bloggers, actors, painters who understand and at least as a collective can talk about the shit that is happening."
In the movie, there is juxtaposition when it comes to justice - a marginalized community getting their rights, but individuals from marginalized communities not getting justice - be it Anarkali, Noor or Chhoti. Though it is a pretty honest depiction of life in small-town India, the rights of individuals are sacrificed at the cost of achieving the greater good. But then again, in this era of acculturation, maybe this is another thing which the movie gets right.