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Chandigarh Kare Aashiqui isn’t limited to trans representation

As a queer person living in India, I was surprised, and even proud, to see Bollywood doing much better than it has before in terms of transgender representation.

It seems impossible to name even one Bollywood film that tells the story of a transgender protagonist with dignity and care, without using them for comic relief, and through the joint efforts of a trans screenwriter, a trans filmmaker, and a trans actor. You might think that I am asking for the moon but we cannot manifest something without dreaming it first.

Abhishek Kapoor’s film Chandigarh Kare Aashiqui (2021) is a stepping stone towards that dream.

It does not check all the boxes listed above. However, it is a sincere attempt to explore what a love story between a transgender woman and a cisgender man could look like. The director, who made films like Rock On!! (2008), Kai Po Che (2013), Fitoor (2013), and Kedarnath (2018), has talented actors – Vaani Kapoor and Ayushmann Khurrana – playing the romantic leads. It is not a documentary film but does reflect trans people’s real-life experiences.

As a queer person living in India, I was surprised, and even proud, to see Bollywood doing much better than it has before. Maanvi Brar, the trans woman in Chandigarh Kare Aashiqui, has been fleshed out as an endearing person who commands the respect of the viewer. She does not hanker after anyone’s pity or sympathy. Growing a thick skin might not prevent her from getting hurt but it has taught her how to survive in a world that is hostile to trans people.

Maanvi (played by Vaani) has been presented in a manner that is quite different from the trans characters seen before in Bollywood. You might remember Maharani (played by Sadashiv Amrapurkar) in Mahesh Bhatt’s film Sadak (1991), who owns a brothel, and is involved in trafficking of cisgender women, and Lajja Shankar Pandey (played by Ashutosh Rana) in Tanuja Chandra’s film Sangharsh (1999), who abducts and sacrifices children.

Maanvi is a Zumba teacher from Ambala, who has moved to Chandigarh after her gender affirmation surgery. The film examines the social and emotional aspects of transitioning in addition to the medical aspect. It highlights the stigma and discrimination that trans people have to deal with in various spheres of life when they come out and express the gender that they identify with. They are harassed with questions about their genitals and their past.

I watched Chandigarh Kare Aashiqui soon after attending the 2nd National Symposium on LGBTQI+ Health in Delhi from 9 to 11 December. When I went to the cinema hall, I carried with me the testimonies and anecdotes that I heard from trans people at the symposium.

They often have no clue about how to respond when their loved one confides in them. They are completely shaken up by the new knowledge that they have received, and it is hard for them to integrate it. Since they do not know anyone else who is trans, they end up saying mean things that they regret later. Sometimes, the damage they cause is irreparable. They are so focused on their own discomfort that they forget what the trans person has gone through.

Manvinder Munjal (played by Khurrana) is the cisgender man Maanvi falls in love with. He is a bodybuilder and gym instructor. When Maanvi comes out to him, he is extremely cruel to her. He equates being closeted with being a cheat. Maanvi acknowledges his disappointment, apologises for her silence, and tries to explain her side of the story. It takes Manvinder a long time to understand that Maanvi is not a woman disguised as a man.

This film might remind you of Abir Sengupta’s web series Pati, Patni Aur Panga (2020), which revolves around the love story of a transgender woman named Shivani (played by Adah Sharma) and a cisgender man named Romanchak (played by Naveen Kasturia). However, Chandigarh Kare Aashiqui has been crafted with a lot more sensitivity.

Romanchak takes Shivani to court, divorces her, and shames her for being a trans woman. His mother is depicted as an evil person who makes Shivani’s life miserable. These two people are magically transformed into allies at the end of the series. Manvinder is upset with Maanvi but he is not vengeful. He is angry when his sisters humiliate Maanvi because he does not stop caring for her. He tries to educate himself because he wants to get to know her.

Chandigarh Kare Aashiqui takes an empathetic approach towards some of the cisgender characters. They are depicted as ignorant, not hateful. Manvinder, for instance, watches videos to learn about gender affirmation procedures. He approaches a trans woman for advice. He also visits a mental health professional who is affirming of trans identity. Manvinder apologises to Maanvi for the hurt that he has caused because of his ignorance.

The film shows him bathing after he realises that he has been having sex with a trans woman. At this point, he does not know the difference between a heterosexual trans woman and a cisgender gay man. Is this homophobia or transphobia? These terms do not make sense to Manvinder. As he mentions later in the film, he studied at a government school where there was absolutely no conversation about what it means to be a transgender or cisgender person.

Maanvi’s father Mohinder Brar (played by Kanwaljit Singh) is proud of her. His unconditional love anchors Maanvi when she feels low. Maanvi’s mother Navjot Brar (played by Satwant Kaur) is worried about her family’s image in society, and how it is getting tarnished because of Maanvi. She misses Manu, the son that she gave birth to. She does not accept the fact that her child is now an adult, and identifies as her daughter Maanvi.

There are other moments in Chandigarh Kare Aashiqui that can be triggering for trans people because it employs vocabulary that insults and dehumanises them. These slurs have been used to make viewers reflect on the risks and dangers that trans people encounter when they access public spaces. Every time this happens to Maanvi, it seems that she is being stabbed by family members and strangers who seem unaware of the violence that words can inflict.

I was thrilled to see that Maanvi has easy access to health services and medical professionals but I also noticed that this is possible because she is financially well off. I was suddenly reminded of a presentation at the LGBTQI+ health symposium made by Dr Prachi Rathore, who is a medical officer at the Mitr Clinic in Hyderabad. This is a clinic run by trans people for trans people so that they can safely access affordable gender-affirmative medical services.

Vaani’s performance certainly deserves a standing ovation. She seems to have put a lot of effort into feeling the inner and outer journeys of the character that she signed up to play. The mix of confidence and vulnerability that she brings to the screen have been appreciated by various trans people, including screenwriter Gazal Dhaliwal who wrote the screenplay for Shelly Chopra Dhar’s film Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga (2019).

Mohinder Kapoor in Chandigarh Kare Aashiqui made me think of Balbir Chaudhary (played by Anil Kapoor) who is the father of a lesbian daughter named Sweety Chaudhary (played by Sonam Kapoor) in Dhar’s film. These fathers want the best for their daughters. They are loving and protective but they know that they cannot rush to rescue their daughters whenever there is a crisis. They learn to rest in the knowledge that their love is enough.

I look forward to the day when India has a number of support groups to serve parents and partners of trans people. It can be empowering to meet individuals with similar experiences, to share stories, exchange resources, and build coalitions to demand services from the state.

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