Titillation and perversion: the cis lens of Super Deluxe

Arvind argues that this widely loved Tamil film does a grave disservice to trans people.

8 min read

Super Deluxe (2019), directed by Thiagarajan Kumararaja, has been a polarizing film in my queer circle. To those convinced of its brilliance, it is nothing short of a cinematic revolution. However, to the rest of us, it is difficult even to describe how depraved the moral center of the movie is, surrounded as it is by an aura of big names lauding it as years ahead of its time. This becomes an especially difficult matter when the narrative of the film is praised for being trans-inclusive. Many see it as Tamil cinema’s big favour to transgender folks, which makes it that much harder to argue that the film is transphobic to its core.

Structured as a set of four seemingly disconnected storylines, which eventually converge in unexpected ways, Super Deluxe is a potpourri of things that sound like Really Cool Movie Ideas—shower thought after shower thought thrown at you, plot devices that may well have come from that one college friend obsessed with Quentin Tarantino. The cult success of Aaranya Kaandam (Kumararaja’s previous and first film) led to a breathless build-up around Super Deluxe, and that resulted in a movie so convinced of its own hype, that it never stopped to consider the fact that these Cool Movie Ideas may not fit coherently. The movie is always smugly convinced of its own brilliance, all the way from the titillating title sequence to the ending that featured a bizarre exposition (aliens give you cash! morality is relative!), revealing the film’s sheer contempt for the viewer’s intelligence. Leaving aside the gratuitous violence and the rampant transphobia, Super Deluxe is a drab movie at best.

To begin with, Super Deluxe is not kind to its cis women. It opens with Samantha playing an archetype of a modern woman that has plagued Kollywood since time immemorial. Her character, Vaembu, speaks about sex in a way that is reminiscent of a schoolboy’s fantasy, calling herself an ‘item’ by way of introduction. We see a neat correlation being drawn, between the sexual openness of the character and the trouble she is in. Later on in the movie, a weak attempt is made to subvert this portrayal, along the predictable lines of the How Many Partners Have You Had conversation. By that point, the plot seems to have lost any semblance of life. The less said about Leela, the better—Ramya Krishnan makes a brave attempt to authentically portray one of the most ham-fisted stereotypes of Sex Worker with a Heart of Gold I have seen yet from Mysskin (one of four writers credited on this movie).

However, the violence that registers most is the one that comes disguised as empowerment. The character of Shilpa, a trans woman, is played by actor and cis man Vijay Sethupathi. Shilpa’s story is the detailed recounting of every single way in which trans women can be humiliated. My favourite critical review of the filmmaking on display here comes from the blog The Seventh Art, where Srikanth Srinivasan notes that the camera and the soundtrack share the point of view of the aggressor time and again. We rarely see Shilpa’s plot from her own perspective; it is always the perspective of a condescending observer or a crying wife. One such instance of this voyeuristic framing and subsequent othering is the scene where Shilpa is shown draping a saree. She dresses herself in front of a mirror while her wife stands and watches, sobbing. The soundtrack is giggling out Maasi Maasam Aalana Ponnu, a song from the 1991 film Dharmadurai, mockingly dissonant from the context. The camera zooms into Shilpa smoothening her wig, and she has the slightest moment of genuine euphoria that she looks good for her walk. The camera, of course, makes fun of this vulnerability all along—titillating noises from the sex song still running, it switches over to the sobbing wife who says, “I don’t know what’s harder, having lived so long without a husband or having to live with a husband like this.” This is the point of view the camera wants you, the viewer, to have. It wants you to watch while ‘something like this’ gets humiliated. This is supposed to be the progressive portrayal of a trans woman in this movie, obsessed with her appearance, indifferent to her wife’s pain; a balding sex trafficker who dresses up while her wife watches.

Srikanth goes on to observe: “In the scene at the police station, the only point of view the audience is allowed to recognize is the sleazy cop’s. The cop, of course, is a caricature and the audience is made to feel morally superior to him, while not having anything to do with Shilpa beyond dispensing sympathy for her subhuman status. By making Shilpa the passive object of contempt, the film forestalls even the possibility of the audience’s identification with Shilpa that the casting of Vijay Sethupathi might have offered. There’s a special violence in the fact that the transference of identity that the film demands from its trans viewers for its other characters is not matched with a demand from its cis viewers towards Shilpa.”

It deserves to be said that it is profoundly unethical and transphobic to cast cisgender men to play trans women. Jen Richards put it across wonderfully in the Netflix documentary Disclosure (2020):

“Having cis men play trans women, in my mind, is a direct link to the violence against trans women. And in my mind, part of the reason that men end up killing trans women out of fear that other men will think that they’re gay for having been with trans women, is that the friends, the men whose judgement they fear of, only know trans women from media. And the people who are playing trans women are the men that they know. This doesn’t happen when a trans woman plays a trans woman.”

All the subplots share one thing in common: the setup is fantastically contrived with no aspersions to realism or believability, with the exception of sexual violence, which is gratuitous, uncomfortably real, and never-ending. Don’t get me wrong—I think there can be artistic value in making a viewer squirm in their seat, discomfited by sexual violence, especially if you’ve been a victim of it. However, to do so with no narrative significance and to follow it up by saying “Everything is Meaningless” is the kind of depravity that I could not stomach, in a movie that everyone seems to love. Ostensibly, there seems to be an uplifting and empowering message that is arrived at, but not through any meaningful transformation, or moral discourse, or even the triumph of good over evil. This is the thematic methodology of the movie: it first completely reinforces harmful stereotypes for the entirety of the plot, in excruciating detail, and then says, “I was just joking, a flyaway TV knocks out the sexual predator, isn’t life funny?”

The most egregious of these, to me, is the resolution of Shilpa’s narrative, when she comes back and speaks to her wife and son. “I didn’t think of you or your pain. I didn’t know that I would have a son who loved me and ask me why I left him,” she says.

Raasukutty and Jothi berate and gaslight this sobbing survivor of sexual assault, accusing her of being stone-hearted and plotting to leave her family. And then Raasukutty says reproachfully that although everyone else mocked her, he and his mother accepted Shilpa the way she was. “Did I or mother say a single word to you?” he asks. This is not true; Shilpa was thoroughly humiliated when she returned home, including by Jothi, who responds to her transition by alternating between shock, unveiled disgust, and mourning at lost masculinity. But coming from the mouth of precocious child Raasukutty, it is merely a reflection of cis-fragility that doesn’t even register they drove Shilpa away.

Shilpa sobs a little more. Raasukutty says, “I don’t care, be a man, be a woman, be whatever you want. Never leave us again.” The scene fades into black.

My blood boils.

How could this be the resolution? The movie features a trans woman being mocked in ways that feel like the camera is laughing at her, a trans woman being sexually assaulted, a trans woman who is told that expecting society to accept her is too much to ask, a trans woman who gets driven out of every place she wants to exist in, only for her to be told, “I don’t care who you are.”

“I don’t care who you are” is not acceptance. I might have forgiven it all if Raasukutty had instead said “Why did you leave me, mother?” But what we get instead is a return to square one: Shilpa being berated for not being a father, a father she never wanted to be.

Shilpa is never offered simple acknowledgement of her womanhood, or her personhood even. She is always treated as a thing, never a woman. She is seen as an aberration, something grotesque, and the progressive message seems to be that these grotesque things must be accepted for whatever they are. I keep going back to that scene of Shilpa draping a saree, and the awful cognitive dissonance of it. In the end Shilpa says, “As a woman, I understand what you’re going through.” The irony sends shivers down my spine. If the filmmaker had actually believed that, he would have made a very different movie.

There is a profound cis male perversion in the way Shilpa’s story is told. It takes a cis man to devise a plot where a trans woman takes her young child to a public bathroom and zips him up, in a pose that looks like she is fellating her own son. It takes a cis man to write a plot where a trans woman is a child trafficker who upon losing her child in the market, screams that she’s a sinner who transferred her sin to her son when she touched him. It takes a cis man to gaze so long and unblinkingly at the debasement of trans life, and intercut to jokes about porn. This isn’t progressive thought.

One of the most enduring and harmful transphobic stereotypes in existence is the idea that transgender (and other) alms-seekers are running begging and child trafficking rings. This is a popular idea with very little evidence: Sabina Yasmin Rahman calls it the mafia of middle-class convenience. Having noted that police have run multiple investigations in Delhi which failed to establish the existence of a begging mafia, she concludes that this idea of a begging mafia is perpetrated by popular culture and widely-held beliefs, but in reality is hugely exaggerated. Most beggars just live in debilitating poverty. This harmful myth is reinforced in this movie. And really, the more I recall this movie, the more shocked I am that anybody thinks this is progressive. This is what cis people think trans folks do.

In his article on trans characters in Indian cinema, film critic Baradwaj Rangan (who happens to be cis male) had said, “Had Super Deluxe not been a “mainstream” movie, had it played only in festivals to sympathetic and (dare I say) “evolved” audiences, there might have not been the fear that Shilpa is showing the transgender community in a bad light.” For what it’s worth, I’d like to make it clear that sex trafficking is not a realistic character flaw, and rape is not a humanizing portrayal. I leave it to the reader to ponder how utterly offensive this idea is, that a mainstream portrayal of transgender people should shy away from such esoteric things like human dignity.

Even within the Indian trans community, there are divergences in what is considered problematic within the movie. Some of the criticism leveled at it, such as that of transgender activist Grace Banu’s (in an interview to Vikatan; article in Tamil), has been regressive and homophobic, calling into question the logic of Shilpa transitioning as an adult or being attracted to her wife.

Transgender people of all gender identities have the right to choose when to undergo surgical changes, if at all they want to undergo them, and have the express right to fall in love with or have children with or live with people of any gender. One of the common effects of Hormone Replacement Therapy is infertility—there are plenty of folks within the trans community who live their lives precisely in the way that Grace dismisses as illogical. For a trans woman who wants to father children, the two options are to freeze her sperm before starting HRT (expensive and inaccessible) or have a child before starting HRT (which is what Shilpa has done). Grace’s unnecessary and bigoted detour into Shilpa’s bedroom provides no teeth to her critique, which is otherwise spot-on in terms of the movie bringing back the many indignities that the trans community has finally moved past.

Super Deluxe will have to bear the cross for perpetuating the violent lie that women like Shilpa are men like Vijay Sethupathi in makeup and a dress.

About the author

Arvind is a 25 year old genderqueer person who is enthusiastic about critical analysis of cinema, especially through the transgender lens. They are a big fan of Vijay Sethupathi and had high hopes for Super Deluxe, but came back bitterly disappointed and infuriated. They can be reached for polite discussions at arvindbadri.india@gmail.com or on Instagram.

Featured image by Harish Karthik

About the artist

After completing studies in Animation and Visual Effects, Harish Kathik started working as a designer and animator at an animation studio in Chennai. He enjoys art, and you can find some of his work on Instagram.

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