Akshay Kumar's latest film 'Laxmii' is a horror-comedy that is neither scary nor funny. However, that alone isn't the reason why it has found itself at the bottom of the IMDB rating scale and has been declared the worst film of 2020 by some critics, snatching the title away from Sadak 2, which had indeed set the bar so low that any film has to work extra hard to be that bad.
Laxmii clearly makes the cut though, and what makes it an unbearable watch is the way in which it peddles blatant gender stereotypes and uses physical comedy to show a transgender spirit trapped in a cisgender man's body. Despite masquerading as a film that tells the story of a transwoman, one finds a terrible misrepresentation of the trans community in it.
Directed by Raghava Lawrence and a remake of a Tamil film Kanchana (2011), Laxmii tells the story of Asif (Kumar), a Muslim man who marries a Hindu woman Reshmi (Kiara Advani) despite Reshmi's father's apprehensions about the inter-faith match. Therefore, Reshmi's family snaps all ties with the couple, but after three years of them being married, Reshmi's mother Ratna (Ayesha Raza Mishra) suddenly invites them over so that they can patch things up. Asif arrives at his in-law's place with the intention to win his father-in-law's approval.
Things, however, don't go as planned because an amalgam of three spirits -- a trans woman named Laxmii, a Muslim man aka Abdul Chacha, and a mentally challenged boy called Chintu -- who collectively resemble a big ball of raven black hair in their ghost avatar, takes over Asif's body to avenge their own deaths. Of course, Akshay Kumar's character serves as the perfect vessel for the wronged and marginalized ghost characters and helps them get justice. It works brilliantly for Kumar’s filmography too that highlights all his 'issue-based' films, where he had previously played the ‘savior’ of women and the under-represented.
Unfortunately, Kumar doesn't do anything for this film, despite bringing his best acting game onscreen. A lot of ham-handed dialogues and over-the-top comedy ensures to elicit laughs at the cost of the transgender character in the film. Asif's character is ridiculed and vilified when he embodies Laxmii and represents her feminine traits. In some ways, in fact, the film Laxmii is reminiscent of 90s potboilers where transgender characters were induced in the script for the sake of comic relief.
In a particularly appalling scene, Reshmi's entire family plots to figure out if Asif is really being governed by an 'evil female' spirit. The method they employ is to keep a bowl of turmeric paste in the bathroom and wait and watch if he uses it. I guess the maker of this film thinks only women groom themselves using natural home remedies, while men are too masculine to ever try it, because who has ever heard about the existence of metrosexual males who have a penchant for grooming and love for face packs? Therefore, the script shows Reshmi's family deducting that Asif has indeed been hijacked by a 'female spirit' because he applies turmeric paste on his face.
Kumar's Asif, whose job we are initially told is to dispel superstitions about ghosts, proclaim strongly at the beginning of the film that he would wear bangles if he ever sees a ghost because the scriptwriter of this film believes that despite thousands of years of social evolution, bangles, an ornament worn predominantly by women, is still representative of submission and defeat.
Unfortunately, as the film unfolds, things get murkier. In the climax of Laxmii, we see a large group of transgender individuals, lost in a fervent dance, in front of a shiva idol, looking like they are possessed beings, as the protagonist Laxmii goes about her avenging business. They even cheer along as Laxmii commits murder (albeit she kills the bad guy) as if they enjoy watching people being killed in the goriest way possible.
Of course, Bollywood is no champion in the representation of gender. The heroines have for eons settled for dance numbers, a handful of dialogues, and a whole lot of wardrobe change. So far, the LGBTQA+ community has had very little to no representation in Bollywood or were shown as a laughing stock or a flippant sidekick. In the few stories where they played pivotal parts, they were evil or criminal; a trend picked up from yesteryears Hollywood. In Mahesh Bhatt's Sadak, for instance, Sadashiv Amrapurkar played a transgender brothel owner and the main villain, and Prashant Narayanan played a creepy transgender in Emraan Hashmi's Murder 2, and there are many more such references.
However, in recent times Bollywood has shown signs of change and has produced several films that portray gendered stories and the LGBTQA+ community with empathy and nuance. In 2018 we got a beautiful trans heroine in Cuckoo, a gorgeous and intelligent trans woman, who is representative of, but not limited to, her gender identity in Netflix's Sacred Games. In terms of same-sex relationships, we had Kapoor And Sons (2016), where Fawad Khan's character did not endorse any of the cliches and Bollywood stereotypes of gay men. And then there was the tender and heartbreaking story of a gay professor in Aligarh (2015) played by Manoj Bajpayee.
Laxmii, however, halts that trend. It takes a transgender character in the center of its story but chooses to portray her as a revengeful spirit. It makes it a leading man to act like a drag queen and doesn't give its heroine anything substantial to do. What also sticks out like a sore thumb in the film is not just its mediocre humor or the laughable CGI but the fact that it doesn't follow its own internal logic. Asif, when possessed by Laxmii, cannot enter a temple because Laxmii is a ghost, but she can kill the bad guy with the goddess' trishul and dance in front of a lord shiva statue as if she will soon audition for Dance India Dance.
Laxmii not only halts a progressive trend in portraying trans characters onscreen but is especially disappointing for the audience who do not have many big-budget Bollywood films to look forward to this year.