Remakes are legitimate creative pursuits, but what are we gaining or losing in the process?

Akshay Kumar as trans woman in Laxmii movie
Flix Review Tuesday, November 10, 2020 - 10:24
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Let’s get some of the hygiene things out of the way, shall we? Laxmii, starring Akshay Kumar, Kiara Advani, Sharad Kelkar and a bunch of others, is a comedy-horror film, written and directed by Raghava Lawrence. It’s a (fairly faithful) remake of Raghava’s Tamil film Kanchana and has released on Disney+Hotstar.

By now, we’ve had five iterations of Raghava Lawrence’s Muni/Kanchana franchise. In Tamil, that is. So no major plot lines need be discussed, but for the Hindi audience who may have strayed absentmindedly south, a quick recap.

A young man is possessed by the ghosts of a trans woman, a Muslim man, and a young man with an intellectual disability. The spirits perform a few scares and stunts, then reveal the reason for possession: revenge. They have been wronged by a powerful and evil man who not only usurped their property, but killed them and buried them too. And so, here’s payback time.

In between, benevolent spirit guides and exorcists are called and the hero has a moment of faith, and a moment of justice, and finally, redemption, revenge, and a fairly happily ever after. But not before we set the stage for a sequel. 

I ask myself a question. Why did Kanchana have to become Laxmii? Yes, remakes are legitimate creative pursuits, and if you can accommodate changed language and cultural contexts and perhaps a larger audience base, sure. But what are we gaining or losing in the process?

When Jon Favreau’s Chef was remade, with Saif Ali Khan, the film lost a whole ton of nuance and flavour. When Hum was remade as Baasha, we lost perhaps some of cohesion of the Hindi original, but we gained a Superstar, and a generation of us gained punch dialogues and power moments. When the fantastic and moving, the absolute zingat of a film like Sairat was remade as the pink cotton candy that is Dhadak, I felt a personal betrayal. We lost everything: substance, style, commentary, politics. And gained two starlets who, let's face it, didn’t really need any launch vehicle.

Does Laxmii gain anything? I may perhaps not be the right person to answer, given that my familiarity with the Hindi audience is at best skindeep. But has Laxmii lost anything? Yes. A lot. For one, an actor who could actually pull this off. Raghava Lawrence (and I am a fan) looks and feels right. In the entire film, he is never shown as anything other than a regular guy, so when the spirits take over and he becomes that avenging angel, we can see that transition, that transformation. Raghava isn’t the macho man who performs the masculine. He’s a scaredy cat. What’s more, there are no extended tropes to show how manly-man he is.

Akshay Kumar, well. As Asif, he performs the hero from the get go. We see him right at the start as a ghost-denier. As a rational person. Fantastic. Then he says - “If there is a ghost, I will wear bangles.” Fantastic. Not even half an hour into the film, we’ve equated bangles and femininity with fear and meekness.

Secondly, for comedy-horror to actually be comic and horrific, you need actors who can bring out the funny-hahaha. Raghava Lawrence, himself with great comic timing, had that stellar Kovai Sarala, and the tested and true Devadarshini and Sriman. And so when the thrills and the hauntings come on, the contrast drives home the horror. The scenes are repeated almost frame-by-frame in the Hindi, but - the laughs just didn’t come. And that climatic song and action block. Pity.

Where Kanchana scored was that it gave us, (some of us outside active queer politics) a manifesto. That scene where the young woman is felicitated by her school, and is sent on a scholarship to study medicine: it felt like there was some value to fighting against, and fighting for society after all. Kanchana, in the Tamil, spoke about the extremely important thing that a progressive government made: gave the trans community a respectable name to call ourselves. That moment: it held me.

I’ve written about this before: the many names trans women in TN were called, and how those sharp blades cut deep, and why I, in fear of those very labels, held back from truly understanding my gender. In that moment, Kanchana became less of a film for me, and more a political statement. It moved me. And I suspect, a lot more people.

Further, I believe (and know to be largely true) it validated life choices many trans women and trans persons in TN made. It showed that for trans women in Tamil Nadu, education could mean the difference between performing “traditional” (begging, sex work) work and being a larger part of mainstream society. Among many transgender communities in India, Tamil trans women are employed in higher numbers in what’s considered non traditional work. And so, it felt right for Geetha, Kanchana’s daughter, to aspire to be a doctor. There are success stories and there are Living examples of trans women inspirations.

In the Laxmii version of this scene, there was something missing. For one, the young woman - Geetha again - has fewer lines to speak, and further we don’t see her personal ambitions or growth. She goes on straight to being a political activist. She’s apparently in a party (did I see the logo right, was that almost a Congress party symbol?) The Laxmi of Laxmii (is this a nod to Laxmi Narayan Tripathi?) says more or less the same things that Kanchana said. When Laxmi called out society for calling her names, I cried, I admit. It moved me.

Afterwards, I asked myself, why didn’t I also feel better afterwards. Why didn’t I feel like things could improve? It can’t only be the language can it? I went back to that scene, this time with the subtitles on. Perhaps I missed a nuance in the language? The English subtitles rendered Kinnar as “transgender”. Not transgender persons or transgender women. But that ugly, empty, personhood-less term transgender. That to me seemed like everything that was the remake. You take something with a bit of soul, and in the process of remaking it, strip it of that very soul. Of that which made it personal.

And it was not just this scene. When Raghava of the Kanchana film goes over what has happened to Kanchana, he wrestles with the right and the wrong. The good and the bad. The personal and the larger social. Here was a man who, from the beginning we see as afraid, sets aside his personal fears and dislikes to serve justice. To right a wrong. In Laxmii, that conflict, that interiority of the character is never shown or told about. We go from exorcism to the return of the ghosts in almost no time and then bang, climax.

Where is the ghost denier? Where is the rational person who does not believe in god and devil? What are you losing to gain justice? What are we, in this remake, gaining to justify the loss of the nuance? Where is the punch?

Disclaimer: This review was not paid for or commissioned by anyone associated with the series/film. TNM Editorial is independent of any business relationship the organisation may have with producers or any other members of its cast or crew.

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