Malayalam film director Lal Jose recently sparked a controversy after justifying his 2005 film Chanthupottu which enjoyed box office success back in the day, but has since been widely condemned for its problematic portrayal of the gender and sexuality of its lead character.
Speaking about the film in an interview to The Cue, Lal Jose said, “Those who tried to attack me over this film do not understand one thing. In the movie, Radha or Radhakrishnan is a man, he is not a transgender person. There is no doubt about his gender. He falls in love with a woman, has a child from the woman. The only thing was that he had an effeminate aspect to his behaviour. There is no gender issue in that film.”
Responding to complaints from the trans community about the film’s title Chanthupottu turning into a slur to insult and harass them, Lal Jose claimed, “Many transgender persons have told me that they liked the film and that they have no problem being called Chanthupottu. In fact, they said, at least this word is pleasant. Earlier, we used to be called horrible slurs.”
The interview soon sparked a controversy with LGBTQIA+ rights activists hitting back at the director for not only remaining unapologetic about making a misleading film which confused concepts of gender and sexuality, but also justifying why he made it.
Explaining how the film’s skewed take on gender and sexuality created deep rooted misconceptions among the public, in turn affecting the queer community, queer rights activist Shalin Varghese wrote a post on Facebook: “Do you know the transgender persons who have been victims of attacks in bus stands and public places after this movie released? Have you seen people who have fled this 100% literate state to beg and do sex work and live on the roads without being able to quell their hunger, after harassment and attack with the use of the word ‘chanthupottu’? Do you know of those who have not been able to deal with their mental stress after being physically assaulted following the film’s release? Have you met those people who have lost their lives after being trapped in heterosexual marriages, based on the vague and mistaken concepts of gender, sex and sexuality that you have offered in your film?"
Shalin also explains how the film’s messaging on being able to ‘correct’ the hero with a few beatings and a heterosexual relationship have resulted in a lot of trans men and trans women being subjected to sexual harassment and physical assault within their families.
“We are battling against those people who have deep rooted misconceptions after watching your film 2-3 times. To understand the effect that the misconceptions put forth by the film have had on government officers and the middle class in general, it is enough to see their over-eagerness to express transphobia,” the post further read. Shalin concludes by adding that the community expected an apology from Lal Jose for making a misleading film.
Writing for Indian Express Malayalam, Unais, a gender queer activist from Kerala, said, “Lal Jose can never absolve himself of the responsibility for the disaster the movie made in our lives.”
“Over a hundred people have contacted me revealing such similar experiences after I wrote about the movie for the first time. And it is a pity to see that you (Lal Jose) cannot still, after so many years since the movie was released, understand the trauma the movie gave people like us,” Unais added.
In 2017, Unais had spoken up about the extreme harassment that they'd faced in school, tuition centres and from friends and teachers back in 2005 when the film had released.
The statement came in the aftermath of the controversy around Mammootty starrer Kasaba. Actor Parvathy, who had condemned the misogynistic dialogues in the film, was subjected to threats, harassment and an unofficial boycott in the industry. Unais wrote about Chanthupottu to illustrate why calling out such problematic films was necessary.
Unais’s statement was retweeted by Parvathy who publicly issued an apology on behalf of the film industry.
In his latest interview, Lal Jose spoke about this incident and called Parvathy’s apology for the film "pure nonsense".
Both Shalin and Unais also wrote about films such as Moothon and Peranbu for their inclusive gender politics and correct representation of gender and sexuality.
“Geetu Mohandas (director of Moothon) has not used the lens that Malayalam cinema has so often used while representing us. She has kept us close and has marked our lives in cinema in the right way. For the people who laughed their hearts out by watching your (Lal Jose's) movie, Moothon will feel strange. Mr Lal Jose, your film has a great role in conditioning them to be this way,” Unais wrote.
Shalin, in the post, added, “It has been such a struggle to make people understand that the discomfort they express when we discuss films such as Odum Raja, Aadum Rani, Aalorukkam, Peranbu (films which sensitively represent members of the community) is because of their conviction in the misconceptions that your film has propagated for so long.”
Chanthupottu revolves around the life of Radhakrishnan aka Radha (played by Dileep), who faces harassment and abuse in his hamlet due to his effeminate nature. The trait is traced to his upbringing as his grandmother yearned for a girl child and raised him as one. The film has been called out for propagating misconceptions about gender and sexuality, with Radha being ‘groomed to become manly’ in the second half of the film.