Eisha Marjara’s Venus, about a transitioning woman who learns that she has a 14-year-old son from back when she identified herself as a male, has many scenes that Indian viewers will instantly recognise. There is the moment when the lead character, Sid (Debargo Sanyal), is told by her mother, “You know how I feel about the gay things and you are not a girl, okay?”
Sid’s mother is clearly in denial (“I want my son back,” she demands), but she melts like kulfi when she meets her grandson, Ralph, whom she promptly renames Rajinder. It’s actually hard to resist Ralph, charmingly played by Jamie Mayers. Ralph foists himself on Sid despite his father/mother’s obvious reluctance and proves to be the least judgemental character in the universe explored by Venus.
“Were you lesbian when dating my mom?” Ralph guilelessly interrogates Sid. “Are you still Indian? You are transgendered? Are you, like, famous?”
Marjara’s feature debut was completed in 2017 and has been doing the rounds of film festivals since. Venus will be screened at the Bagri Foundation London Indian Film Festival (June 21-July 1).
The idea of transitioning is expanded to Sid’s relationships with Ralph, her boyfriend and her parents. “It’s an adult coming of age story, almost like a second puberty,” Marjara said in a phone interview from Montreal. “As Sid says to Ralph, we are both going through puberty.”
The 95-minute comedy emerged out of a short film Marjara made in 2012, House For Sale. Among its characters was a transgendered protagonist. “I got very curious about the experience of trans people, and I developed a feature based on the short film,” Marjara said. “I latched on to the core idea of a woman who is coming out as a trans woman and finds out that she has a teenage son, and it took a life of its own.”
Marjara was clear that her film would not be about the actual process of transitioning, but about Sid’s relationship issues and her parenting experience. “I wanted a light-toned project,” Marjara said. “Sid is well off, and is more or less accepted by her parents and her employers, but a lot of other people lose their friends and family after they transition. I didn’t want to make a film like that. I wanted to show a different side, an experience that is not too dark and heavy and pessimistic.”
Initial drafts were low on humour, but as Marjara opened out the screenplay for feedback, the laughs went up. “When my executive producer, Kevin Tierney, read the script, he said that there was more comedy than drama,” Marjara said. “The film became less dramatic and heavy, and the characters became less serious. There were darker scenes that I took out, such as Sid in a dangerous situation in a public place. This does happen to trans people.”
The sunniest character in the movie is easily young Ralph, who is free of the intolerance and anxiety that animate the older characters. “Ralph was very easy to write,” Marjara said. “Ralph is unconditioned, and he also reflects the newer generation, which is much more easygoing about these things. The actor who plays Ralph knows several trans kids, and they seem to have less of an issue with it. The kids are a lot more exposed – on YouTube, for instance, you will see hundreds of kids talking about their experiences.”
One area Venus avoids is Sid’s physical transformation after she starts her hormonal treatment, since Marjara did not want the movie to become voyeuristic in any way. “It bothered me and it bothered trans people, this focus on the cosmetic and physical changes rather than the other aspects,” she said.
Sid puts it plainly in the opening scene: “My body is a costume I cannot take off.”
Venus was written as far back as 2013, but the project took off only after Marjara met producer Joe Blass. One of Blass’s inputs was to give more screen time to Sid’s parents.
“I initially had very little of the parents in the film, but Joe encouraged me to have more scenes,” Marjara said. “I was happy to do that because they were the easiest parts to write. They are true of me, my own life. My connection to my Indian heritage has been my dad and my mom.”
The two most crucial characters had different journeys from script to screen. Debargo Sanyal delivers a winning performance as Sid, but it took over a year for Marjara to cast him. “We needed a very strong actor, and it was a long and elaborate casting process,” she said. “We looked for actors in the Canada, the US and the UK. Sid had to be North American, he had to have that sensibility. He had to be of a certain age, and South Asian.”
Sanyal, an American actor of Bengali heritage, was the closest match, and not only because he met the criteria. “He just played for the character,” Marjara said. “He emotionally understood the part and he didn’t try to be overly feminine to play a woman. He is also a strong comedic actor.”
Sid always has the last word, especially when it comes to Ralph: “You are white and scrawny and I am brown and beautiful,” she tells her son.
The casting call was kept open to trans actors for Sid’s part, in keeping with criticism that such roles are being gobbled up by non-trans performers. “This was a concern for us, but you are dealing here with a double minority – Sid had to be South Asian and pre-transition. She also had to be between 33 and 35 years of age,” Marjara explained. “The window in which we could cast was very, very narrow. That is why we didn’t get many people coming in to audition. We did have trans actors who play Sid’s friends in the movie.”
Sanyal picked up an award for Best Trans-performance at the Kiel Transgender Film Festival in Germany in 2018 for his efforts. Jamie Meyers got a prize for best actor (non-transgender role) at the event.
“I have had trans people come up and me and tell me that the film reflects their experience, and that they found it refreshing and humanistic, which is really important for me to hear,” Marjara said.
The 52-year-old director’s credits include the short film The Incredible Shrinking Woman (1994), which deals with a woman’s experience with anorexia. Marjara battled the condition during her formative years, and it saved her from being on the Air India Flight 182 that was blown up mid-air by Khalistani terrorists as it flew between Toronto and Delhi on June 23, 1985. Marjara’s mother and sister were on the aircraft.
Marjara revisited her relationship with her mother in the moving personal documentary Desperately Seeking Helen in 1999. The film uses Marjara’s quest to interview the actress Helen as the gateway to a memory project involving her mother’s journey from Amritsar to Quebec and her struggles with belonging in and adapting to an alien and often distancing culture.
The Air India tragedy forms the subject of Marjara’s next feature film, about an Indo-Canadian single mother whose own mother has died in the terror attack. In Calorie, the single mother also struggles to bring up her two teenage daughters, one of whom is “anorexic” and the other “a wild, boy-crazy party girl”.
Calorie is not autobiographical, Marjara said. “It is completely fictionalised, and the only connection is to the Air India tragedy. The film is about trauma. I am exploring how tragedy and violence get passed down from one generation to another.”