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In our latest Screen Southasia Q&A session, recorded on 8 May 2023, we speak with the filmmaker Leena Manimekalai and Smile to discuss their 2017 documentary film ‘Is it too much to ask?’.
Film synopsis: ‘Is it too much to ask?’ follows the journey of two friends, Smile and Glady, as they search for a rental apartment in Chennai. Along the way, they encounter obstacles and social stigma for being both single and transgender women. Their identities make them vulnerable to the caste-ridden, feudal and patriarchal landlords of the city, who deny them apartments and, in turn, deny their existence. Despite these challenges, Smile and Glady face every day with grace, humour and positivity, turning their anger and frustrations into songs, dances, plays and works of art that give them hope.
The full discussion is now available on Youtube, Soundcloud, Spotify and Apple Podcasts.
This is an excerpt from a machine-generated transcript of the event and may contain inaccuracies. For exactness, please refer to the recording.
Sana Amir: Hi everybody. Thank you for joining in. I’m Sana Amir, multimedia editor at Himal Southasian. I’m joined by Alok, assistant editor of Film Southasia, Smile and Leena. Before we begin, I would like our editor Roman Gautam to give a brief welcome note. Over to you, Roman.
Roman Gautam: Thank you, Sana. Thank you, Alok. First things first, a huge, huge thank you to Smiley and to Leena for being here. It’s always a treat to have the filmmaker here, to have the star of the show is even better. Well, at least one star of the show because this show had two stars. And Smiley, I hope that you will give the second star a big hello from us, and also I’m sure the audience will echo that. Thank you so much.
This is a short session. It’s the second time we’re doing this for Screen Southasia. It was such a delightful film, even though it must be said that the topic that it takes on is not delightful at all – this kind of discrimination. And I think what’s remarkable about the film is how it unpeels discrimination of all kinds. People talk a lot about intersectionality, and I think the number of discriminations that come to bear, in this case, on just two people trying to find a place to live. The film really does shine light on it, but given how heavy and difficult that subject matter is, still to be able to show that with a way for people to understand it and to empathise and to give people a way in, I think it’s a testament to the film and also a testament to the courage of the stars of the film.
With thanks to everyone who has joined us, I will hand it back over to Alok and Sana to take things forward. But I do think that we should say, the question we’ve all had in our minds over the weekend – is it too much to ask? And I think we can all say, very firmly that hell no, it is not too much to ask. Back to you guys.
Alok Adhikari: Thank you, Roman. I will quickly introduce our guests today. Leena Manimekalai is a published poet and a self-taught filmmaker. Her films have won various awards at film festivals around the world. Leena’s debut feature film, Sengadal (The Dead Sea) from 2011 won the Network of Women Film Festivals Award in Tokyo and was played at the International Film Festival of India after overturning a ban. Her documentary, Goddess from 2007 won recognition at the Mumbai and Munich film festivals as well as the Asia Pacific Screen Awards. Her anthology, Pennadi (also known as My Mirror is the Door), and the documentary Ballad of Resistance, both from 2012, were made with grants from India’s Public Sector Broadcasting Trust and International Women in Radio and Television respectively. And her documentary White Van Stories from 2015 was broadcast on Channel 4 in the UK and recognised at the Al Jazeera International Documentary Film Festival. Her second fiction film, Maadathy – An Unfairy Tale (2019), was nominated for awards at the Busan International Film Festival and FIPRESCI India Grand Prix. Mubi India is streaming six of her films as part of its ‘Spotlight on’ young talent strand.
Living Smile Vidya is a trans woman writer, actor, and a trans and Dalit rights activist. Smile is the founder and director of the Panmai theatre troupe in Chennai, co-founded with Angel Glady, one of the other protagonists in this film. Smile’s autobiography, I am Vidya, was published in 2007 in Tamil, and has been translated into seven languages, including English, Malayalam, Marathi, and Kannada. This was also adapted into a film ‘Naanu Avanalla…Avalu’ in 2015.
Thank you both so much for being here.
Sana Amir: Thank you, Alok. Starting with you, Leena, could you tell us a little bit about how the film came about, and the distinctive mockumentary, docu-drama genre of the film?
Leena Manimekalai: The film was possible only because Smiley and Glady were my friends. So it was a very participatory way of making films. As a single woman, I faced huge challenges in finding a rental place, and when I saw Smiley and Glady facing the same challenges and more because they are trans artists and they’re also equally politically articulative and we were all very active in the sociopolitical arena in Tamil Nadu. One profile search on Google and then they can refuse a house for us. Already Chennai is very orthodox, Brahminical and Brahmin-patriarchal, and also classist, and sexist. Chennai has a lot to offer, but Chennai doesn’t have a house to offer to women like us, so we thought we will try and mock the whole situation. That’s why we call this a mockumentary. It can also be called a performance documentary but it is also real life. So it’s a very genre-jumping film. But we just wanted to tell the story in a very engaging way, so we used any tools that came our way. A few of the house-hunting expeditions were real and we also wanted to really highlight how they want to only give the house a particular profile of people, which is directly discriminating against women like us. So it is both fact and fiction and also performative.
In Panmai’s Colour of Trans theatre, Smiley, Glady, and Gee Semmalar, the other actor, sat together and devised scenes. We wrote them together and we made it happen. We’re artists and we always express what we face in life through our art. We might not find resolutions in the art but we see art as a home. We don’t have a home but art is our home. That’s a parallel we wanted to draw and that’s why the whole scene from their play was shown. There is real, there is hyperreal, there is life and there is art. Like swinging pendulums between the two, that’s how we go on in life and that’s how this film was also made.
Alok Adhikari: Thank you for that wonderful answer. I actually have more questions about the stylistic choices, but we’ll come back to that. The documentary is about the challenges faced by Glady and Smile, and the difficulties they face because of their gender and sexuality. But besides that, the story asks so many questions about casteism and classism, misogyny, and the very heteronormative culture that we all live in. Can you talk a little bit about that? Because so many of those scenes, especially the scenes where the camera is hidden or not exactly visible – those things just come about. Could you talk a little bit about that experience?
Leena Manimekalai: It was participatory in two ways. We wrote the scenes together and we also wanted to make the camera another character in the film. We are using the camera as an extension of the body. We needed the footage and this might raise a lot of ethical questions, but when the whole thing is based on our oppression, we choose the ethics and we choose what we want to do to get this message out. Most of them knew that they were being filmed but few of them didn’t know, but that is a choice we had to make because we wanted to amplify the message that this is happening in our society.
Now I live in Toronto, Smiley lives in Switzerland, nobody can do that here, they will be jailed. But in Chennai, it’s so cultural and we are forced to live within that culture and navigate our lives, and that’s exactly what we reflected in the film. We are navigating a casteist, classist, sexist, misogynistic, homophobic, transphobic, feudal society, to just have a roof over our heads. There is anger, but being angry 24 hours, 365 days will send us to an asylum, so we also have to laugh about it.
Sana Amir: Thanks, Leena. The next question is to you, Smiley. In the film, you and Glady are not just subjective characters in the film. In a lot of sequences, you are directly speaking to the camera, with the filmmaker and the audience, in a more participatory sense, as Leena mentioned. So could you talk about the process, when, and how you decided to be a part of the film?
Smile: I think it’s a collective decision. As Leena said, she also had a similar experience of finding a house, she also had to move across so many houses. Every time we met, it was a different place. That was exactly right at the time we were actually looking for a house and it was the same time I was working on my play for Color Of Trans, and I was just back from London after doing a course. After spending six months in London, it was very clear how things are different there. Before, it was so normalised because you lived there and it was a part of your culture, and now you see it’s totally different. So we were just talking about this one day and then Leena asked if we should make the film.
I was nervous in the beginning. I portray myself as a brave and cool, take-it-easy girl, but I was actually scared. It’s one thing when you go alone and ask people to give us a house for rent – that really doesn’t work, and then you go with the crew, with a camera and mic. We were genuinely looking for a house, checking every day, it’s literally like a job that you have to plan for. It’s always frustrating. At some point, we are really genuinely looking for a house and it’s also being filmed, so sometimes I was worried, like can this really work?
When they see the camera, the house owner or landlord won’t react how they would genuinely react when you don’t have anything, you know? So it was quite challenging. Even if you’re a family, man, woman, or trans person, in general, looking for a house in India or Chennai is difficult. The landlords have this very high feeling that they’re doing you a favour, and then they have a set of rules for everything. Even if you’re a family, there are so many rules and regulations you have to follow. There can be compromises when it comes to “only Brahmins” or “only vegetarians”, but for us, it’s also a question of whether you’re single, you shouldn’t have visitors, you shouldn’t have friends, you should have a dress code, you should be at home at this time, and you should make sure that you can pay the rent – there are even more rules for us. We did this for around six months.
Leena challenges us to perform, adding to our scenes in Color of Trans. We were ready to perform and the scenes were hilarious. Even today, I was talking to my friend, I also showed her some scenes and I was very much enjoying it, even now after like six or seven years. It was a brilliant experience and I’m happy and proud to have been a part of it. Thank you, Leena.
Alok Adhikari: Thank you, Smiley. We’ve already talked about how participatory the film was and how it came together, how you shot it, and how you wrote it together. Could you talk a little bit about the editing process, Leena, and what that was like? Because I’m sure there was a lot more that you shot, a lot more written, even in the trailer you see a lot more that isn’t in the film. So could you tell us about the editing process and also a little bit about the song and how that came about?
Leena Manimekalai: Thangaraj was my editor, he’s been editing most of my films. We had an amazing team together, Dhanesh was my cinematographer, and Adarsh was my sound engineer – it was like a family. Going out to shoot a scene was so much fun, so sometimes we forgot that we were making a film. It’s endearing to recall those days when we went on these house-hunting expeditions. Our life was feeding the film. We were going through so much in life, in my life personally, and in their life personally. Sometimes, it was so stressful that they start having conflicts. I will visit them, and we will cook together and talk the conflicts out. It never felt like we were doing a project.
Editing also happened the same way. With Thangaraj, he operates like my right hand. We had three versions of the film, one is the feature version. I had a long version too. Then there was a finalised 30-minute version, because in documentaries, short versions are easier to get distributed and circulated widely, and it also had broadcast in NHK Japan. So for NHK Japan, it was 28 minutes, but I had a different editor there in Japan, so that’s a different version. I finally zeroed in on a 30-minute version and it has travelled to more than 150 festivals, it is still traveling. So I think this is my most travelled film because of its length, and also because there is darkness and a lot of fun too – so that’s what makes this film very distinct. And definitely the personalities of Smiley and Glady come through and everybody falls in love with them when they watch the film. That’s exactly what I wanted to happen, so the people who watch it, think, hello, please give them a home! That’s the kind of feeling they get, that’s the feedback I get whenever I screen it.
More than anything it is a human experience – having a home, having a roof over your head is a basic need, so in that sense, yes, it really resonated with millions of people. A short version of the film really helped it in wider circulation and it also won a jury mention at Film Southasia in Nepal, that’s why we are together again here and still screening the film, so I’m really grateful for the recognition. FSA is another home for us because we’re constantly looking for spaces where we feel less alone. FSA is a place like that where I feel very less alone.
So yeah, we had many versions but finally agreed to this version. I also spoke to Smiley and Glady about it. Many times, I’ve thought about following this film. Now that Smiley is in Switzerland and Glady is in Toronto – maybe I should follow up with “Is it too much to ask 2”? I keep thinking about it and I might try a feature-length film about their next phases of life and their next expeditions.
[Clip from ‘Is It Too Much To Ask?’]
Sana Amir: This clip really stands out to me, where they say – when we share other pictures we get a lot of comments and DMs, but when we post serious stuff, nobody cares. Smiley and then Leena, if you could elaborate on that?
Smile: It’s just a fact. For this film, it was like six months, but in my entire life – after I came out and after I moved to Chennai – it’s been the same. I know so many people from Facebook and in real life, there are many people who can rent out a house, but none of them really tried to help. But when you post or when you share something political or about human rights, they will like, share, and all that, but their solidarity ends there. I am not judging them, but solidarity also means actually hiring a trans person for work, and giving them jobs.
When I post about looking for a house, they like and share it, but they will never rent to you. So this is what really frustrates me and I’m glad that you noticed that. We think queerphobia is just when they call them names or bully people, of course, that’s true, but there is also internalised hesitation and fear. Are you really able to be a friend to them, and share your knowledge and opportunities with them? That is something we still struggle with. Supporting on a surface level is easy but really being there practically is hard for them.
Leena Manimekalai: Yes, allyship is always complex.
Going back to your question on the song, I really wanted Smiley and Glady to speak and sing in English because this is our English. Wherever we go, we’ve been mocked for our accents. I see trans artists here in the West also having difficulties in finding a home. Chennai is just a motif and it will translate to any city in the world, what trans people face. So I wanted them to talk in English and also make it a statement that this is our English. The language is what we speak, the language is not something you can dictate to us. I got this confidence from the Black community in the US. You don’t have to speak in an American or English accent for people to accept you. We were also making a statement about using accented English. We are broken, our language is also broken and the way we deliver it is also broken.
Secondly, in Tamil films, they break into songs even in the middle of a big conflict, so as filmmakers and artists, we wanted to give a nod to mainstream films where we wrote a rap song inspired by Maya Angelou’s poetry and made Smiley and Glady own the streets. This is the English we speak, this is the song we sing, this is the rap we write. We were trying to give our take on film language and how stories are conveyed – every single decision was political.
[Clip from ‘Is It Too Much To Ask?’]
Alok Adhikari: That play is wonderful. It was 2016 when you shot this, we screened it as FSA in 2017. And the transgender community still faces a lot of the same issues that they faced back then. These two lines: “The Supreme Court accepts us as a ‘third gender’ now” and “It’s okay, we’re liberals now”. Can you reflect on those lines and say a little bit more about what it means?
Smile: That was around the time that the Supreme Court announced a third gender. The Tamil Nadu state legally accepts us as “thirunangai”, and I think this is a better way to call us. I was among those fighting to have them call us thirunangai and definitely not third gender because I have this issue with the number and everything. This goes back to what I was saying earlier, about how people will join you as allies in the virtual world but when it comes to reality, they cannot do anything.
When I speak out about these things and complain, the police or the public always say, hey but the government accepts you now as a third gender. People think we’ve got everything, India is a la la land for transgender people, everything is sorted out. But you’re not going to do anything more than that.
Sana Amir: Leena, would you want to add anything to that?
Leena Manimekalai: Smiley was among the first in India to question this – if we are the third gender, then who is the first gender? That’s the question she asked. She continues to ask very important questions in the sociopolitical space in Tamil Nadu. It is also quite complicated when trans artists seek asylum outside and they quote all these laws to them and say India is safe for the trans community, we have trans characters in Mahabharata, so we have this tradition of celebrating the trans community – so why would you want to leave?
Though there are laws and all these Supreme Court judgments – blasphemy laws and defamation laws are all used against dissenters and minorities. The trans communities are not safe in India. And though we have these laws in place, the visibility of trans people, whether that’s in getting jobs and getting their rights, is still very less. It doesn’t translate in practice. Otherwise, why would a household in Chennai have a placard outside saying “only Brahmins”? If the Constitution is effective in India, how can anyone do that? That whole scene made us laugh actually, but it should also make us cry.
Sana Amir: Coming back to the process of filmmaking and camera work, in the start, we see when Smile and Glady visit a landlord, they get a bit confrontational and then you’re forced to turn off your camera. And in a couple of places, it also seems like the camera was hidden. So could you talk a little bit about the obstacles you face while shooting the film?
Leena Manimekalai: We were trying to make a statement and expose the double standards of these landlords. But then we are stopped and we are asked to stop filming. You can see how the scene plays out, where the lady is trying to hide that the renters are trans people to the husband. You can see patriarchy playing out when the man comes in and takes control of the situation. We are not just exposing feudalism, we are also exposing the patriarchy, transphobia, and hypocrisy. There are many layers to it and without the camera, we wouldn’t be able to capture it instantly. So certain decisions were made according to what we wanted from this situation. We were constantly asked to switch off the camera. These reactions were there when the camera was visible, so we also gave GoPros to Glady and Smile when they went inside and the house owners did not know that they were filming them.
If you go with the camera they will act very civil, they will act very woke and progressive, but ultimately, they are not going to give you the house. So certain decisions are made to bring out the truth, sometimes the camera is visible, and sometimes the camera is not visible.
Sana Amir: Smiley, there was this brief sequence on your trans mother, where you go and meet her. One of the recurring excuses people use in the film to deny you a place is not having a normative or traditional family. So can you tell us about the importance of a found family or chosen family for LGBTQ people in Chennai?
Smile: I was really not a family person in general. My parents think they disowned me, but actually, I was the one who disowned them. It’s not that I hate them, but I’m just not a family person in that sense. I travel and I’m more like a nomad. Even with my chosen family, I was not really close to them. I lived in Pune for like six months, begging in the shops and trains, and then after I moved away when I was looking for a job and doing theatre and activism and all that, I was not with my chosen family a lot. But when I meet them, this is what they also say, if you choose a different lifestyle, you will definitely face problems. Being with your chosen family, the good thing is that there is a community of mostly trans people, sometimes a house or a street where there are many other trans women. In a way, it’s a comfort zone. But Glady and I, we didn’t really want to be in that comfort zone. We wanted a challenge.
Leena Manimekalai: To add to what Smiley was saying, it’s a natural thing for anybody, a woman, a trans person, somebody from an oppressed caste, from a lowered class, anybody from margins – it’s very natural for them to seek upward mobility and to be a part of the mainstream. The whole reluctance of mainstream society to embrace trans people, the film challenges that, and questions that. Why are you reluctant to embrace the aspirations of the trans community, whether that’s having a proper job, or to live in a nice apartment?
In the film, we are trying to say we’re always like refugees, we don’t have a home, but art is where we take refuge. Art is our home, art is where we could be ourselves, we could speak what we want, we could question, challenge, and resist. We want to live the life that we want to live in art. So there is this parallel where we are juxtaposing life and art in the film. You could see Smiley and Glady in the space where they are artists, you could see them blooming and they are confident, and in life, you can see them encountering all these oppressive power structures. Having a song, the clown sequence, the theatrical pieces in the beginning and the end, and then going back constantly to art to take refuge, is the narrative device. It was a natural and conscious choice.
And also as filmmakers, we have to give our critique on how mainstream films are made. Trans roles in mainstream films are always performed by men. They don’t hire trans actors. The songs and how they’re used in films are objectifying women and trans women and anybody from the margins. So we are actually telling this whole story from our gaze. For example, in the song, you see them dancing in the streets. Normally, the streets are not safe and free for trans people in Chennai. In the song, they are living the dream, this life they want to live, with freedom, equality, and dignity. We claim in art what we are not able to claim in life. So that’s a statement in the film.
Note: This video and transcript was updated after publication on 12 May 2023.