‘Mike reiterates the gender stereotypes we’re trying to destroy’: trans man Adam Harry

In the film, Anaswara Rajan plays a young, gender-nonconforming person who wishes she had been born a boy and plans to undergo gender-affirming surgery.

*Spoiler alert

Mike, the new Malayalam film about a gender non-conforming person, is in trouble. Many, many problems. Lyrics of the song that begins with the introduction of the protagonists, and the approach towards transgender people and the transition, Mike is written with little research and a lot of trouble. Adam Harry, a trans man from Kerala who watched the recently released film, tells TNM everything that went wrong with the film.

Directed by Vishnu Sivaprasad and written by Ashiq Akbar Ali, Mike released on Friday, August 19. In the film, Anaswara Rajan – a talented young actor – plays the main character of Mike aka Sarah, a gender non-conforming person from central Kerala who is frustrated with the privileges she cannot have because the society sees as a girl. Mike is depicted wearing loose clothing and cropped hair, walking in the company of men, drinking on top of the Idukki hills. They wish out loud that they were born a boy, so they can come home late or pee wherever they want. Mike has a moment in front of the mirror, when the character looks at himself as he tries to flatten her breasts. In the next scene, we see Mike research hospitals that offer gender-affirming surgeries.

“The film will confuse people and misrepresent gender identities and trans people,” says Adam Harry. “From the moment the movie trailer came out, something was wrong. Then they released a song with lyrics that said ‘Kaalam maarana/ Kolam perukayaano/ Penne nee’ (you change your shape to adapt to the times, girl.) The frustrations that Sarah/Mike feel in the movie may affect many women, but it doesn’t reach the stage of surgery. Trans people don’t have surgery to get male privilege. The film ends by establishing that Sarah is not a trans person, but a cis woman. So how does she experience gender incongruity,” Adam asks.

In fact, the narrative that transgender men are just “confused girls” who want male privilege has been pushed by transphobic and “gender-critical” groups around the world, says editor Ragamalika Karthikeyan. from The News Minute. “It’s a narrative used to deny the agency of trans men, even by people who call themselves feminists. It’s problematic to have a film that pushes the same agenda, presented as a progressive project,” says Ragamalika.

In the film, Mike goes on a trip to Karnataka to undergo gender affirmation surgery and meets a man on his way home. Ranjith Sajeev plays a drunk and depressed man, seemingly aimless and unaware of what is going on around him. Adam points out how his character – Antony – comes off as toxic and aggressive, qualities used in many films to define masculinity. “His character reminded me Arjun Reddy (a 2017 Telugu movie infamous for its misogyny) – a past in college where he fights and beats everyone, engages in reckless driving and violence, on top of all that drinking. It’s like the script asserts its masculinity through these descriptions,” Adam says.

Antony’s past is actually the most poorly written part of the lot – none of it makes sense, the sudden outburst of anger in an otherwise ordinary college life, lots of violent fights, reckless driving and the death of a loved one. Perhaps the writer didn’t want Antony’s character to simply support Mike’s. It’s hard to see how such a violent, out-of-control man will help, but of course the hero always comes to the rescue. In one particularly annoying scene, newly acquainted Mike and Antony are going to a restaurant at night when men at the next table misbehave with Mike. Mike reacts the second time, tugging on the guy’s hand until he cries out in pain. When Mike later happily tells Antony about it, he nods and walks away, but you’re shown how he beat up all the offending men in the bathroom, and that’s what scared them off.

“All of this just underscores the gender stereotypes that we have been trying to destroy. That to be a man, you have to drink or smoke or beat people, and that if you’re a woman, you’ll be sweet and caring. Trans men are often asked such questions, if we cycle to prove that we are men. To express our masculinity, we don’t need toxicity or aggression. Gender identity and gender expression are two completely different concepts. No matter what gender you belong to, you can express yourself however you want,” says Adam.

Even Mike, in an attempt to be “one of the men”, systematically belittles women, apparently agreeing with society’s definition of what is expected of them. “Why do you worry like a woman? Us men don’t need that,” Mike says at one point.

A quick past shows Mike was abused as a child, and a mother who often asks “why weren’t you born a boy”. “Trans people are often asked if child abuse is the reason they want to transition. Such stories will only reiterate these misconceptions. That there are such “reasons” behind a person identifying with a sex different from the one they were assigned at birth. And then again, the character of Antony at one point turned out to support Mike’s decision. But at another point, he asks Mike why they need a physical transition when they already behave like a boy. These are manipulative questions,” Adam points out.

The film ends with a trans man “explaining” to Mike which gender Mike identifies with. This, from Adam’s point of view, is the most problematic of all. No one, not even another trans person, can tell someone what gender they identify as: it depends on the person themselves. Mike is told that their reasons for wanting surgery seem to be a way to combat the gender bias society has created against women, and that they can fight it “as a woman”. Such a statement could misrepresent an already little-understood discourse – that trans people who have surgery are simply confused and that a little conversation like this might “clear” their heads, or that it’s simply a “phase” that they will come out of.

Adam, initially approached by the filmmakers to play the character of the trans man, had refused, finding the scenario problematic. “The first story was that Mike didn’t have their surgery because they fell in love with Antony. It’s such a misconception, which is about sexual identity and has nothing to do with gender. It just goes to show how little research went into writing the film,” says Adam.

This, in fact, is another queerphobic narrative that is widely used to deny LGBTQIA+ people their personas, Ragamalika adds. “This assumption that their gender or sexuality can be ‘corrected’ if they just meet the right man/woman – that’s the whole idea behind corrective rapes as part of conversion therapy practices.”