Every little moment

Samyuktha Vijayan on getting real about transition in Blue Sunshine

by Jennie Kermode

Blue Sunshine
Blue Sunshine Photo: Glasgow Film Festival

The past few years have seen a slew of films concerned with telling trans people’s stories – mostly focused on the process of gender transition. Some of them have enjoyed a good deal of critical and box office success, and one of two have successfully told stories that trans people themselves can relate to, but none of them really compare to new Indian contribution Blue Sunshine. Perhaps that’s because it was written and directed by someone who is trans herself. She also stars in it. On the other hand, her success is extraordinary, because she’s a complete beginner – prior to taking on this project, she had never even set foot on a film set.

I met Samyuktha Vijayan just before the 2024 Glasgow Film Festival, where Blue Sunshine is screening. We began by discussing the films that are already out there, and the narrative traits that many of them share. They’re almost all big on drama and sensation. They’re full of tragedy. People die. By contrast, Samyuktha’s film is built out of small moments and conveys the weight of day to day microaggressions. The cumulative effect is poweful.

“I think that is the fundamental reason why I actually wanted to make the movie,” she says. “As a transgender woman myself, it's very rare for me to see a movie about a transgender person and then say ‘That is very interesting and nuanced and real.’ Right? Because most of the movies that I have seen in the past have been made by cisgender people. The movies are always about the pain of transition, and it is always that the end is that the person has transitioned and everything is okay.

“But as a person who has transitioned and seen these issues on a day to day basis, and what makes it difficult for me to stay transitioned and kind of be happy where I am right now – it has taken, for me, about seven to eight years to get to this place of being confident and happy and enjoying my transition. And all of these things I have noted down. It was always in the back of my mind that nobody is able to capture that in a movie format for people to consume and understand. That kind of disappointment actually made me a filmmaker, to be honest. I want to talk about those really small day to day issues that make me unhappy.

“The way it all started was, I actually had given interview about a different venture of mine. I quit my job at Amazon to start a wedding couture design studio. I was designing clothes for some time just for fun, and some of the media in India was covering that. And then a producer from the Tamil film industry reached out to me saying ‘I saw your interview and I really liked you, and I wanted to ask if you want to be the lead of a movie that we are going to make.’

“They were in different city at the time. They came down to my city, the producer, director and writer. And it was such a cliched version of what it is to be a trans person. I said ‘I'm not going to do this movie because it's just full of clichés and not what it means to be trans.’ This was in 2019. Then Covid came and I had to close my shop. I moved to Seoul, South Korea, from India, and I was completely locked down and all by myself. And I thought, why not write the story myself? Because I am a trans person. I know what it means.

“Writing it out into a script for a movie was a completely unexpected thing. I never thought it would happen. What had happened was, when I was still in India, there was this person who was trying to transition while working for a really fancy residential school in Bangalore. And I knew about this story. They tried to transition, and then the management said no because it was a very hardcore conservative Christian school. So the person had to quit, transition over a period of a year and then join a completely different school as a woman. Then they wanted to make sure this person had shed all their manly traits and come as a woman so that it was easy for them to introduce them to the children: ‘This is madam,’ and all that.

“ I thought ‘What if, by some fate or hand of God, this institution was forced to go through with this person's transition as it happens?’ I was like, ‘Okay, how do I write a script about it?’ So I started watching YouTube videos. How to write beats of a movie, and then how to convert them into script, and then scenes, dialogue, etc.”

That’s an incredibly ambitious thing to take on, I tell her, and she laughs. She can see that now, she says – and it did take her two years to write it.

I ask if she always intended to star in it herself.

“I kind of had it in my mind,” she says, “but then I really wanted to cast somebody else because I have absolutely no idea how to act. But the thing was, as I was telling you, I wanted to capture the mundane but important issues that bother me about being transgender, which means for half of the movie the person is a male, and then half the movie transitioned. So I wanted somebody – hopefully a trans person, because I didn't want, obviously, male actors as trans people – but then I wanted them to be able to go back to being, like, a full fledged male and then showing how they used to be and living within the confines of mainstream society. Not somebody who had run away, which is most often the case of transgender people in India.

“I want somebody who had that experience of living there and then slowly transitioning, and being able to play both the parts convincingly. And then I thought, ‘Okay, I'm probably going to have to play this.’ I had really long hair which I had to chop down to play the protagonist in the movie. But that was not even the difficult part. The difficult part was to unlearn a lot of mannerisms and behaviour I had learned over the seven or eight years to fit into this new persona of being a trans woman. I had to unlearn all of that and just become my previous self to play that role consistently.

“To people around, this was a male teacher who was a bit weird, maybe awkward, but still a male person. They had no inkling that this person was going to do something like that. I wanted to be that person. I didn't want to show off, I didn't want to be a flamboyant character. I wanted to be somebody who wanted to try and fit in. That was the whole idea. Whether being a male or being a female, this person always wanted to fit in with the crowd because they wanted to live in society. And that is how I was when I was a man. I would be as manly as possible.

“I had to put on this act of being manly, and I wanted the actor to be able to show that. And it's very difficult. I was able to find people who would convincingly portray the female character well, but not going back and getting back again to being a woman. And so I said ‘Okay, yeah, I’ll do it.’”

That must have taken a lot of courage, i say – going back into those traumatic spaces.

“It is interesting because I still work the US as a techie, right? So I only had about 25 days I could take off, which actually meant very often I'd do the role of the male in the morning and then the role of the female. For example, all the scenes in the school were shot in one stretch, and I had to do both roles to be able to finish it faster. I didn't realise how hard it was going to be. I thought, okay, I knew how I walked and all that, so I thought it was going to be straightforward.

“The first few days, dressing up, cutting my hair short, covering my breasts and dressing up like a man felt like, ‘Oh, this is a fun thing to do because I'm doing something exciting,’ or something like that. But slowly, when I settled into being that male person, and then the entire crew was male apart from me – apart from, obviously, the female actors – I was suddenly in front of a bunch of men who probably did not understand what I was going through, that I was going back and facing all my previous life. They were just joking around and stuff like that. And then suddenly I felt like I was back in my college days, just with a bunch of men. And I had to suddenly behave like a man, even offscreen.

“It started becoming very overwhelming for me. There was nobody to confide in about how was feeling, what I was feeling and how things were. Two days were really hard. I was so depressed and I did not know what to do. I just want to run away from all this. But then somehow I persevered. I'm thankful, actually. It's so surreal that it happened that way. The person who played the role of my friend – her name is Harita in real life too – her scenes were all shot, but then by then I had actually started feeling a sense of friendship with her. So after a week, I asked her to come back on the set so that I could have somebody to confide in, and be supportive.

“She did that for almost the last two weeks where she didn't have scenes. She still came with me and stayed with me. It was very nice of her. We became close friends in exactly the way that in the movie, she supports my character. And also, the interesting thing is that actually is a real person who supported me with my transition. When I was in the US in Amazon transitioning, I actually stayed with her for a week. Her name is Stephanie and this character is inspired by her.”

I tell her that I think the film will be relatable to a lot of people who are not trans themselves because of the way it deals with a lot of issues around gender that aren't necessarily trans-specific issues. There's a conversation between the heroine and her sister, who doesn't understand the transition because she doesn't feel that being female is in any way advantageous to her.

“The moment I thought about writing the movie about the transition, the responses of different people in different ways was going to be one of the narrative elements that was going to move the story forward,” she says. “How people react to this person's transitioning was one of the important aspects of the movie that I wanted to capture, but I didn't want it all to be melodramatic and everybody getting into a shouting match or people just complimenting how beautiful I look.” She laughs. “That is exactly what happened in my personal life. I transitioned when I was in the US, and I went to India for my brother's wedding, and everybody was like, ‘Oh, my God, you're so beautiful!’ and all that.

“I was trying to remember what were some of the most unique responses to my transition at the time. And one was from a friend whose immediate reaction was ‘I lost a brother.’ Because she only had elder brothers, and I was younger than her, and she told me ‘If I were to think of my younger brother, it was always you. And suddenly I lost a younger brother.’ That was her immediate reaction to the whole thing.

“When we were younger, I would braid her hair, and her mother would keep telling me that my wife would be very lucky, because I'm very interested and actually good at doing all of this hair and make-up stuff.” it’s dialogue that she uses in the film. “I remember all of these things, and I wanted to capture all of that. But then I wanted to expand more. I thought, what if this person did not think being a woman was that great? ‘What is the big fuss about being a woman? Being a man is an advantage.’

“I wanted to know what kind of a person would think that. And I have seen that in many places, many times in Indian culture, if a woman is not pregnant soon enough, they always blame her. It just does not matter to anybody what is the reason behind her not being pregnant. People think the fundamental responsibility of a person is to get married and have children. And there are so many movies which would say the absolute destination of a woman is motherhood, right? Motherhood is your destination, independent of what you are. And then I wanted this person who has not been a woman yet – not completely, in everybody else's eyes – asking me, ‘Why do you want to be a woman?’

“It just doesn't matter whether she was born a woman. People don't consider her a woman simply because she has not reached that final destination. I wanted somebody coming from that point of view.”

I note that something else that is important to situating the film culturally, and that will be interesting to people outside India, is that India does have third gender traditions, hijra traditions and so on. I think some people in the west think that makes it easier for trans people, but obviously it's more complicated than that. There's a moment in the film where the protagonist is asked to bless a baby, something associated with that third gender role, and has no idea how to respond.

“To be honest, that scene where I go into that government office to specifically ask for my gender being identified as female, the entire conversation is exactly as it happened to me just two years ago when I went to the office in Chennai. Everybody’s used to this idea of a transgender person as a third gender person, and they always want it to be like that. And I knew I had to put that scene in. But then to contrast that, there was this person who is going to ask for blessings for her child. And that also happened to me.

“It did not happen right after when I came out of the office, it happened probably around the same time, when I had gone to invite some of my brother's friends to a party. It was my brother's friend's mother who actually asked. She actually asked my brother's friend if I would bless the child. And my brother's friend came to my brother: ‘I know it seems awkward, but my mother wants your sister to bless the baby.’ And I was like, ‘Oh my God!’

“These are educated people. It's not even people who are just random passers-by. And then suddenly they come up with something like that. It shows these deep beliefs held by Indian folks for a really long time, because the idea of a third gender person being special with special powers, it's a combination of this person being completely different and being blessed by the gods. But then in real society, being this third gender is actually being an outcast from mainstream society. It's very interesting how some people view that to be a blessing. That is very interesting to me, even outside of all of this.”

I mention that another thing that I find really interesting about the film is the way that her character is expected to be an advocate for trans people straight away and understand all the politics of it and know what to do. That's something that I think happens to quite a lot of trans people, or that some people take on themselves after transitioning, without really knowing anything about it.

“Yeah. Because I thought that would be a very interesting narrative arc. You don't become an immediately good person or a bad person after transition. You are who you are. If you are a selfish person or a person who just wants to get on with your life, not having to do anything with anybody else, you would continue to be that after as well. Again, it is another long held misconception, even within the community, and also the way trans people are represented in the movies.

“Earlier [in cinema], they were always really bad people whose only goal is sex. You see all the earlier representations of trans people as men in a women's costume trying to have sex with a man because they don't know the concept of what it means to be gay or whatever, so the moment they see a woman who was actually a man before, all they think is, ‘Okay, this person wants to have sex with man, and that is why they are like this.’ That was this completely one note negative image. And then after social media and people being politically correct and all that, now they want to show a trans person is a good person.

“They don't want to explore. They don't want to understand. They don't want to give them natural and relatable narrative positions in the movie. They are just a good person because they don't want to be talking about them in any detail, because they just don't know. Right? And I wanted to break both of these. This person can be good, can be bad. This person is who they are independent of being a trans person or not. And this person may not know everything there is to know about the entire spectrum of the LGBT community simply because they are from the community.

“There's an assumption that you always know what's the right thing to say, and you always become this motherly figure to everybody around and all that. But then this person is young. They just don't know. I thought that was very interesting, from a narrative point of view, to take that stand of ‘I don't know what to do, but I will try to help, but then I don't think I can be the answer to all of your questions.’ That makes the character more interesting, that makes narration more interesting. I try to use that in every possible scenario when it comes to my writing the narrative arc.”

So now that the film has been made, if it's well received, what happens next? Will it be time to make more films?

“Yes, absolutely. I've already written the outline for my next movie. And there is another thing: if I'm a trans person, I always have to make movies about transgender people. I'm not going to do that. My next movie is going to explore a slightly different interest of mine. I am a trained Shastra dancer, and Bharatnathyam has a very interesting history in India, especially coming from the Devadasi tradition, which is basically these temple dancers who at some point in time were stopped from performing, especially during the British time around the 1920s. There was this campaign called the anti-nautch campaign, or the anti-dance campaign, by the British. And under that, what really happened with the Devadasi tradition, etc. So I'm doing my research on that and I have an outline of a movie. I'm going to write it. It's going to take a couple of years for me to write another one.”

In the meantime, she’s excited about Blue Sunshine having been selected to screen in Glasgow.

“I think it is so exciting because all my previous film festivals are either Asian or Indian or queer. Actually, Glasgow is the first major film festival that does not have any particular association. I was so happy to be selected because then my identity of being an Indian or a trans person is not the only reason why I'm in the film festival. It's just the pure merit of what I have done, and it's extraordinary.”

It’s well deserved, I assure her. Blue Sunshine is an extraordinary film.

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