Blue Sunshine


Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Blue Sunshine
"Blue Sunshine was made by a woman who has been through it herself, and that shows in every fibre of the film." | Photo: Glasgow Film Festival

A few decades ago, trans people in films were almost all monsters. Now they tend to be inspirational figures or the locus of tragedy. The key thing about all of these portrayals is that they’re made by outsiders who may feel sympathy but rarely have real empathy. They absorb as much for each other’s work as from research interviews, and the result is something that often feels parodic, missing the essential understanding of what trans experiences are like. Blue Sunshine was made by a woman who has been through it herself, and that shows in every fibre of the film. It cannot, of course, speak for or to everyone, but if you’ve found the subject in general hard to get your head around, this is the film that will enlighten you.

It is also, quite simply, a superb piece of cinema, and one of the highlights of the 2024 Glasgow Film Festival. This is all the more remarkable because writer/director/star Samyuktha Vijayan has no prior experience. She made the film because she felt it needed to be made, and put herself through the wringer emotionally to play its central character before as well as after transition – at the same time as directing with remarkable skill. Talent like this doesn’t come along very often and if her career goes on to develop as it should, film fans will want to have caught this first venture.

There’s an ‘inspired by true events’ note at the start of the film which doesn’t refer entirely to Vijayan’s own experiences, though they are in there. The film draws on the real story of a woman who transitioned whilst working as a teacher in India. Its central character, initially known as Aravind, has wanted to do this for a long time, but, as you might imagine, it’s terrifying. Despite calling out, from time to time, perceived failures to be sufficiently masculine, colleagues and family members have no inkling of Aravind’s real gender. Only one work friend, and her husband, are there to provide support. When frustrated parents try to push ahead with an arranged marriage, however, things come to a head, and ‘Aravind’ feels she has no choice but to reveal herself as Bhanu.

This is the point where, usually, a film on this theme would pile one dramatic confrontation on top of another. Blue Sunshine is far more subtle. Bhanu does not meet with complete acceptance – far from it – but neither is her life destroyed. When she doesn’t get support at work, a union rep steps in, and she is able to exercise certain protections under the law. As is often the case, the kids in her physics classes accept the change far more readily than adults – it’s just another of those unfathomable things that adults do, and adults are ultimately not very interesting. The colleague on whom she has had a longstanding crush tells her she’s brave, however. There seems to be a way forward. What the film then does is to show viewers how hard it is to actually walk that path.

For people who cannot engage with gender in the ways expected of them, the weight of it is everywhere. It’s in the greetings people offer, the subjects they choose to talk about, the absurd gendering of objects from mugs to scooters. School pupils have gender-based seating and there are rules about make-up and the length of hair. This film is full of these little observations. There are also details which will make many trans viewers laugh, familiar as they are, such as Bhanu’s surprise upon finding herself spontaneously crying whilst watching a film. Gradually, aspects of Bhanu’s experience emerge which will resonate with cis women in a similar way. She also finds herself talking to a woman who doesn’t understand why anybody would choose to live in a gender role which, in her experience, has brought repeated frustration and sorrow.

In little ways, Bhanu’s journey prompts the people around her to examine their own experiences of gender, though it’s not clear that anybody learns anything. Vijayan is interested in realism, not wishful thinking. The Indian context of the film adds a dimension not present in the West: the presence of a third gender category going back to ancient times. Far from helping Bhanu, this complicates her situation further, as she struggles to explain to people that it doesn’t represent who she is (and neither can she comply with associated superstitions). It also doesn’t seem to represent a solution for a non-binary character in the film, who identifies more closely with present day Western models of gender fluidity.

It’s in connection with this character that Bhanu’s shortcomings emerge. She is perceived by some as heroic for transitioning as she does, but she has neither the knowledge nor the temperament to live up to that. She’s just an ordinary human being trying to live her life, and Vijayan’s willingness to confront that, without apology, makes for a much more interesting film. The supporting characters are similarly complex, and are handled with sympathy. Bhanu’s parents, at first deeply ashamed, have their own journeys to make. They’re trying to deal with additional issues in their lives, not least the loss of a job which means that the father is unable to fully perform his masculine role as provider.

Medical issues are dealt with here but very much take a back seat to the social experience of transition. Bhanu’s doctor is sympathetic but first and foremost practical, and there’s an exploration of the usefulness and appropriateness of seeing a psychologist, as well as getting social experience ahead of taking the plunge into surgery. Like many trans women, Bhanu worries a lot about her voice, and although it’s not directly discussed, we see her struggle to modulate it effectively in a classroom environment where she really needs to be able to project in order to command attention.

The film is set during an interesting period for a physics teacher, when NASA was attempting to touch the Sun. It may be no coincidence that Bhanu means ‘sun’ in Sanskrit. Her reference to the NASA mission gives us a sense of hope in science, in a changing world – hope that we are all progressing towards a more enlightened future. In the meantime, Blue Sunshine invites us to recognise the cumulative effect of having to deal with one struggle after another, even when the individual struggles are small, and how unnecessary most of them really are, and how exhausting to have to reckon with just to be oneself.

Reviewed on: 05 Mar 2024
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Blue Sunshine packshot
A high school teacher undergoes transition to her new life while working in a conservative small-town school.

Director: Samyuktha Vijayan

Writer: Samyuktha Vijayan

Starring: Gajaraj, Geetha Kailasam, Masanth Natarajan, Manimegalai, Samyuktha Vijayan

Year: 2023

Runtime: 98 minutes

Country: India


Glasgow 2024

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