Laxmii movie review: Akshay Kumar’s torturous acting and loud storytelling drown out every good intention in the script
Laxmii’s shrillness overshadows its purported goal of representing trans persons on screen and ends up further otherising this ostracised community.
castAkshay Kumar, Kiara Advani, Sharad Kelkar, Ayesha Raza, Rajesh Sharma, Ashwini Kalsekar, Manu Rishi Chadha
A man possessed by the vengeful spirit of a trans woman was the focus of writer-director Raghava Lawrence’s 2011 Tamil horror comedy Muni 2: Kanchana. Lawrence played the central character in that film. Nine years later, he helms the Hindi remake, raising the decibels by several notches and pinning the entire enterprise on a torturous, cringe-inducing performance by Bollywood superstar Akshay Kumar.
Kanchana itself was characterised by loud storytelling. In the scenes in which Lawrence’s character was taken over by the spectre though, his acting, while not brilliant, was understated when viewed now in comparison with Kumar’s caricaturish interpretation of a trans woman. Laxmii’s shrillness drowns out its purported goal of representing the trans community on screen and every molecule of good intentions in the script.
In the slightly-tweaked Hindi version of the story, Kumar plays Asif, a rationalist committed to eradicating the public’s belief in paranormal activities. Asif is married to Rashmi (Kiara Advani, looking like Kumar’s daughter here and young enough to be his child in real life). Her father (Rajesh Sharma) remains opposed to their inter-faith alliance. When the couple travel to Daman where her family resides, a series of events leads to the ghost of a transgender person called Laxmii entering Asif’s body.
In an India where the ruling Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) openly demonises Muslim men who marry Hindu women and uses the repugnant term “love jihad” to label all such marriages, it is significant that a leading Bollywood actor has chosen to play a Muslim man married to a Hindu woman. That this actor has come out as a BJP supporter in recent years makes the move all the more noteworthy (even if somewhat inexplicable). The Tamil film did not feature this sub-plot.
In an India where the trans community is marginalised and in a Hindi film industry that rarely writes substantial trans characters, a mainstream Hindi film placing a trans woman at the centre of its storyline is a momentous development.
These noble elements recede into the background though in the face of Kumar’s thinned-out voice, camp gestures and wildly swinging hips as soon as Asif becomes the embodiment of Laxmii.
Ironically, Sharad Kelkar who appears as the actual Laxmii in the latter half of the film is nothing like Kumar’s Asif/Laxmii. So not only is Kumar indulging in stereotyping, his decision to play Laxmii’s spirit in the way he does is inconsistent with Kelkar’s far more mature performance.
Of course the question arises: why did Lawrence cast men actors – Sarathkumar as Kanchana in the Tamil original and Kelkar as Laxmii in the Hindi remake – instead of getting trans actors to play trans persons? Non-availability of trans actors cannot be an excuse as debutant writer-director Jubith Namradath showed us just recently, when he roped in the trans actor Sheethal Shyam to play a trans woman in his 2018 Malayalam film Aabhaasam. While this is the ideal – and clearly an achievable one – in the past half decade Indian cinema has also witnessed some remarkably sensitive performances by male actors playing individuals who have undergone gender reassignment surgery to physically become women. As reference points, Kumar could have used Sanchari Vijay’s National Award winning work in Naanu Avanalla…Avalu (2015, Kannada), Jayasurya’s empathetic turn as Mathukkutty who becomes Marykkutty in Njan Marykkutty (2018, Malayalam) and Vijay Sethupathi as Shilpa/Manickam in Super Deluxe (Tamil) just last year.
So much forceful messaging is overshadowed in Laxmii by Lawrence’s conformist casting and direction, Kumar’s clichéd acting, several mindless aspects of the writing, a dated storytelling style in which boisterous songs just pop up out of the blue unrelated to the mood of the narrative at that point, the overall flashiness and noise. The powerful image, for instance, of a Muslim man entering a Durga temple in which the villain has taken refuge because a bloodthirsty spook cannot cross that threshold to evict him. Or those visuals of an assembly of trans persons lost in their prayers to Lord Shiva. Or the tale of a prejudiced man from a majority community growing fond of his son-in-law from a minority community.
It does not help, of course, that the messaging is all mixed up. For one, in the aforementioned temple scene, Asif is surrounded by a crowd of live trans persons, and the film – perhaps unwittingly – implies here that they too are unworthy of entering the premises in his place. More than once, Asif tells people that if his stance on irrational thought is disproved, “Maa kasam main chudiya pehen loonga” (I swear by my mother that I will wear bangles), echoing the sexist allusion to bangles as symbols of feminine weakness widely prevalent in north India.
Strangest of all is the fact that Laxmii ends up taking a position that the rationalist is wrong, that superstition is logical and supernatural forces are a reality. Seriously!
When Akshay Kumar began his career in the 1990s, he was often derided as a wooden actor by critics. In the decades since, it has been a pleasure to witness his evolution as an artiste with incredible comic timing and also, occasionally, the ability to imbue a character with dignity and strength (cases in point: Special 26, Airlift). This new film is, therefore, a sad reminder of his limitations.
Irrespective of its aims, Laxmii serves to further otherise the already ostracised trans community. It is also tacky and insufferable.
Laxmii is currently streaming on Disney+ Hotstar.
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