JUMP CUT
A REVIEW OF CONTEMPORARY MEDIA

The very beginning of the film opens with the tacit understanding between the filmmaker and her protagonists Smiley and Glady, where they acknowledge the presence of but still perform for the camera: we see Manimekalai shooting a reluctant Smiley who is doing her makeup in front of the large mirror over the cupboard, and a shy Glady who is framed through the bars of her kitchen-window as she is about to soak the lentils (for the traditional South Indian dish of sambhar/lentils in gravy). Smiley and Glady's responses make it clear that this sequence was shot impromptu and not from a preplanned list of reenactments, and it then sets the stage for "real" events to unfold in front of the camera, as exemplified by the following scene that precedes the initial title sequence.

As we get a glimpse of selfies uploaded by Smiley through a close shot of her Facebook page, she informs us about a cell phone she had lost recently and her desire to "kill all her stalkers" by "unfriending" them on Facebook. She also reveals that on uploading her sensuous selfies/photographs, she gets a "thousand likes" from her Facebook contacts. However, the “likes” disappear the moment she posts something serious like her desperate search for an apartment. This sequence sets the tone for the two women’s hankering for the warmth of shelter from a reasonably good apartment throughout the film. If the cozy atmosphere inside their apartment exemplifies their amiable domestic sphere, Smiley reveals through her activities on social media how connected the two are to the public sphere, primarily symbolized by contemporary social networking sites like Facebook. The film also calls attention to the fact that these modern Internet spaces are an extension of the globalized spaces of the cosmopolis of Chennai, where ideologically and personally the iron hand of orthodoxy and hate does not seem to loosen its grip when it comes to accepting alternative lifestyles and sexual orientations. Though the film’s plot revolves around its protagonists’ apartment hunting, Smiley's statement imagining killing her "stalkers" prefigures the series of unpleasant encounters the two women will have with strangers in the garb of landlords.

Immediately after the title sequence, we see Glady on her laptop filling in an online application form for an apartment. In a subjective close shot, we see the free classified ad submission page entitled, "OLX.IN: India's Largest Marketing Place." Glady fills in the details: "looking rented house for two working transwomen." She looks for a non-furnished, "400-500" square meter apartment, in the range of "6000 Rupees" per month. Glady's closeup (profile) as she contemplatively qualifies their status as working transwomen by retyping "transwomen" presages their struggle because of their identities, despite their ability to provide for themselves through income from their theater work. Glady's expectation regarding the apartment's size and rent also seems to be grounded in reality.

In filming all this, instead of weaving a tapestry of melancholia surrounding the failure to rent an apartment, the director and her protagonists decide to have a little fun along the way. That is, the actresses perform in staged sequences juxtaposed against the spontaneous/candid ones. In this way both the script and the main characters mock the isolating Tamil society that does not want to see or listen to people who do not conform to its idea of the normative. Such a homo/humo(r)sexual tone is set right at the beginning of the film. After submitting the above online form for an apartment, we see Smiley and Glady browsing through other classified advertisements in the newspapers. Smiley circles advertisements that limit their applicants to "vegetarians" only. In India, targeting "vegetarians only” for tenancy indicates in a culturally specific way that the apartment is owned by a person belonging to a higher caste/Brahmin community. However, in contemporary times of Hindu fundamentalism, which forbids eating beef, the implications could be extended further. Such an advertiser might well be someone who supports/sympathizes with the aggressive Hindu right-wing ideology.

Responding to an ad, as Smiley calls a landlord, Mr. Jagadish, he repeatedly addresses her as "Sir," a vestige of the British colonial rule often used as a respectful way of addressing a man, and she keeps correcting him until he gets it right. Jagadish's mechanical action sets up repetition as one of the framing techniques of the film: it evokes laughter as it points to deeper problems of (mis)communication and disavowal/aversion on the part of the larger society that excludes Others who look or sound different. On Smiley's insistence that "She is not a Sir, but a Ma'm," Jagadish finally corrects himself, but by the time Smiley tries to express her interest in his apartment, we see that he has hung up on her. We hear the programed voice on the other end say: "The person you are trying to reach is speaking to someone else." In the above scene, when Jagadish fumbles in a case of mistaken identity by addressing Smiley as Sir, we see a "mischievous" smile during a quick exchange of looks between Smiley and Glady. In this way, we as the audience are invited to participate in the slapstick situation where an expectation is created regarding Jagadish's fumbling. Though the blossoming warm humor is abruptly cut off by Jagadish's hanging up, it sets up the narrative frame of the film. As Smiley and Glady hunt for a rented place to stay in Chennai, their performance-driven adventures will generate a framework of repetitions in connivance with the filmmaker’s probing camera. Their successive encounters with varied landlords enable the possibility of cinematic humor intended to call forth and critique the indifference of an educated middle-class towards the imminent predicament of transpeople being thrown out on the street without a roof over their head.

Humor and repression

In his meditations on laughter, Bergson (1914, 73) points to the significance of repetition in the context of the repressed:

"Let us then state the law which, we think, defines the main comic varieties of word-repetition on the stage: In a comic repetition of words we generally find two terms: A repressed feeling which goes off like a spring, and an idea that delights in repressing the feeling anew."
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Thus for Bergson, humor comes not from the mere repetition of words but from the context or the idea behind those words. The repetition of "Sir" by Jagadish in the earlier scene, despite Smiley's initial effort to correct him by telling him that "I am not a Sir, but a Ma'm," has its value mainly because of gender, because Smiley is a transwoman. On the one hand, her dialogue seems an expression of her (repressed) yearning to be acknowledged and addressed as a woman, the category to which she rightfully belongs, while on the other hand, the (matter of fact) repetition of "Ma'm" by Jagadish after Smiley corrects him a second time underscores his objective of (mechanically) rejecting (again) gender variance. Smiley's desire for acceptance is something the audience had seen momentarily go "off like a spring" from the coiled recesses of her heart. As he abruptly hangs up before talking about the rental, his rudeness signals society's narrow-mindedness in accepting phone calls according to its rigid demarcations of gender. This shutting down of Smiley's voice prefigures a similar reaction when the two women visit an apartment in person. The elderly lady’s husband not only makes a sudden entry and forbids the crew from filming his wife but also indicates that Smiley and Glady are uninvited, unwelcome visitors at his house: he instantaneously decides not to rent out the space he had advertised. These landlords have conveniently “forgotten” that the client at the other end has only been responding to their advertisements.

This discourteous, sudden cutting the call/slamming the door also troubles our understanding of humor or laughter in the conventional sense, as exemplified by Bergson's analysis of Molière’s plays (Bergson 1980, 61-192). In the case of Smiley and Glady, the humor, at least in the film’s early sequences, comes from the setup of the conversations. But then the abrupt end to their conversations with potential landlords also nips in the bud any possibility for the seeds of humor sown by the performances of Smiley and Glady to fructify into a burst of big laughter with possibilities of narrative transformation into irony or satire. The coitus interruptus in the initial stages of Is It Too Much to Ask? also points to a larger anxiety, particularly on the part of male agents in society, in accepting the blurring of the category of the female.

In addition, the director and actors undermine any such hope that we may have with women landlords. If during the conversation with Jagadish, the showcasing of the performative abilities of Smiley and Glady takes place in the setting of the balcony of their current apartment, the staging for the following scene of the telephonic conversation with a female landlord/apartment owner moves outdoors and takes place against the backdrop of the Bay of Bengal/Indian Ocean in Chennai where Smiley and Glady are sitting on a seawall/embankment by the sea.

This time around, the (female) voice at the other end probes the "family" status of the protagonists. In response to the initial self-introduction as "We are two girls ... we both are single and working professionals ... we are interested and would like to know more details (about the apartment)," the female landlord at the other end does not reveal any of the (extra) details regarding the apartment, but coldly asks "Are you, bachelors or family?" As the anxious Glady is keenly observing, Smiley says, "We are not married yet, but I may get married soon." It is through this statement by Smiley that we also come to know of their relationship as friends rather than lovers. When Smiley confesses that she is "looking for a boyfriend," the response is again cold, "How many members will stay?" Smiley repeats herself: "My roommate—another girl—and myself." The response now cools down further and indicates the disinterest of the landlord: "Where are you working?" Smiley sensing the indifference, hurriedly says, "I am working in a theater group called Panmai/Multiplicity. I am the founder of the group." Smiley also adds that she works with other theater groups and that she also conducts workshops for children. The denial/rejection becomes more explicit at this point: "Ok. We are looking for a family." A desperate Smiley responds, her voice becoming increasingly stern: "I have a family too. My parents ..." and the voice at the other end gets impatient and cuts in abruptly: "Ok, listen. A family will be better for us. So ..." After a pause, a visibly upset Smiley responds: "We also come from a family. We are not from Mars. My parents are working in my hometown, and I am working here." The voice at the other end goes, "No ...no. We are looking for a family. A family like a husband and a wife." This sums up the impossibility of Smiley and Glady's acceptance by the orthodox mainstream society in a nutshell: The family in their rigid view can only be heteronormative, and the endorsed relationship could only be the one between a man and a woman.

Humor and social significance           

What is significant for us in the above sequence is that Smiley's (hurt) retort, "We are not from Mars," does not make us laugh. We are weighed down by the predicament and the almost impossible situation of our protagonists to find accommodation. The filmmaker straddles the aesthetics of drama and documentary in search of a form to frame both the performative energy of her theater-professional protagonists and the reality of their lives. The dialogue in the incident I just describds sheds light on the protagonists’ interiority. The hopelessness of their lived reality subsumes their customary rhetorical flourishes, as exemplified by the witty and incisive retort of the creative (but bitter and angrier) Smiley, who is disappointed at a potential landlord’s unwillingness to be open and their indifference. What keeps Smiley's statement short of cynicism is her desperation: she still wants to convince the advertiser that she has a family with Glady and that they are living a decent and legitimate life.

If laughter has a social function, then Is It Too Much To Ask? wears it on its sleeves in order to seek the attention of and engage with its audience, including members of the society for whom exclusion seems to be the norm. For Bergson,

"To understand laughter, we must put it back into its natural environment, which is society, and above all must we determine the utility of its function, which is a social one. Such, let us say at once, will be the leading idea of all our investigations. Laughter must answer to certain requirements of life in common. It must have a Social signification" (1914, 7-8).

The resonance of laughter has to do with its social signification and utility. For instance, Smiley and Glady’s plight attains its gravity and enables Leena Manimekalai to delineate the specificity of their struggles as transwomen because she, as the director, posits the scarcity of rental space within an urban city like Chennai as the backdrop. If she were to frame the plot in a village, the characters’ struggle to find rented accommodation would not make much sense. The plot gains its urgency and relevance in terms of scrambling for space in a megalopolis like Chennai, and simultaneously, in a society that is not generally inclusive when it comes to people who look and work in areas that are different or nonnormative. More importantly, Smiley’s flare-up signifies her outburst as a social being who yearns for acceptance as she also comes from a normal family and aspires to have one of her own as she is confident she can fend for herself with her work in theater. Here, Smiley’s response is a consequence of the unjust rejections of the landlords/apartment owners and, therefore, is far removed from the “anesthesia of the heart’ as well as humor. This sequence presages the emotional trauma of Smiley and Glady as their search for space is both outside and inside of the hearts of the people, they live around in Chennai. While in the earlier sequences with the older female landlord and Mr. Jagadish, the social signification and the utility aspect of laughter are easily discernable through the swift transition from ignorance about identity to a secret pact and the insular miscommunication, devoid of emotions, in the telephone sequence above with an apparently younger female landlord, emotion is not silenced.

We are able to empathize with the protagonists since we have seen them live in their current apartment as any other family would, with the regular routines of dressing, cooking, sharing a joke, going out to work, planning the future, etc. The sharp and intelligent response of Smiley of arguing for her normality (through her heteronormative parents) and against any abnormality (not an alien who has descended from planet Mars) does not have the wit that could invoke a smile but seems more of a (tired) voice with its (repeated) plea for legitimating one’s identity and accepting their being as they are.

In the next scene, we see Smiley (as Lillie) and Glady (as Julie) performing as clowns and entertaining special-needs students in an elementary school. We see the young children laughing out loud as they see Lillie and Julie they make soap bubbles with a wand and try to catch the flying bubbles along with some of the children in front. They also (inadvertently) slap each other as they clap alternate hands to a rhyme. Finally, as Lillie tries to pick her hat up from the floor, she repeatedly plays with the trick of kicking it with her toes a few feet away. She wins her big applause before she leaves with Julie. This scene is like a mise-en-abyme for the entire film: Smiley and Glady repeatedly perform their act of the search for an apartment while making a film. They do so in a way to entertain us while simultaneously drawing attention to the hypocrisy around and inside us. However, the filmmaking process might impede the rental process. As Smiley reveals to Leena in one of the scenes, where the filmmaker as a woman/activist is conversing with the actresses, the presence of a filmmaking crew might be working as a catalyst to encourage landlords to reject Smiley and Glady's application for a rented place. The masochism inherent in Smiley's kicking of the hat has its parallels in Smiley and Glady's efforts at performing for the camera and entertaining and informing us about their plight, though at the cost of their own suffering. The soap bubbles, which they create and attempt to catch with the students, recall in the bubbles’ vanishing the many rented homes/apartments we see slip through the women’s fingers throughout the film. Nevertheless, their untiring and spring-like bouncing back and the mechanical repetition of this same action recalls Bergson's thoughts on the breakdown of the human and the takeover of the mechanical during the repetition that’s responsible for the comic. Importantly, this recursive feature also proves Smiley and Glady's untiring efforts and indomitable spirit in claiming a rightful space to live with dignity.