Leena Manimekalai’s Is It Too Much to Ask? — tenancy, transphobia,
and Tamil society

by Swarnavel Eswaran

Leena Manimekalai's recent film Is It Too Much to Ask? (2016) has a complex use of performative, personal, and political humor. In addition, it is reflexive in the sense of drawing our attention as an audience to the very process of filmmaking and its staging of humorous dialogue as a political tool to interrogate heteronormative culture and its biases. The work is docudrama and comes from a director who primarily makes documentaries. Though the border between fiction and documentary is increasingly blurred in recent years, docudrama, a mode which often uses nonprofessional actors in actual locales, has become increasingly popular due to its ability to shed light on the realities beneath the drama of our everyday lives.

In Is It Too Much to Ask? the docudrama form enables staging reenactments and documenting the lives of transwomen Smiley (Living Smile Vidya) and Glady (Angel Glady) as they search for an apartment to rent in Chennai, South India. The real-life theatrical actresses have been asked to move out of their current apartment by the landlord, and the immediacy of and the anxiety surrounding finding a place to live sets up the drama, while, simultaneously, their actual search enables the possibility of following them in real-time and documenting their hopes and despair. Thus, their desperation to find a roof over their head, a profound issue in a city like Chennai, offers the possibility of a nuanced docudrama, where the divide between the staging of events and the spontaneous recording of actions as they unfold in front of the camera gets increasingly blurred.

Initially, we see Leena, who with her crew is visible in much of the film, establishing Glady and Smiley's apartment hunt through staged sequences as they browse through the classified columns in The Hindu, the iconic English newspaper in Tamilnadu. However, once they get the contact number and start talking to the advertiser, the conversation seems candid, so that the earlier provocation/staging leads to the documentation of (mis)communication as well as prejudice. In this case, the person at the other end struggles to address Smiley or hangs up on her abruptly once they grasp her lack of normative "family" status.

The film incorporates a vérité style documentary aesthetic which involves following the subjects—Smiley and Glady—with an unobtrusive camera as they meet one landlord/apartment owner after the other only to be rejected as deserving tenants mainly because of their sexual orientation, not conforming to the norm. Landlords with their upper Hindu caste requirements often want tenants to be vegetarians, to avoid "smelly" beef. As full-time theater professionals without a monthly payslip, these two are not as attractive as tenants like the information technology professionals who earn relatively high, consistent incomes. Sometimes the filming has to stop was when Smiley and Glady start talking with the landlord(s), or the camera films only the protagonists so that the responses of the landlord(s) often just heard.

The landlords’ responses themselves, often curt or averse, lead us through a chain of shifting signifiers. Through these comments we sense the fear and indifference at the heart of a highly conservative society. Visually, the two transwomen protagonists flag their non-normative sexual orientation through the way they dress and  use make up. Just as the apartment owners are finding ways/excuses to quickly dismiss Smiley and Glady as possible tenants, even if the women fulfill all the requirements listed in the advertisements, Smiley and Glady are sharp-witted and swiftly expose the landlords for who they are. The performance of Smiley and Glady, therefore, leads us to the drama of the encounter. Their wit and humor, often tinged with a claim for equal treatment and civil rights in a democratic society, along with their subtle but seething anger and cynicism, uncover and deconstruct the conservatively obtuse and patriarchal Tamil bourgeoisie. Their performance recalls Gilles Deleuze's meditations on difference and repetition:

"The more our daily life appears standardised, stereotyped, and subject to an accelerated reproduction of objects of consumption, the more art must be injected into it in order to extract from it that little difference which plays simultaneously between other levels of repetition, and even in order to make the two extremes resonate—namely, the habitual series of consumption and the instinctual series of destruction and death" (Deleuze 1994, 293). [open works cited page in new window]

For this reason I am led to examine Is It Too Much to Ask? in detail to see "how art is injected" into these stereotypical situations through humor. The narrative strategy uses repetitive incidents—the landlords and their rental units—and denials, due to difference, and then a waning of hope and onset of despair. I am particularly interested in the way humor is deployed, particularly in the very beginnings of Is It Too Much to Ask? before the narrative is subsumed by the social realities in which it is embedded. Especially through the performance of the protagonists, the transwomen Smiley and Glady, this opening exposes and undermines the superficiality of the land/apartment owners in Chennai, whose fear, anxieties, and prejudice exemplify that of the vast majority of the educated middle class. By focusing on the supposedly well-informed, “liberal” segment of society and its hypocrisy, the film reflexively draws attention to the homeless, nomadic state of Smiley and Glady, who refuse to hide their trans identity or lie about it, thereby foregrounding the plight of those who are out of their closets in Tamilnadu/India—they are forced out of their homes as well.

Towards this end, I will use the famous essay by the philosopher Henri Bergson, "Laughter: An Essay on the Meaning of the Comic" (1914) since the absurd search for a roof over one’s head is a classical comedic plot structure, so the film thus echoes Bergson's engagement with the humor in Molière’s plays. In his detailed analysis of Molière, Bergson focuses on the characters’ rigidity. For instance, memorable Molière characters like Arnolphe, Alceste, and Harpagon seem to be oblivious to the consequences of their actions and this inflexibility and failure to adapt causes the humor (Mathewson 1920, 8). In the case of Is It Too Much to Ask? it is not the repetitiveness of the search but the rigid landlords and their mechanical, predictably negative responses which enable a space for humor. Bergson's meditations on humor dwell on the context of its mechanical rigidity, social significance, repetition and repression. Thus I find his ideas on humor/laughter also applicable to contemporary films that engage topical issues complexly with an aesthetic of subtlety and reflexivity, even where our awareness of that aesthetic dissolves before it could be labeled and categorized as irony or satire.

Furthermore, Is It Too Much to Ask? is modern and contemporary in its approach as it draws on humor to seek the attention/intervention of a larger audience on an unpopular topical issue. The non-inclusive treatment of transwomen in contemporary times is particularly noticeable in India, where their claims for equal rights and treatment are spearheaded by a few activists like Leena Manimekalai, whose bisexuality is well-known through her anthology of autobiographical poems. The problem, as Deleuze puts it, is that pleading the case of the particular still means that the particular stands out as a problem or an aberration: "[g]enerality as generality of the particular ... stands opposed to repetition as universality of the singular" (Deleuze 1994, 1). In this way, Is It Too Much to Ask? is, ultimately, about the singularity of Glady and Smiley as transwomen as exemplified by the equivocal climax of the film. Within the general situation of a landlord suddenly asking his tenants to vacate in Chennai, the film focuses on the uniqueness of its protagonists' predicament as transwomen who do not want to hide their identity. Thus, their search for an apartment and the responses are singular and do not offer to be collapsed under the notion of the discontents surrounding an apartment hunt in a big city. Repetition is "difference without a concept," according to Deleuze (1994, 13). Here I want to move from the idea of mechanical repetition's use in evoking humor to shed light on Glady and Smiley as transwomen, whose acts of repetition then are difference without any originary identity or concept to be compared with.

Repetition and Is It Too Much to Ask?

The act of Smiley and Glady's hunting for an apartment exposes the rigid parameters of gender ideology, setting norms for appropriate sexual conduct or the ideal heteronormative "family." According to Bergson, the comic has to be relatable to the human:

"The first point to which attention should be called is that the comic does not exist outside the pale of what is strictly human. A landscape may be beautiful, charming and sublime, or insignificant and ugly; it will never be laughable. You may laugh at an animal, but only because you have detected in it some human attitude or expression. You may laugh at a hat, but what you are making fun of, in this case, is not the piece of felt or straw, but the shape that men have given it,—the human caprice whose mould it has assumed" (1914, 3).

The film has us travel with Smiley and Glady, experiencing apartment hunting through their needs and subjective point of view. We see a series of houses and apartments and occasionally the (relatively) luxurious space of the kitchen and the bedroom. Therefore, Bergson's claim regarding the human aspect of the comic resonates with this kind of apartment-hunting. Its resonance may have a greater social significance for Indian audiences since living as a tenant in Chennai has become a nightmare for the millions who cannot afford to own their own home, It is one of the costliest metropolises in India. Nonetheless, the landscape of Chennai in the backdrop makes clear the explicit contradictions expressed by potential new landlords and their embarrassing hypocrisy. For instance, the first elderly landlady who objects gently to being filmed welcomes Smiley and Glady and is almost willing to let them in as tenants. Even after Smiley and Glady inform her of their transwomen status, which she does not immediately grasp, she is warm and asks them not to spill the beans and keep it a secret. However, her husband who barges in, a wireless phone on his hand explaining his delayed entry, is stern and curt. Not only does he object strongly to the director and her crew filming, but he also refuses to engage with these two potential clients and shows them out, along with the crew. We overhear as he admonishes his wife/and filmmaker: "Why do you bring such people here?" His harsh reaction is in stark contrast to that of his wife, who promised adequate metro water, the one supplied by the government, and groundwater if they were willing to pump manually for two hours every day, and went so far as to express her willingness to modify some amenities for the sake of her potential tenants.

We see a subjective shot of the apartment before Smiley and Glady meet the landlady discussed above. Smiley presses the calling-bell/buzzer outside the door, and the next cut is to their taking a look at the relatively spacious interior of the apartment, which has abundant sunlight due to the large windows in both of the rooms, the kitchen, and apparently the bedroom. Smiley gets nostalgic as she tells Glady how her mother's wishes of a sun-filled home with two large windows in each room seem to come true. As Bergson points out, here, the landscape evokes our interest as it is linked to the human, though it is not related to humor or laughter (Crocker 2010, 83). Nonetheless, it prefigures the warmth of the landlady who tells Smiley and Glady: "Keep it [their sexuality of being transwomen] a secret." Smiley and Glady tacitly agree, as exemplified by the big smile on Glady's face; she perhaps is surprised by this compassionate and immediate response from an older woman from an earlier generation.

The narrative moment implies that trans people did not usually encounter such realities at close quarters, since differently oriented people were usually almost erased or rendered invisible by the rigid and controlling hands of a patriarchal society. Traces of the latter reaction then become unmistakably visible when the husband makes his disapproval loud and clear as he slams the door without even engaging in a rudimentary conversation with his potential tenants who had, after all, responded to his advertisement in all earnestness and had fixed up an appointment before their arrival.

A subtle humor in the above sequence occurs because of the unexpected response of the landlady, which bridges the generation gap and undermines our stereotypes regarding older people, recalling Bergson's statement regarding the “anesthesia of the heart” as one of the primary conditions for laughter (1914: 5):

“The comic will come into being, it appears, whenever a group of men concentrate their attention on one of their number, imposing silence on their emotions and calling into play nothing but their intelligence” (Ibid, 8).

In this case, the difference of Smiley and Glady could be argued to silence the emotions of the seemingly traditional older woman and her intelligence-driven pragmatic response regarding secrecy is driven not by the emotion expected of a landowner in her locus. Bergson’s reading against the grain is significant for us here since generally comic moments are perceived to be driven by the (excess) of emotion and not intelligence. For instance, Stephen Winer, in his essay for the Criterion Collection on Charlie Chaplin, has this to say:

“Chaplin found that giving the audience a sustained emotional connection with his characters could bind his comedy into a coherent whole. Weaving pathos into the comedy helped to create an affecting series of peaks and valleys well suited to the longer form” (2013).

But in the case of the landlady her response could be argued to come from an “anesthesia” of her emotions and through her intelligence to safeguard the identity of her potential tenants with whom she empathizes.

On watching the film, there will be a smile on your face when the two like the apartment, and the apparently cautious landlady is willing to have them and responds positively to rent it. Smiley and Glady's names invoke the warmth of smile (Smiley calls herself "Living Smile" Vidya) and gladness, although happiness remains unlikely in the heartless structures of the highly conservative Tamil society whose urban headquarters/concrete jungle is Chennai. Nonetheless, a fleeting smile/warmth of the community is provided by the network of women.