Leena Manimekalai’s Is It Too Much to Ask?—tenancy, transphobia, and Tamil society
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).
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.
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."
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 described 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.
Humor as specter
The various scenes tinged with humor, in the beginning, could be labeled as the prelude, and the scene at the school, discussed above, and the one during the climax where Smiley and Glady perform on stage in front of an audience could be argued to bookend the drama of Is It Too Much to Ask? After the school scene, the film becomes increasingly serious and darker as we see Smiley and Glady repeatedly turned down by owners. They are drained financially and emotionally as we see them pay a lot for the cab or take a bus, and finally, even drive a scooter after they have run out of money. The landowners range from a Brahmin/higher caste landlord, who uses the pretext of being a vegetarian to reject them; a willing landlord whose rent, however, is too high for Smiley and Glady to afford; and a government employee who denies them on the pretext of his preference for information technology professionals, as those workers are believed to earn a disproportionately higher income in these times of globalization and outsourcing. The long, disappointing journey of Smiley and Glady in their search for a compassionate landowner/reasonable apartment takes a toll on them as well. Towards the film’s end, when they are packing their belongings to move, Glady, the younger of the two, breaks down and tells Smiley that they have not tried enough. Smiley tries to explain the hopeful efforts that would have to go into the two hundred apartments they might have visited. Glady angrily responds by saying that Smiley "is full of negativity" and that she has had enough. Smiley, too, reciprocates her bitterness brought on by their tiring and exhausting search: "... happily go ... Bye, Goodbye." An emotionally overwhelmed Smiley, taking stock of the situation, tells the director Leena to stop filming them; an angry Glady asks, "Leena, do you have to film everything? Can't you guys leave us alone? We have had enough, ok! Just stop it." Finally, on seeing the camera still rolling, Smiley asks Dhanesh, the cameraman, to stop, and he switches off the camera.
In the next scene, we see Smiley and Glady traveling in a van along with their belongings. Then, after the climactic scene where we see Smiley and Glady's theatrical performance at a school, we see them continuing their travel in the same van, in a Chennai street at night, lit with its yellow fluorescent lights. The only difference this time is that we do not know their destination. As the van moves away into the city at night, their journey reflexively encourages us to move inside and search for our own part, as agents/onlookers, in their poignant predicament. As we saw, when forced to pack their belongings without knowing where to transport them, Smiley and Glady got emotionally overwhelmed and momentarily noticed the obtrusive camera (and the crew) impinging upon their privacy and then vented their anger against Leena and her crew for intruding too much. Unlike in earlier sequences, this emotionally-charged tiff between Smiley and Glady marks this scene as spontaneous and real, though it intrudes into the tacit contract between the filmmaker and her subjects. By directly looking at the camera and asking Leena and then Dhanesh to stop filming, Smiley and Glady disavow their blurring of the aesthetics of performance and the encountering of the "real" or the documentation of their lived reality. As a filmmaker, Leena is invested in bringing their performance to closure as far as the narrative is concerned. Therefore, their (aimless) travel on the van with their belongings is interrupted by Leena's intercutting it with their climactic theatrical (makeup and) performance. Nonetheless, the reality of their fraught and endless journey is different in tone from the warm reception they get from an empathetic audience inside a theater. Unlike in the earlier segments of the film, wherein performance (for the camera) and reality often blend and blur the borders between representation and reality, towards the end, these two aspects of the characters’ lives diverge. Such a divergence emphasizes the isolation and abjection of people on the fringes like Smiley and Glady whom the mainstream society heartlessly and unethically excludes in the name of the normative.
Nonetheless, the humorous and vivacious personalities of Smiley and Glady that we saw in the early sequences of the film haunt us, as they make the film’s later sobriety even more solemn when we watch their energy dissipate and effervescence and hope subside. The only exception, in the penultimate sequence, is the lightness they feel among children, despite their heavy hearts because of the impending homelessness. Smiley and Glady's performance to entertain children recalls Bergson's observations on "the laughable element" of "mechanical inelasticity" that is predicated on denying expectations regarding "the wide-awake adaptability and the living pliableness of a human being" (1914, 15). The lack of pliability and the rigidity of their movement in a theatrical setting emblematized the "mechanical encrusted upon the living" and so provoked laughter among children (39). Simultaneously, the inelasticity of the landlords and their mechanical and inhumane denial inform us of how they have been rendered as automatons by their prejudices in a closed and hypocritical society. While Bergson is focused on the movements and reflexes of the body, Leena Manimekalai's focus straddles the exterior and the interior of human life. The protagonists’ obdurate interiority renders the landlords/apartment owners as stereotypical and predictable regarding their expectations and detestation of difference. From the Bergsonian idea of the centrality of mechanical repetition for the comic in the context of the human, as exemplified by Smiley and Glady's attempt to entertain the school children, the last scene of their van-journey marks a transition to the Deleuzian concept of repetition and difference.
Toward the end, during the semi-climactic sequence of the play, it recapitulates in a funny but pungent way the bitter and absurd experiences of exclusion endured by the two transgender protagonists. In response to the landlord (played by Smiley) and the agent's accusation of her being different and her transparent underwear being "pink," Glady directly looks at us (the audience) and says:
"I feel. I shit. I laugh. I cry. I eat. I fuck. I breathe ... Just like everyone else (here) ... And the most important thing is ... I can pay your fucking rent. Just like everyone else."
Glady is reminding us of her resemblance to us, but her repetition during the play in response to her irreplaceable situation foregrounds her "singular behavior." In other words, her vital singularity cannot be measured or labeled against "what already exists"—the heteronormative in this case. As Jonathan Sholl notes, in his discussion of uniqueness as theorized by Deleuze:
“‘True repetition’, [according to Deleuze] in The Logic of Sense, ‘appears as a singular behaviour that we display in relation to that which cannot be exchanged, replaced, or substituted’ and as such ‘addresses something singular, unchangeable, and different, without ‘identity.’ (Deleuze 1990: 328)
As this true repetition ‘authenticates the different’, Deleuze uniquely links difference to repetition:
‘Difference gives things to be seen and multiplies bodies; but it is repetition which offers things to be spoken, authenticates the multiple, and makes of it a spiritual event’ (329). That true repetition is never of the Same, but of the Different, means not that to repeat is to enter into a pure flux where thoughts or identities dissolve into a sea of change, but it is to conceptualise a difference that insists in its vital singularity or virtual intensity and thus cannot be given an identity in terms of what already exists” (Citation and italics as in the original text. (2012, 555).
After the warm and loud applause from the audience Glady, who was returning backstage, turns back and looks at the audience one last time and, gesturing towards her underwear, says, "And you know what? ... This is not pink." Glady's final words indicate that despite the claustrophobic and constraining Tamil milieu, she has decided to be out of the closet unconditionally: She wears her pink/difference on her sleeve; there is no need for her to hide her identity underneath. Her last words, thus, prefigure the hope and enthusiasm which is still not entirely lost at the end, when their journey is repeated but with difference in the Deleuzian sense. Again from Jonathan Sholl:
“Instead, to think difference is to think the conditions that allow a thing to determine its own identity via its repetition for itself. It is for this reason that every ‘repetition is a transgression’ (Deleuze 1994: 3) since to repeat is not to reproduce what already existed but to create the unforeseen. The individual effectively repeats by creating concepts according to that which is moving him or her” (Citation as in the original text). (Ibid.)
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