Thangam, a short film directed by Sudha Kongara for Netflix’s original anthology Paava Kadhaigal is adapted from a Tamil short story of the same name, written by Shaan Karuppasamy. I watched the film first, and noted that its overtly tragic ending hardly made an impact on me. Out of curiosity, I read the short story, and found that it was quite well-written, though a little different from the film in the way it treats its protagonists. I thought comparing how the film and story each dealt with certain aspects would provide some insight. (Warning: spoilers ahead!)
The premise: Born to a Tamil Muslim family, sometime in the 1980s, Sattar is a charming trans woman. Facing long time bullying and ostracization, Sattar risks everything to support the dream of Saravanan, a beloved childhood friend.
Note: In the short story as well as the film (including subtitles), Sattar is referred to using male pronouns, and I have retained the same in my translations of the Tamil text and dialogues quoted from the film. However, where I speak about Sattar, I have used female pronouns, as I believe this is how Sattar would have wished to be addressed.
In the story, Sattar’s father Ibrahimbhai owns a cloth shop in the village. Sattar has many sisters, six to be exact. Two of her elder sisters, who are married, had daughters but no sons. She grew up in a house filled with women and their possessions. This evokes a certain visual and gives us a sense of how the days unfold within this house. It is here that Sattar tries dressing up like a girl for the first time, at the age of ten. Her father beats her for the transgression. We read how Sattar is repeatedly chased out of the house by her father, only for her mother to allow her to sneak back in later. The story puts it thus: “Sattar’s mother spoke very little. Sattar’s father’s rage lasted only until Sattar’s mother began to speak.” Both these details are woven nicely into a short scene, in which Sattar’s father is irritated to find her sleeping beside her sisters. The mother intervenes and reasons with the father to let Sattar be.
Saravanan’s private space
The short story begins with Saravanan and Sattar seated on a concrete bench in a dilapidated bus stop on the outskirts of the village. It is a desolate spot, surrounded by trees. Buses pass by occasionally and stop only if someone waves a hand. Saravanan likes to sit here and read books. In the film, this spot is transferred to a riverbank, beside a bridge. I thought this worked well, especially since the film ends at this very spot, with Saravanan drowning in his sorrow, as water flows all around him.
The family’s acceptance of the runaway marriage
When Saravanan and Sattar’s sister Sahira elope, the film shows us Saravanan’s bloodthirsty father going in search of his son, ready to kill him. Sahira’s father isn’t much different. He says, “Kill them both. I’ll do the same if I find them.”
The short story takes a completely different route. There are no bloodthirsty relatives looking to kill the young couple. A few months after the incident, Saravanan’s father finds out that the couple is living in Bangalore. He arrives at their doorstep with his family and relatives. He bangs on the door, demanding Saravanan return home. Neighbours call the police. The police advise them to resolve the dispute amicably. Once Saravanan’s mother learns that Sahira is pregnant, she switches sides. “All of you may leave. I’m staying here.” Then, one of the relatives reasons with an angry Saravanan’s father.
“You have but one son… What are you and your wife going to do after disowning him? Will you renounce everything and go on pilgrimages to Kasi and Rameswaram? What is the big deal? Our villagefolk will say that he married a Muslim girl. They have already torn us to shreds for it. Everything will be back to normal in sometime. You first come in, let us discuss this inside the house. Tell me frankly, even if we were to go through our entire community, will we find such a pretty girl, one who looks like a Kashmir apple?”
Not every non-conforming marriage ends in bloodshed. There is usually someone in the family, an uncle, an aunt, a cousin, who finds an emotionally or logically convincing reason to let the marriage be. The story describes this cooling down in great detail. Saravanan’s mother stays with them for a couple of days and asks the rest of the relatives to leave. Saravanan’s father begins to visit them once in two weeks. “He transformed over time to the extent of asking his daughter-in-law for a cup of coffee,” the author writes. A year later, Saravanan and Sahira visit their village, when Saravanan’s father insists that the newborn’s naming ceremony be done at the family’s ancestral temple. Saravanan’s father personally invites every relative; some of them turn up, some don’t.
“What have you done Saravana? Caste and community are important. If you had wanted us to be a part of the good and bad times of your family, would you have made this decision?” some elderly relatives whined. “These old ones are simply jealous that you found a pretty wife who looks like a film heroine. Ignore them!” the younger relatives whispered. Sahira’s father walked away, ignoring them as he went past them on the street. He behaved the same way a couple of days earlier too. But there were no traces of anger on his face.
I liked the fact that the story mentions Sahira’s skin colour and beauty as reasons for the relatives’ eventual acceptance of her. People seem to need an excuse, even a flimsy one, to move past their earlier stance. We later find out that Saravanan’s father came around to liking Sahira’s biriyani.
Be it the habit of chewing betel nut to make her lips red, or the shirt and lungi, or the fact that Sattar makes a living by gathering ration cards from the villagers, minute detailing has been done to make Sattar come alive on screen.
The short story describes Sattar as slightly balding. In the film, actor Kalidas is anything but that. Sudha mentioned in an interview that she initially wanted to cast a trans person in the role, but could not find the right artiste in time for production. While I liked Kalidas’s portrayal of Sattar, I cannot help but wonder if casting an actor, who conforms to Tamil cinema’s standards of good looks is a ploy to get the audience to accept the character. Why not cast a trans person, especially one whose appearance does not conform to screen standards of beauty—for instance, someone who is balding in this case—and still make the audience relate to them? Are filmmakers evading this choice?
Stacking up the odds against Sattar
The short story does mention that Sattar gave all of his savings to Saravanan, so the latter could start his life with Sahira. But there is no mention in the story that Sattar had saved it up for her gender reaffirming surgery. The story doesn’t indicate that Sattar dreamed of marrying Saravanan some day. In the short story, when Saravanan says that he is in love with Sattar’s sister, Sattar simply asks, “What am I to do then?” That day Sattar is in a bad mood and picks a fight with her mother. At night, when everyone is asleep she silently curses her sister under her breath. As per the story, Sattar may be in love with Saravanan, or she may just be possessive of the one person she gets along with. When Sattar aids Saravanan and Sahira in meeting secretly at the cinema hall, she even wonders, “What is motivating me to do this? Is it anger against my father? Is it my affection for Saravanan? Or is it my love for Sahira?” After Saravanan and Sahira elope, Sattar’s mother asks Sattar to leave the house, while in the film she wails and asks her to go die.
The short story wants to show us Sattar’s life, whereas the film adaptation seems intent on stacking up the odds against Sattar, reducing her to a state of pity. Using a character to elicit tears, a common pitfall of Tamil cinema, has become this film’s undoing as well. But I must mention that the moment when an emotional Sattar tells Saravanan, “If I touch someone they either take advantage of me or move away in disgust. Nobody has ever hugged me with love before,” has translated very well to screen.
The most problematic part in the film—the melodrama surrounding Sattar’s death and its aftermath—is thankfully missing from the short story. In the film, Saravanan is angry with his family and in-laws for being responsible for Sattar’s death and leaves without letting them see their grandchild.
The short story, however, shows us Saravanan’s guilt. After Saravanan runs away with his lover to Bangalore, he calls up his friends in the village and enquires about Sattar. They tell him they have not seen or heard from her. Few days later, when Saravanan phones his friends, they pass the phone to Sattar. Sattar does not say anything other than, “Embada Thangam [My precious].” A friend lets Saravanan know what transpired.
“Sattar’s father chased him out of the house. His mother too asked him to leave. Nobody from our community in the village gave him a place to stay. They didn’t let him in at the ration shop either. It seems they snatched away all his cards. He ran out of money and slept at the Mettukadai bus stop for a few days. One night, five to six drunkards disrobed him and created a ruckus. They beat him up and left. He hit his head somewhere in the dark and got injured. Some people who went to the bus stop in the morning saw him and informed the police. He was treated at a government hospital for two months. He has been slightly deranged ever since he returned. Since we lived some distance away, we didn’t come to know about this. He keeps muttering ‘Thangam’ and roams around the bus stop. He pelts us with stones if we go near him. I thought he might regain his senses if he spoke to you. He has run away now, maybe back to the bus stop.”
Saravanan’s guilt chokes him. He wants to do something to help Sattar. He asks his friends to bring Sattar to Bangalore and plans to take her to hospitals in the city. The friends bring Sattar along on a train. When the train stops at Salem, Sattar gets down and runs away. The friends scour the station to no avail. They reach Bangalore and inform Saravanan. All three of them go back to Salem and search, but Sattar is never to be found again. They return to their homes after filing a complaint with the railway police.
One year later, when Saravanan visits his village with his wife and newborn baby, he meanders and reaches the dilapidated bus stop, his usual reading spot. The short story begins at this bus stop, with Saravanan and Sattar seated beside each other. At the story’s climax, Saravanan is back at this bus stop, alone. He sits down on a crumbling cement bench and thinks of all that has passed.
Everyone at Saravanan’s home had gone back to leading a normal life. In fact, they celebrated Sahira and her baby. Sahira will perhaps be accepted by her family too in sometime. But nobody remembers Sattar. Even Sahira does not mention Sattar these days. Saravanan thought Sattar’s family felt a kind of relief at Sattar having gone missing. He is the only one still in search of Sattar. He had gone to the Salem railway police station twice, to check for updates. He had given the police a photograph of Sattar, which he obtained by badgering Sattar’s elder sister. Each time he went to the police, they had to search to find Sattar’s file, and dust it after taking it out. He paid for the policemen’s tea, and he would wait around to hear them say the search was ongoing. Saravanan wondered how happy Sattar would be to see his baby. At the same time, he thought, “Would Sattar be in a state to feel joy?” These days, whenever he came across mentally challenged people on his travels, he could feel his heart pounding. Their faces troubled him deeply. He would stare intently at them. He would stop to buy them something to eat, believing someone would do the same for Sattar.
The short story becomes painful to read because of two key points. The first is its focus, not on Sattar’s tragic end, but on the pain of being forgotten. There was a living, breathing person, who went to great lengths for Saravanan, but who was forgotten by everyone. While Sattar is killed off in the film, in the short story, she vanishes like the dust on the file in the police station.
This is shown through another beautiful moment in the story: Saravanan visits the ration shop where Sattar was always to be found waiting to collect provisions. Saravanan notices that in the one year he was away nothing much had changed, except for the walls that had been whitewashed for Pongal. But behind the plaster, he can still see faint stains of betelnut that Sattar used to chew and spit. Only Saravanan sees the stains beneath the whitewash, and it is this hurt that moves him to tears in the story’s climax. The second highlight of the story is that it zooms out of the tragedy that occurred to Sattar and gives us a moment to reflect upon the numerous people we pass by on the streets, whom we find convenient to ignore. Sattar could be any of them. This zooming out from a personal story of loss to the perspective of a society that habitually sidelines and casts aside people, whom it does not care about, makes the short story more powerful.
I wish these points were incorporated in the film. A good example of this zooming out effect done well in a short film is Balu Mahendra’s Oru Manushi [A Woman], made for his television series Kadhai Neram—a collection of 52 short films, each less than half an hour long, and each adapted from a Tamil short story. Oru Manushi is adapted from Prapanchan’s short story in which a photographer migrates from village to city in search of better opportunities. Unable to make ends meet, he decides to make some money by taking photographs of a woman he knows, an old friend, who has become a sex worker because of financial difficulties.
In Balu Mahendra’s film, this friend works as an extra in the film industry and makes a living by doing odd jobs. This is an important change from the story because the cliched story of a woman coming to the big bad city and being forced into sex work makes her a passive character, someone who simply cannot escape her fate. Balu Mahendra changes this, but he also adds a young, naive girl to the mix, who is smitten by the photographs of the older woman. The young girl has come to the city with the dreams of becoming an actor and the photographer promises to take some portraits of her too. While telling the story of a single photographer eking out a living, Balu Mahendra shows us the larger picture of a vicious cycle—the city keeps drawing more people from the villages, some make it big, the rest are left scrambling. This is something the film Thangam could have benefited from.
Despite its flaws, Thangam gives us in Sattar a character difficult to forget. I hope we get to see more such stories, sans melodrama. I hope we get to see more trans actors playing themselves. Thangam is a step in the right direction—of adapting from literature and of telling the stories of people who have long been ignored by Tamil cinema. And of incorporating dialogues like the one below in an industry dominated by punchlines catering to base instincts.
Guy teasing Sattar: “Ask him why he keeps strutting around like a girl?”
Saravanan: “Does he ask why we horse around like men?”
Thangam, short story by Shaan Karuppasamy
About the author
Ramchander blogs on Medium occasionally. On his desk you might find photos of Steve Jobs, Buddha, Isaac Asimov and Satyajit Ray. He is the co-editor of The World of Apu and Aroo, an online Tamil magazine for fantasy and science fiction.