“His sanguine spirit turns every firefly into a star”. This quote by Sir Arthur Cano Doyle for me captures the essence of the protagonist of the movie Fireflies. In his directorial debut, Prakash Deka, takes us into a journey of Jahnu’s life who has a sanguine spirit and refuses to conform to a stifling society of gender binaries ultimately paving a life of her own and turning those countless fireflies that surrounded her on long summer nights into beaming stars in the sky.
When it comes to movies on queer representation, the Indian film industry is notorious in portraying queer characters as comic relief by ridiculing and stereotyping them. A big example of such portrayal in commercial cinema is Dharma productions’ very successful movie ‘Dostana’.
In recent years, the Indian film Industry is trying to break that mold with movies like ‘Ek Ladki Ko Dekha to Aisa Laga’ and ‘Shubh Mangal Zyada Savdhan’, However it does not delve into the deeper issues, the characters and their narratives do not seem real and the dramatization seems way too far-fetched.
There is a serious lack of authentic queer portrayal in Indian cinema and ‘Fireflies” is one of those rare movies in the landscape of Indian cinema that positively and powerfully fills that gap.
Right from the very first frame, director Prakash Deka and actor Benjamin Daimary (Jahnu), masterfully drove me straight into Jahnu’s world and from that moment till the end of the movie, I was completely emerged into that world. I felt angry, every time the villagers abused and mocked her, I felt excited to see her in love and I felt broken, helpless and choked when I saw her being sexually violated. I became a part of Jahnu’s life and she became a part of mine. When characters from a movie become this compelling, you understand that you are viewing something special.
The movie is about the life of a Jahnu/Jahnvi who is biologically a man but identifies himself as a woman (Trans woman). Jahnudwells in a small village flanked by the mighty river Brahmaputra and the narrow minds of people who ridicule and humiliate her every day for being feminine.
She lives with her parents and two older siblings. The parents are simple minded people who are blissfully unaware of the daily struggles that their child has to face. The siblings consist of a gender non-conforming older sister (Jumu) and an infuriated elder brother (Baba) embarrassed that his brother and sister were bringing ‘shame’ to the family.
Jahnu is lovingly called ‘maina’ by her family but the villagers poke fun at her by calling her ‘ladys’ ‘heroine’ and so on. Jahnu also has a close friend Nibi who accepts her for whoever she is and does not question her choices. She is her only confidante in the entire village.
Most men in the village harass and objectify Jahnu but a village outcast called Palash who lives in the outskirts of the village understands and embraces her. They fall in love but Palash is not courageous enough to accept her for fear of being lashed outat by the society.
Despite all the hurdles Jahnu faces she still does not give up and wants to live life on her own terms without the constraints of her society, She leaves the village, joins a ‘hijra’ community in the city and then paves her own life from there on, It is not an easy life, it can be dark and lonely but she finally gets to live exactly as she is without any fears and apologies and that’s what makes her liberated.
If we dissect scenes from the movie, every scene is a commentary on gender norms in the society so much so that you can pick up any scene and start a discourse on it. In one school scene, Jahnu gets called ‘ladys’ by her classmates and when the teacher reprimands them, they reply that Jahnu bathes with filtered water and wears henna on her hand and that makes her female. This scene shows how anything related to beautifying oneself is almost always perceived as something that only women do. There is another scene where the older sister, Jumu asks Jhanu to not be shy like a girl and undress since she was feeling hot. Yet again showing how, being shy, coy and embarrassed are all traits that are reserved only for women.
The Coming of Age ceremony of Jahnu’s best friend Nibi portrays how age old customs are still in practice where the idea of the menstrual blood being impure vehemently persists. The song that the women sang while giving Nibi her purification bath talks about how attaining puberty for a girl is a sign that she must get subdued and prepare herself for her betrothal and future pregnancy.
These binary norms of confining masculine traits to only men and feminine traits to only women makes it an extremely gendered society. For any gender non- conforming individual, life in such a society becomes tremendously difficult. In- fact it is more difficult for a man in a patriarchal society to have any feminine traits than for a woman and this is also beautifully portrayed in the movie.
The older sister (Jumu) has short hair, rides a motorbike and is always dressed in pants and shorts, not confining to the traditional feminine ideal. But there is a lot more acceptance of that choice and a lot less ridicule compared to Jahnu’s choices of being more feminine. This is largely because in a patriarchal society for a man to behave like a woman is the most degrading and humiliating choice one can make.
If one does that, like Jahnu does in the movie, they will be meted out with the worst possible treatment by other men. Jahnu was constantly objectified, molested, sexually harassed and even raped. In several scenes in the movie Jahnu was either undressed or asked to be undressed, reducing the image of women to only their bodies.
Being the very first queer representative movie from the Northeast of India, Fireflies does an exceptional job in posing the right questions on gender identity and sexuality and can act as a pioneer in this region to take the LGBTQAI+ discourse forward.
Alisha Saikia is a PhD student in the University of Vienna. She was a MEXT scholar in the University of Tsukuba, Japan from where she completed her Masters in Religion. She also has an Mphil and Masters in Japanese Studies from the University of Delhi. She is a trained singer, avid traveler and a doll collector.