2023 has been a hopeful year, by and large, for onscreen transgender representation in India. Almost all of it has been on streaming. Much of it is down to the performances. Trinetra Haldar Gummaraju, a doctor-turned-actor who is trans in real life, made a memorably heartfelt debut in the second season of Made in Heaven. Less accomplished but still effective was Sushmita Sen in the JioCinema series Taali. Some headway appears to have been made in the mainstream, which is why I was a little apprehensive about watching Haddi on Zee5. The trailer for Akshat Ajay Sharma’s debut film seemed to hark back to a certain Mahesh Bhatt school of filmmaking. And it featured Nawazuddin Siddiqui, a cis-het actor often cast as gender-variant for shock.
My fears, it turns out, were greatly misplaced. Grotesquerie and misrepresentation are the least of Haddi’s problems. Instead, its unstable plot, low-rent aesthetics, a needlessly convoluted narrative style, and the profusion of gangster and North India clichés sink this film. After his odious body-snatching business is busted by cops in Prayagraj, Haddi (Siddiqui) runs off to Noida. He’s taken in by a gang of skeevy cross-dressers, who pose as prostitutes to effect hits and blackmails. Hovering around is a jaunty land-grabbing politician, Pramod Ahlawat (Anurag Kashyap), and a tentative NGO owner played by Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub.
Director: Akshat Ajay Sharma
Cast: Nawazuddin Siddiqui, Anurag Kashyap, Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub, Ila Arun, Vipin Sharma, Saurabh Sachdeva, Saharsh Kumar Shukla, Rajesh Sharma
Run-time: 134 minutes
Storyline: Harika, a trans woman, assumes a new identity to exact revenge on a sadistic Noida politician
Flashbacks clarify that Haddi is actually Harika, a trans woman. “I was lynched as a kid,” she says, calmly, as though stating a fact of life in her home state. Shunned and abused by society, she was shielded by a commune of charismatic hijras, who also cared for her after gender-affirming surgery. The evil Pramod Ahlawat killed her godmother (an always reliable Ila Arun) and usurped their land as Harika helplessly watched. The carnage happened on the day of her wedding to Irfan (Ayyub). Hence Harika in the present timeline, pretends to be a man and infiltrates Ahlawat’s seedy nexus.
There is nothing fundamentally wrong with conjuring a violent and vengeful trans protagonist, someone who kills and schemes her way to the bitter end. If executed with defiance and style, it can even feel empowering. But Haddi is far from that kind of a film. How to invest in Harika’s revenge track when the film messes up the emotional blueprint of her life? A sweet exchange, between Siddiqui and Ayyub on the rooftop, is promptly rushed into tragedy. The flashbacks resemble a reality show backstory montage. Siddiqui does try to imbue his character with some heart. Yet, a fixation on what he perceives as outwardly ‘feminine’ gestures — swaying his hip, flicking his hair — obfuscates any sense of a genuine interiority.
Haddi seems like the type of film that used to be greenlit a decade ago. It wears its noir griminess on its sleeve, and there are too many styles and tonalities jostling for attention at a given moment. The film advertises its allyship baldly (“Pride, Be Proud,” says a poster in Irfan’s office). There is also an evident Kashyap hangover from back in the day; Vipin Sharma, Saurabh Sachdeva and Saharsh Kumar Shukla feature in the cast. It’s nonetheless fun to watch Kashyap and Siddiqui engage in a ferocious beatdown in the end. Best friends make the most compelling adversaries.
Haddi is currently streaming on ZEE5