Lenin M. Sivam's new film subverts the traditional Tamil love story with a tender trans romance

Roobha explores the still very taboo relationship between a trans woman and an older Sri Lankan Tamil man.

Roobha explores the still very taboo relationship between a trans woman and an older Sri Lankan Tamil man

Roobha. (Next Productions)

Lenin M. Sivam's third film Roobha is unlike the traditional Tamil love-story films that he grew up watching.

"It's the love story between Roobha, who is a transgender [woman], and Anthony, an older Sri Lankan Tamil man," says Sivam,who wrote and directed the film. "It's this story of a forbidden love, which is unique."

Sivam came to Canada from Jaffna, Sri Lanka in 1991, and started making films on the side while working as a software architect. He quit his job four years ago to take up filmmaking full-time, with Roobhawhich opens the Reelworld Film Festival on October 9 — coming as a result.

Roobha. (Next Productions)

The film is bound to raise more than a few eyebrows, especially from the conservative quarters of the Tamil community. Besides intimate scenes between the two lovers, Roobha depicts frank conversations between family members and friends within the community that outsiders aren't usually privy to. Take, for example, a quick exchange between Anthony and his wife Pavun about borrowing against a line of credit in order to pay for a daughter's arangetram (a professional dance debut) to keep up appearances, or two men joking about a special massage to take care of a medical ailment.

The idea for Roobha came from Antonythasan Jesuthasan, a Sri Lankan Tamil writer and actor who now lives in France and writes under the pseudonym Shobasakthi. Sivam met Jesuthasan in 2013, when Sivam was in Paris to screen his previous film A Gun & A Ring. At the time, Jesuthasan was shooting with noted French filmmaker Jacques Audiard, playing the central character in Audiard's film Dheepan (which went on to win the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival in 2015, and also played at Toronto International Film Festival). He had come to see Sivam's film, and the two struck up a conversation. Impressed by the themes of A Gun & A Ring, which explored the intertwined lives of a group of people — including a survivor of the Sri Lankan civil war, a gay Sri Lankan Tamil Canadian teenager and a white police detective — Jesuthasan expressed an interest in working with Sivam.

"He sent me some short stories; Roobha was one of them. When I read it, I immediately knew I wanted to make it. I couldn't get it out of my mind," says Sivam. "Also, Roobha addressed the transgender issue, which is a taboo topic in our community. I thought that if we did a film on this, we can maybe start a dialogue in the community."

The inspiration for Jesuthasan's short story came from his friendship with trans activists in South India, as well as the mythological tale of Mohini — one of many folk tale spin-offs of the Sanskrit epic Mahabharata. It tells the story of the Hindu god Krishna taking on the form of a beautiful woman, Mohini, to marry a warrior, Aravan, who is to be sacrificed the next day in order to win a war between clashing cousins. This legend is central to an annual 18-day festival held in Koovagam in South India, where transgender women reenact Mohini's marriage to Krishna.

"I heard this story of Mohini so many times — it's part of our tradition," says Sivam. "You always heard, 'She was so mesmerizing, she was so beautiful.' I wanted to use that in my film."

Roobha. (Next Productions)

The film adaptation mirrors some of Mohini's story but sets its script in a neighbourhood in the Greater Toronto Area. Anthony, a married man with two daughters and some health issues, runs a bar. Roobha walks into his establishment one day and captivates him with her dancing. Estranged from her parents, she's saving money for a sex change operation. Despite himself, Anthony falls in love with Roobha, wooing her with cheesy Tamil poetry. But their romance isn't understood by his friends or family.

The usual challenges of filmmaking were even more onerous with Roobha. While Sivam has addressed difficult topics — such as gang violence among Sri Lankan Tamil Canadian youth in his first film 1999Roobha could prove to be controversial. In fact, when Sivam could not find a Tamil actor willing to play the role of a transgender woman and kiss another man, he thought of cutting out the intimate scenes between Roobha and Anthony. In the end, he kept the scenes but went with a Calgary actor of Punjabi background, Amrit Sandhu.

Even convincing Jesuthasan to play Anthony proved to be a difficult task.

"I knew Anthony had to be a real masculine kind of a guy, but also charismatic and charming. I looked everywhere, and then had to go back to Jesuthasan. By the time I came back to him, he had seen himself in Dheepan, and he felt he could do this type of a role," says Sivam.

Roobha. (Next Productions)

Shooting the intimate scenes between Roobha and Anthony didn't present a problem. Both actors knew what they had signed up for, along with the small crew and closed set. The most difficult part of the shoot turned out to be Sandhu having to learn the basics of Indian classical dance from one of his co-stars, Thenuka Kantharajah.

"Amrit came from Calgary, and Thenuka came from Germany. I shut them both in a house in Stouffville for 30 days. Amrit had to do rigorous practice, and he did a really good job," says Sivam.

Well aware of the boundaries Roobha is crossing and the critiques he may receive, Sivam hopes the audience understands that the primary motivating factor to make the film was to show a love story.

"I want the audience to first enjoy the film and see that it's a beautiful love story," he says. "If they can see that, then they will look beyond everything."

Reelworld Film Festival. October 9-14. Toronto. 

About the Author

Aparita Bhandari is an arts and life reporter in Toronto. She has been published in Canadian media including CBC, the Toronto Star, The Globe and Mail and Walrus magazine. Her areas of interest and expertise lie in the intersections of gender, culture and ethnicity. She is the producer and co-host of the Hindi language podcast,