A Montreal trans woman and child of immigrants finds herself in the new film Venus

Filmmaker Eisha Marjara on telling a trans story that moves beyond the transition.

Gordon Warnecke, Zena Darawalla, Debargo Sanyal, Jamie Mayers and Pierre-Yves Cardinal in Venus

“I wanted to make it clear that this isn’t just a transition story,” says Eisha Marjara, director of Venus, which hits theatres this Friday. “I didn’t want to focus on the hormones and the surgery… that’s her business as a transwoman. That’s private. The focus is more on just… life! On her relationships, and making her three-dimensional. (…) We live in a culture that’s very obsessed with makeovers. Have you noticed? (laughs) I find it very superficial to just focus on these very superficial transformations. That kind of focus is just deplorable, and it’s really sad that it stays at that level.”

Transitioning is a huge step in a trans person’s life; some might say it’s even the first step of real life. But most people don’t find out they have a son they never knew about while they do it. That’s the particular predicament that Sid Gill (Debargo Sanyal) faces in Marjara’s fiction feature debut Venus. Having just broken up with her closeted boyfriend (Pierre-Yves Cardinal), Sid takes the first steps towards transition and is immediately faced with Ralph (Jamie Mayers), the product of a tentative relationship with a high school friend (Amber Goldfarb). Ralph is excited to meet his father and not particularly fazed when he learns she’s actually his mother, but his attempt at forging a relationship against all odds puts some pressure on Sid, who’s already stretched mighty thin through her relationship with her frazzled mother (Zena Darawalla) and significantly chiller dad (Gordon Warnecke, the lead from My Beautiful Laundrette).

Venus is a bright, colourful and generally upbeat film that nevertheless deals with some very real issues. “Initially, the tone was a lot more dramatic,” says Marjara. “It was producer Joe Balass who encouraged me to really explore the racial element of the story and to bring in the parents characters, which was very easy for me to do. They became more important characters, and they brought the humour with them. It wasn’t intentional — the scenes with them just ended up being really funny. It was kind of a balance between the drama and the comedy at first, until executive producer Kevin Tierney came on board. He read the script and he said ‘This isn’t a drama!’ I thought that having comedy was a really good way to sort of loosen the subject, because it tends to get very tight in its interpretation in popular culture as a sort of very difficult journey.”

Venus finds itself topical in myriad ways — not just in its depiction of Sid’s transition but also in its approach to forging your own path and your own identity as the children of immigrants. In that sense, the film is simpatico with something like The Big Sick, even if its setting is rather different. “Consciousness always has certain kinds of movements, and it’s speaking to the kinds of questions that many people are asking,” says Marjara. “It speaks to the intersectionality of all these identities that are coming together, because there’s much more of an openness to all of them. There’s sort of like a merging, and I think it’s a great thing. It’s a very healthy question to ask.

“I think with Sid, she’s grappling with all of these questions, but mostly it’s about her gender — her identity as a woman. How does she see herself? How does she want to transition? What does her version of a woman look like? It comes through in her relationships. The tagline of the film is ‘Finding yourself is a family affair.’ To me, it’s a really telling thing because if we were living, ideally, in a society that didn’t have any labels or prejudices, there would be no issue. But we see ourselves through other people’s eyes. It’s inevitable, it’s just the way we grow up. So she’s seeing herself through everybody else, through their expectations.”

The film’s subject matter, of course, brings up the question of our time: as a cis woman of Indian descent, is Marjara qualified to depict the story of Venus? Is it her story to tell? “The question of representation is important, I think,” she says. “I’m not trans, although I do assume part of the identity, in a way. I’m representing Sid as a woman and as a second-generation Indian woman growing up in Montreal. I mean, her parents are from Brossard — I grew up in Brossard! I brought in as much personal experience into the film as I possibly could to make it as authentic as I could… but I’m also an artist. I also have a responsibility to tell the story as authentically as I possibly can. I will not please everybody. I know that — I went into it knowing that. No artist should make anything expecting that they will please everybody — that’s not the point of art. I’m so driven as an artist to tell stories that sometimes I feel like they’re not even mine.

“I have questioned why I’m so passionate about gender, because all of my films are about gender. All of my films are about what it means to be a woman. This is another story about a character who’s questioning what it means to be a woman, so it doesn’t fall out of line with what I’ve been dealing with in all my films.” ■

Venus opens in theatres Friday, March 2. Screenings with the cast and crew in attendance are happening on March 2 (Cineplex Forum, 7 p.m.) and March 4 (Cinéma du Parc, 7:30 p.m.) Watch the trailer here: