Canadian-Tamil writer-director Lenin M. Sivam tells a provocative story about identity with Roobha, which was screened at the London Indian Film Festival. Set in Toronto, the story combines elements of a specific subculture with themes of sexuality and personal yearning. It’s a powerful film about people who are straining against the limits of their society, building a strongly engaging wave of emotion as the plot develops.
The story is told in three sections. First, middle-aged Anthony (Antonythasan Jesuthasan) learns that he has a weak heart, but decides to conceal this from his wife Pavun (Thenuka Kantharajah) and his two young daughters, as well as Pavun’s brother Sasi (Rajeev Seelan), who lives with them. Pressured to take care of the family debts, Anthony is looking in to selling the bar he runs. And it’s there that he meets Roobha (Amrit Sandhu), a lively young woman who catches his eye when she dances. And as they begin to connect, Anthony hasn’t quite realised that Roobha is trans.
The next chapter jumps back six months, as Roobha returns home from a trip to India, concealing her trans identity from her sensitive mother Mani (Bhavani Somasundaram), bull-headed father Manoharan (Sornalingam Vyramuthu) and open-minded sister Vasuki (Ishwaria Chandru). When her secret comes out, Manoharan simply can’t cope, banishing her from the family home. Desperate to survive, Roobha takes a dark odyssey through prostitution before finding help from an assembled new family. The film’s final act picks up here, as she meets Anthony and they embark on a relationship that will shake up both their lives.
While Roobha’s journey is internal and emotionally involving, Anthony’s story provides the film with its major plot points. He’s a poet who set his talents (and perhaps his sexuality) aside to immigrate to Canada and provide for his family. And now he’s confronting his own mortality, which makes him question his choices. Veteran Indian actor Jesuthasan (see Jacques Audiard’s Dheepan) gives an internalised edge to Anthony that brings him vividly to life. It’s a beautifully underplayed performance as a man who has finally stopped hiding himself. And the way he connects with Roobha is genuinely surprising. A cis male actor, Sandhu gives Roobha her own steely intensity, quietly looking her mother in the eye and reminding her that she never had a son. Anthony and Roobha make a very odd couple, but there’s an undeniable connection between them. Of the supporting cast, Kantharajah stands out as a strong-willed woman grappling with her own thoughts and feelings.
As a director, Sivam brings scenes to life with a gorgeous visual touch, using densely coloured photography by Arsenij Gusev. This means that even the story’s darkest moments have a raw beauty to them, drawing out the humanity while providing a proper gut punch. And the textured script resists simplifying any of the film’s themes, from repressed sexuality to being trans in a culture that’s more concerned with family honour than the well-being of its children. So as a drama, Roobha remains quietly sympathetic right to the end, challenging the audience to examine our own reactions to the people around us.