Interview: Eisha Marjara
Venus is a new transgender comedy that finds new curves thanks to the veteran director’s elusive quest for belonging, and an internalized sense of misogyny that helped her understand the negative effects of gender dysphoria.
Directed by: Eisha Marjara
Starring: Debargo Sanyal, Jamie Mayers, Jean-Yves Cardinal, Zena Daruwalla
Toronto Yonge and Dundas Cineplex
Vancouver Vancity Theatre
By Katherine Monk
VANCOUVER — Eisha Marjara has been fascinated by the notion of home ever since she can remember. “Probably,” she says, “because I’ve always felt like an outsider.”
The 51-year-old writer, director and author lives in Montreal, but she never really felt like she belonged to the thriving francophone filmmaking community on the island, nor did she feel part of the smaller English-speaking creative world, until the creation of her new film, Venus.
A rom-com of sorts that also deals with coming-of-age themes, Venus tells the story of Sid (Debargo Sanyal) — a 30-something transgender woman who discovers she has a son from an old high school fling. Fused with humour, deep feelings and a tone that resists any form of judgment, Venus has been touring festivals with great success and now makes it theatrical debut in select theatres across Canada.
Marjara is not transgender, but this is the second film she’s made that lives in an ambiguously-gendered space. The first was the short House for Sale, completed in 2012, which explored the idea of a trans woman touring a suburban dream home.
“After House for Sale, I really dove into the experience of what it is to be trans. I felt very passionate about that experience and what trans people have to say. And I really dug in deep and listened to conversations about what was going on at the time… A lot has happened since then. You know, in terms of all the exposure of trans lives… So I really got excited and curious about the various trans experiences. It’s a very diverse community and I didn’t want to put focus on transitioning and hormones and all that stuff. I wanted to focus on the character and her experience as she discovers she’s a parent, and dealing with family, boyfriend issues — just like anyone else.”
The result is Venus, but it’s certainly not just for trans people. Marjara says she sees gender identity and the body itself as a metaphor for home. Either you are comfortable in it or not.
“Gender is the thing I am most passionate about and something I have always dealt with in my work. When we make a female-centred work we don’t think it’s about gender, but it is. Everything I do deals with it, in a way. I wrote a book called Faerie, a Young Adult novel about a character with anorexia. I would also say that Venus is also another form of a coming-of-age story, but the woman coming if age is 35 and she’s trans.”
Now a veteran of the industry since making her debut with Desperately Seeking Helen in 1998, Marjara feels she’s finally finding a sense of home in Montreal, the city she has lived in, and mourned in. Marjara lost her mother and sister in the Air India bombing. Since then, she’s been desperately seeking a sense of home.
I ask her about shooting Venus on location in Montreal, and what the city means to her.
“It’s really one of the characters in the film,” she says. “I shot it in a way that imitated some of the qualities I wanted to express regarding characters’ emotional state and the otherworldly quality to it. That was mostly how I filmed it.”
Marjara isn’t in Montreal at the moment. She is at her sister’s house in Oakville, which she says feels like home — since her sister took on a nurturing, supportive role after her mother’s death.
“Home is a real important question for me in the work I do because the question of what is home is something that I like to explore. I do think about it a lot,” says the 51-year-old.
Home is a real important question for me in the work I do because the question of what is home is something that I like to explore. I do think about it a lot…
“I don’t think it’s a fixed place. I think it’s a movable place. But more of an internal state than a physical place. So, I mean when I think of home, I think of my Dad and my sister… I guess it’s more of a feeling thing.”
Ask Marjara about why we sometimes get confused about the difference between the mental sense of home and the four-walls and the roof concept and it comes down to expectation, and a sense of longing.
“Longing is always something that is there. It’s not something that’s going to go away. So when the longing is there, there’s expectation. And the expectation is that soothing or that sense of completion is going to be satisfied, you know. And sometimes there are moments when it is, and moments when it isn’t.”
Marjara mentions another one of her films, The Tourist (2006), which followed a similar thread. “The tourist is an outsider, metaphorically speaking… but I think all my movies explore this elusive idea of home and belonging. It’s a constant in my characters.”
The tourist is an outsider, metaphorically speaking… but I think all my movies explore this elusive idea of home and belonging. It’s a constant in my characters
Has she always felt like an outsider? Pretty much, she says, with a few notable exceptions.
“I have found communities and physical places where I felt I belonged. Like there’s the YWCA in Montreal where I used to go work out. That was a place that I felt at home at. That was a really important place to me,” she says.
“The women at the Y are amazing. You know being surrounded by energetic women and strong women and working out together and laughing together in the weight room… that was really great. I found a place for me…”
And it’s growing a little more every day, she says.
“I feel a lot more at home in Montreal than I used to. A lot of that has to do with making progress with my films and being able to do what I want to do. Having made Venus and House for Sale, I am finding a place. And the city and the Quebec creative community is sort of embracing me. I was just on a photo shoot with La Presse and they were taking photos of upcoming Quebec filmmakers who were making their first features,” she says.
“The other filmmakers were all white francophones. And I was there. And it was like, wow. I’m part of this, great. Finally.”
The other filmmakers were all white francophones. And I was there. And it was like, wow. I’m part of this, great. Finally…
After wrapping Desperately Seeking Helen, Marjara says she had a rough period — and that was already after surviving anorexia as a teenager. “I wanted to go into making feature films and I came out of the same lot as Jean-Marc Vallee and Denis Villeneuve. Denis was editing across the hall from me at the NFB. We were all there at the same time. And look where they’ve gone, and look where I am.”
There’s no bitter edge in her voice. It’s more a statement of fact. “Some of it is just what we have to deal with as women.”
Marjara says the gender divide is so interlaced with every other social code, you can understand a lot more about society by giving it a good stare. And that’s what her films endeavour to do.
“I wanted to know… What am I going to be when I’m a grown woman, what am I going to look like? I was fascinated by the changes that took place with older girls. Their bodies didn’t look like boy bodies and how come they change and look this way and why was there a difference between boys and girls? The more I experienced the difference that boys and girls were treated differently in this world, the less I wanted to be a girl,” she says.
“That internalized misogyny came in, and I started not liking being a girl and I got confused about not wanting to be a girl and rejecting my body. I associated it with the lack of privilege given to girls. That confusion is where it comes from… I had a hard time accepting my body as a female. And maybe that’s why I get trans people and body dysphoria. I kind of get it.”
That internalized misogyny came in, and I started not liking being a girl and I got confused about not wanting to be a girl and rejecting my body. I associated it with the lack of privilege given to girls.
In turn, the trans community is jetting off to Venus, everywhere it plays. “The response to Venus has been really great throughout the trans community. They’ve felt like the film presented some of their experiences authentically. They thought it was refreshing and liked that it was funny. And that Sid was three-dimensional,” says Marjara.
“But it took a year just to find our Sid (Debargo Sanyal). We needed to find someone who hadn’t had hormones and hadn’t had surgery. Requirements were very narrow.”
Yet, they found all the right people — from Sanyal, to the supporting players, which include Jamie Mayers as son Ralph, Pierre-Yves Cardinal as the boyfriend Daniel and Vancouver’s Zena Darawalla as Mamaji.
“They were all fantastic. Zena is great. She had fire and the energy I was looking for. She commands presence… and in this character, she speaks her mind. Unfiltered. I love that. I am so not like that myself. I think I’m very considerate of other people’s feelings, almost too much.”
Marjara says she’s still a work in progress — and that’s a good thing. It fuels the creative endeavour.
Currently, she’s working on her next script, Calorie, a story of a mother and her two daughters — one of whom is anorexic, the other is a wild child. “It explores mother-daughter conflict. But it’s no Lady Bird…it’s a complex story. The girls’ grandmother died in Air India bombing. So it looks at tragedy from a contemporary perspective,” she says.
“I’m fascinated by stories that may not look outwardly engaging, but when you look closer, you realize there is so much more to it than you expected.”
Venus is now open at Toronto’s Yonge and Dundas Cineplex and Vancouver’s VanCity Theatre.
THE EX-PRESS, May 20, 2018