Movie Review: Tamil romance takes a Transgender Turn in Toronto — “Roobha”

“Roobha” is a Canadian drama that gives a transgender romance and its fallout a South Asian touch, set as it is among Toronto’s Tamil community. It poetically folds Hindu myth into a story of self-discovery, “coming out” and finding oneself and love, a journey that is a rocky road indeed in Levin M. Sivan’s film.

Anthony has gambled everything on owning a neighborhood bar, the Music Box. But it’s failing, as is his health. He’s ignoring doctor’s orders about smoking and drinking, two hazards of his profession. But he’s meeting his obligations to his wife and two children, even as he lies to them about how things are.

Roobha is the name of an attractive sex worker who comes in to the otherwise quiet bar with her “sisters” after hours. There’s chemistry and a tentative flirtation between bartender and umbrella drink fan.

Does Roobha think Anthony knows? Does Anthony know to look for the Adam’s Apple give-away? For that matter, does he know how Roobha keeps a cheap motel roof over her head?

Sivam’s film, based on a story pitched by “Anthony” (Jesuthasan Antonythasan of “A Private War”), turns in on itself, avoiding a non-linear narrative. We follow Anthony’s domestic situation — his wife (Thenuka Kantharajah) is making plans, making noise about selling the house and the bar and move back to where they were happier and debt-free — suburban Stouffville. We see his doctor visit, his brooding through clouds of cigarette smoke.

And we pick up on his attraction to Roobha.

But to her family, in an earlier spot in the timeline, Roobha is Gokul (Amrit Sandhu), who has returned from running away to Mumbai with the dream of teaching dance.

“What kind of a man teaches dance?” Gokul’s mother wants to know. Caught trying on a sister’s clothes, Gokul’s father wants to know “What kind of man does this?”

Both are plainly rhetorical questions. It’s hard for any parent, even an immigrant from a culture where transgender people are shunned, to be that naive, or that deep in denial.

When Gokul’s mother begs her child to not have surgery because “I want my son,” she can’t express much surprise when Gokul reminds her “You never HAD a son.”

The story’s poetic touches come from Anthony’s youthful dalliance in poetry (in Tamil, untranslated), something his wife reminds him of in front of his children. Falling for Roobha awakens the poet in him.

And then there’s the story Roobha frames the film with in voice over, the Hindu myth of Bahuchara Mata, who catches her husband dressing as a woman, cavorting in the woods, and whacks off his genitals in response.

This sort of “coming out” story has been around long enough to have its soap operatic screen tropes — the bullying, the gay bashing beating by “customers,” the “Big Reveal” to the lover who hasn’t seen “The Crying Game.”

That said, it’s still a most engrossing variation on well-worn LGBT themes, with two sympathetic performances at its heart to carry it off.

MPA Rating: unrated, violence, explicit sex, alcohol, smoking, profanity

Cast: Jesuthasan Antonythasan, Amrit Sandhu, Thenuka Kantharajah, Sornalingam Vairamuthu

Credits: Written and directed by Lenin M. Sivam, based on a story by Jesuthasan Antonythasan. An IndieCan release.

Running time: 1:32

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