Thinking the non-binary, incommensurability, and sex in Thiagarajan Kumararaja’s Super Deluxe (2019)

Curator's Note

Vqueeram Aditya Sahai argues for sex— sex, sexuality, gender— as structure; sex as “something” that presses against that body of the social and emerges through and with relation.[1] As that ”something” that communicates via feeling, perception, and aesthetic but is always in becoming, sex can also be argued to be atmospheric; wherein Ben Anderson argues that atmospheres are perpetually coalescing and separating as “bodies enter into relation with one another,” requiring a certain completion to be legible by the subject while simultaneously being consistently played with through different assemblages of elements (bodies).[2] Thiagarajan Kumararaja’s 2019 film, Super Deluxe, engages with the conceptualization of “sex as structure” by both formally and narratively producing strange embodiments of motherhood, marriage, and respectability as a kind of non-binaryness that comes out of the tension between the poles of the binary: man/woman; good mother/bad mother; good spouse/bad spouse.

Shilpa is a transgender woman who left her family to go to Mumbai, where she lives as a Hijra.[3] Having left a son, husband, and father Manickam, her return in a brightly colored sari wearing red lipstick is a shock to both her immediate as well as extended family. However, her son, Rasukutty, who has been excitedly awaiting her arrival, embraces her with open arms. Through her relationship with her son, the film locates her resistance to the binary in her reframing of the meanings associated with personhood, motherhood, and marriage— she is Rasukutty’s mother, father, and everything in between. She is also simultaneously elevated to the position of a goddess and treated as a thing to be used, violated, and discarded; her existence unfolding in the maddening chasm between these fetishizations. Shilpa’s incommensurabilities— taking from Naisargi Dave’s conceptualization of incommensurability as a performance of the unknown in a normative society from which a “something” arises that struggles between possibility and closure— [4] are how she comes to embody the subject of the non-binary in the film, and it is those same incommensurabilities that pull her back to the caste[5] kinships of the household.


[1] Vqueeram Aditya Sahai. “CLPR | Transform 2019 | Day 2 | Panel 3.” YouTube Video, 19:03. December 16, 2019.

[2] Anderson, Ben. “Affective Atmospheres.” Emotion, Space and Society no. 2 (2019): 77-81.

[3] Hijras are trans* and/or gender non-conforming people who are often referred to as the “third sex.” They are often precluded from the society due to caste and class marginalizations and, therefore, have their own communal, aesthetic, and performative practices. Interpolated through the clap, bright sari, and bold lipstick, hijras often live in shared homes organized around a mother figure who maintains the finances of the household, decides what kinds of labor (sexual, religious, or both) the members of the household should engage in, and ensures the well-being of her children.

[4] Dave, Naisargi N. “Indian and lesbian and what came next: Affect, commensuration and queer emergences.” Journal of the American Ethnological Society 38, no. 4 (2011): 650-665. 10.1111/j.1548-1425.2011.01328.x.

[5] Caste and its entanglements with land, labor, and love, in a South Asian context, cannot be contained in a footnote, but for the purposes of this short piece, caste is a social location determined by birth and plays an integral role in determining access to different kinds of capital such as education, housing, and desire/love.

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