India: The Celluloid Dreams of Transgenders
By Hema Vijay
Chennai (Women's Feature Service) - They are seen as people who harass pedestrians on the streets, collect money by threatening people, kidnap kids, engage in sex work, and so on. But these stereotypes do little justice to transgenders. Like everybody else, they can be dynamic litterateurs, creative artists and, above all, socially committed individuals.
Nine moving documentaries by transgenders networking with the Chennai-based Sahodari Foundation shatter vicious myths and clear misconceptions caused by ignorance. These films provide a glimpse into the real world and minds of transgenders, the sorrow and joys that they experience, the traumas they go through, the ideas and ambitions they harbour. Interestingly, not all these films focus on transgender issues. It is as if the young filmmakers are silently saying: 'Our gender is not our only identity; we are as interested in the rest of the world, as anybody else'.
The documentaries were filmed for over a period of five months in Chennai by Sandhya Chandru, Sandhya, Soundarya, Gomathi, Abinaya, Manu, Monal, Kanchana, and Kalki, a transgender activist and the founder director of Sahodari Foundation, that works for transgender issues. In fact, the documentary film project is Kalki's brainchild, sparked off during a workshop 'Women Aloud: Videoblogging for Empowerment (WAVE)' conducted in Pune last year by filmmakers Sapna Shahani and Angana Jhaveri. Kalki was given a small Canon Legria FS 200 handycam to make a film every month on community issues. She made five short films. Among them was 'Sisters on the street: A day in the life of two transgender women', a five-minute film on the sexual harassment transgenders face when they go begging. The film received a good response, and Kalki realised the importance of video documentation as a tool of empowerment. That was when she decided to teach video documenting to others at Sahodari as well.
So, armed with a camcorder, which the group shared between themselves, they made films on issues that touched their hearts. This was an opportunity for them to speak out and be heard. And what is seen and heard through these celluloid stories brings a tear to the eye and a smile to the lips all at once. "These films would be an eye opener for many. They deserve to be screened at international film festivals," says Tara Navneeth, a social activist and artist based in Chennai, who has been campaigning for rights of sexual minorities.
Sandhya's film 'Odukkappatta Aatmakal' (Abandoned Souls) is about the plight of abandoned elderly persons. She says, "I want to start my own old age home." Abinaya, who happens to be a classical dancer, brings to our view through 'Ippadikku Abinaya' (This is Abinaya), the talents possessed by transgenders that go untapped and ignored by the world. Sandhya Chandru's film 'Kadal Nanbargal' (Sea Friends) explores the life of fisherfolk. Monal's film is on garbage pickers; Gomathi's on the street children whom she sees every day on her way to work.
In 'Nambikkai' (Faith), Kanchana trains her lens on the plight of the physically challenged. Says she, "My mother wanted a girl, and so when I was born, she raised me as a girl. When I was about five, they decided to raise me as a boy, and tried to crop my hair. Until then I wore pig-tails. But my mind was set on girlish things. Then my uncle tried to force me into sex. I ran away from home, and was rescued by Childline and lodged at the Don Bosco Anbu Illam in Chennai. Although the chief Pastor there was very kind to me, I was humiliated again by teachers and others, and I ran away and fended for myself." Now, Kanchana makes a living as a dancer.
The other films in this project are about the difficulties the community as a whole inevitably faces. Soundarya's film, 'My Mother', is on the hardships of abandoned transgender kids. "As a child I was a rank holder at school, but ridiculed by the family, my father especially. My uncle tried to force me into having sex with him, but when I complained to my father he only whipped me and put the blame on me. I was 14 then. I ran away, was raped by drug addicts on the street and now, after so many years of trauma, I am here doing a responsible job thanks to the Sahodari Foundation. Most transgenders are abandoned by their families, and are forced to run away and fend for themselves on the streets. Parents need counselling first. If parents are sensitised, transgenders would not be left on the streets and become victims or perpetrators of street crimes," says Soundarya Gopi. Agrees Kalki, who incidentally has two Masters' degrees - one in journalism and mass communication and the other in international relations, "Despite my education, I have been discriminated against at school, university, profession... by friends, by relatives... It made me shudder to think of the plight of those who are uneducated, who come from villages and small towns."
Can things ever change for them? "The ordinary person can do a lot to salvage the situation by just being non-discriminatory; and by offering acceptance. It's really that simple," she says.
Meanwhile, Kalki's 'Punnagai' (Smile) is a happy film, filled with moments of joy on the faces of these women. "We have been ridiculed, harassed, tortured, tormented and laughed at. My film shows that despite all this we still retain our smile." Manu's film, too, is very sensitive and gracefully narrated. It tells the story about how she re-established contact and renewed friendship with two childhood friends after leaving home to get her sex change operation done and returning to Chennai. "My friends and their families have accepted me, and I treasure this friendship," she says.
Efforts are on to showcase the films in other cities, and at film festivals around the world. This documentary film project is not the culmination of a process but hopefully the beginning of bigger things. Sahodari will be training these six women and other interested transgenders in multimedia skills like photography, videography, film editing, audio and sound, internet and web media technologies. By 2011, the Foundation plans to start a training and production house for visual media and communication, an education project for transgenders that would also be open to under-privileged students from other communities too.
"People feel sorry for the physically challenged, they accept drunkards, but they ridicule and torment people challenged by gender issues. We didn't choose to be this way. God created us like this," says Soundarya. It is because transgenders are denied education and employment that some of them are driven into begging, crime and prostitution, Tara Navneeth adds.
These sensitive and intelligent films will, hopefully, go some way in changing social responses, that remains apathetic at best and abusive at worst, towards transgenders in India.
(To know more on Sahodari Foundation's work log on to http://www.sahodari.org)