Trans Kashmir Bridges Gender Borders and Tells a Human Tale
Extreme isolation and loss of livelihood have forced many hijras, and transgendered people into sex work
Kriti Film Club, a documentary curation, screening, and distribution initiative recently organised the screening of an hour-long documentary titled Trans Kashmir in Delhi. The film, co-directed by Surbhi Dewan and S. A. Hannan, explores the lives of transgenders in Kashmir.
They live in pockets of Srinagar as most of them came from other areas of the Union Territory either to make a livelihood, or to find shelter when they were driven away by their families, because they were born without a definite, 'acceptable' gender. The 'in-between' people have had to struggle from birth to death.
"While growing up in Srinagar in 80s, I had witnessed the transgender community struggling. I had read many stories in the local press about their fight for basic rights. The community had begun to come out of the closet to demand their rightful place in society. I called up Surbhi suggesting that we make a film on the struggle, and she readily took up the challenge," said Hannan.
Surbhi and Hannan were batch mates at the Film School at Rochester Institute of Technology in New York. After their return, they were planning a film together, looking for a subject that was interesting and challenging.
"When I learnt about the transgender community from Akmal, it just felt right. Firstly, this was a completely fresh entry point, no one ever thinks of gender minorities when they think of Kashmir! On top of that, there were people speaking up from within the community, a legal case had just been filed and a sort of momentum was building up. It all seemed like it would make for an unusual and compelling story" added Surbhi.
Surbhi did not have much interaction with the community before they made the film. She had witnessed them being jeered and mocked on the streets, and felt this was cruel, but many of the trans people took it in their stride, as they were used to it and had no way out. One of them shared how she was ridiculed, taunted and teased in school by the other children and when it became unbearable, she had to quit. Most of the people interviewed in the film had hardly had any education. This worsened their social and more importantly, their financial status.
In order to create a rapport with his subjects, Hannan began to look around and approached the community personally and through friends. "It was not easy and often got me into embarrassing situations. I got snubbed many times. I soon learned the community was not comfortable interacting with men. When I met Nissar and Simran, two of the main subjects who appear in the film through Nissar's neighbour, I remember making a video call to Surbhi to make them interact with her. We also got in touch with Aijaz Bund who runs the Sonzal Welfare Trust. They work for the welfare of transgender community, and he got us in touch with the other transgender women featuring in the film. It was not easy in the beginning, but eventually we did strike a chord with them," recalled Hannan.
Surbhi added, "both of us were sure that we wanted to engage with a subject that was outside the mainstream narrative about Kashmir. When I learnt about the transgender community, it just felt right. First, this was a completely fresh entry point,no one ever thinks of gender minorities when they think of Kashmir! Second, there were people speaking up from within the community, a legal case had just been filed and a sort of momentum was building up. It seemed like it would make for an unusual and compelling story."
The film opens with a quote from Lal Ded, a 14th Century Kashmiri mystic, "though He is One, Alone, and All, Yet I am caught in the War of Two. Though He has neither colour nor form, Yet I am caught in His wondrous forms…"
The beautiful subjects, who spoke freely and frankly with the directors are, –Shabnum, Nissar, Simran, Babloo and Reshma. All, except one among them, were dressed up as males though their names, except that of Babloo, are female. They are articulate though they hardly had a formal education. It was a bit surprising to find most of the people interviewed dress up like men, but identifying themselves with female names, except one of them who identifies with the female.
Why? "They probably wanted to be seen like this by the society, as people conforming to so-called societal standards. They would openly dress up as women in their younger days. Something that the younger trans generation does in Kashmir, like Simran, does in the film. I am sure some of them do dress as women in their private life and while performing at marriage parties," said Surbhi.
The film was shot over a period of three years, with long intervals due to the pandemic and other disruptions. The characters in the film are either from Srinagar, or are based there and seldom visit their native places., so the frame of reference remains Srinagar. Surbhi and Hannan said that they did a lot of research and planning in advance before going for the filming. Since most of their technical crew was also local, and had been working in these conditions for some time, the directors and the crew were not hampered due to the prevailing situation in the region.
The subjects who appear on rotation in the film are often captured dancing with their glitzy costumes on, or narrating how their matchmaking business was on the downswing. One could decipher from their interviews that their lives were at a critical stage. Nissar, the oldest among them, said that she barely makes do in a narrow room without water, or a washroom and she does not know what will happen to her after some time living like this.
"The working title of the film was Transgenders of Kashmir. And then, towards the completion of the film we thought about many titles and even took suggestions from friends and colleagues. We zeroed on Trans Kashmir which sounded crisp, catchy and easy, said Hannan. "We had been playing with the word 'transition' as it had multiple connotations for the community. Personally, I would have preferred something more poetic but I also see the value in being direct. We imagine a global audience for the film, and the subject is complex enough, so we decided to go with a straightforward title," added Surbhi.
Prepping the subjects must have been an uphill task, but the two filmmakers managed to make them talk without being conscious of the camera. Hannan recalled, "once they started performing and singing, they forgot about the camera. It could be because of their love for their art. We did not do any particular prep for filming their performances. During our conversations, we tried to capture them as candidly and organically as possible."
According to Surbhi, "we filmed them primarily in their own homes or in familiar surroundings, which makes their portrayal organic. Some of them were relatively comfortable with the camera since they had had prior experience of talking to news reporters. Reshma enjoys a certain level of fame in Kashmir. She has already made television appearances and has featured in a music video. Simran (the youngest character in the film) was apprehensive about talking to us initially so we spent more time with her off-camera, even did an audio-only interview with her first. Once she felt comfortable, we pulled out the cameras."
Reshma's voice rings with clarity as she sings a Kashmiri song, the music video of which garnered over 40 lakh views on YouTube. After failing in the fifth standard, Reshma was told to learn tailoring, a profession she continued with for over a decade. But the urge to sing never left her and she sneaked away from her family to sing at special occasions and celebrations, but was soon found out. Even though she was beaten and ridiculed by her family, Reshma did not stop singing and eventually established herself as a prominent voice.
"Aijaz Bund (gender right' activist featured in the film) is well versed with the ground realities based on his many years of work with the community. We also had a Kashmiri student from Jamia Millia Islamia assisting us with research in addition to a couple of subject-matter experts advising us," informs Surbhi. With his support, they were able to convince the community members to come on screen and talk about their life. Bund's book Hijras of Kashmir: A Marginalized Form of Personhood was the filmmakers' go-to resource while trying to understand the community and their challenges.
In 2020, the Jammu &Kashmiire administrative council extended coverage of the Integrated Social Security Scheme (ISSS) to include transgender persons. The scheme accords them Rs 1,000 each month. But several members share a similar story, of leaving home at a young age, and not having the required documents to avail of the scheme. During the last conversation with the members, the directors found that only one of the members they had interviewed was being compensated.
The Public Interest Litigation filed by Aijaz is still lingering in Srinagar High Court. Over the last few years, extreme isolation and loss of livelihood have forced many into sex work. Younger transgender women continue to arrive in the city from villages across Kashmir. This new generation is coming out and taking ownership of the movement. The directors also met local historians to know about their earlier life and traditions. One of the noted historians in Kashmir Zareef Ahmad Zareef also features in the film.
The film closes on graphics informing the audience about the state of the subjects in the film now. In early 2022, Reshma was diagnosed with cancer. She is currently undergoing treatment in Srinagar. Her application for the State-issued pension scheme is still pending.Multiple lockdowns left Simran broke and homeless. An aggravated medical condition affected her ability to walk. Aijaz and Shabnum helped her get back on her feet but lost touch with her soon after. In late 2021, Nissar was diagnosed with a diabetic foot. She suffered a major heart attack in early 2022, and has moved back to her village.
Shabnum is struggling to resolve some issues with her biological family. She has recently adopted a chela (disciple). Babloo and Shabnum parted ways due to a personal disagreement. Unsure about the future, Babloo's greatest wish is to continue the fight for justice.