Crossing Gender Barriers
Binary Error, a Malayalam short film answers many unasked questions
"I was born on November 26 1998, and was assigned the female gender at birth. As I grew up I used to express my masculinity. But when I did that my family would correct me. I still remember when I was in class 1, I used to run home after school and change… undo my shirt and send it flying. My mom would scold me," Adam Harry, who hails from Kerala, remembers his childhood with a bittersweet flashback. Adam prefers to be called by his first name, and has always asked to be addressed as he/him.
While throwing off a school uniform the minute they enter home is often the norm for most young schoolboys, for Adam Harry's family it was a sign of trouble. The orthodox Muslim family was not aware enough to understand the child they knew as their daughter, identified as a boy and longed to be loved like a son. They, under social pressure and ignorance, thought Harry was 'unwell' and needed to be 'cured'.
However, all that Adam wanted was familial support and love. And that was the one thing missing growing up, and still is as far as his biological family is concerned. "As I entered puberty I felt very uncomfortable with the changes that were happening in my body. I tried to express it to my family, but they would not understand. So I thought it was my mistake and that I was the only one feeling like this. Then one day I read an article and realised that I could even do a surgery and become my true gender…" he told The Citizen.
It was a 'eureka moment' for Adam, "I was like 'what?!'" He however, made good use of whatever opportunity arose to express himself as a young boy, "I studied in a convent school. I was masculine and was always participating in sports. That also allowed me to wear shorts etc. I acted in school dramas and -played male characters. I enjoyed all those moments that gave me freedom to express my real self. I was always a man. I didn't hate my body but I just wanted the correct body… that of a man."
However, Adam also had to face some passive aggressive behaviour from teachers "some teachers would 'correct' me because of the way I walked… they tried to teach me how to walk like a girl…," he recalls. However, gracious and forgiving Adam does not name them at all. Nor does he name his family, none of whom talk to him now. Even his mother choses silence and distance, over loving her first born child.
"My family was not supportive, I was born in an orthodox Muslim family. Only my mother knew, but my family thought it was a phase and will pass. It was difficult for my family to accept me as a trans gendered person," he said.
Adam focussed on his studies and had set his heart on being a pilot, "I had begun [gender] transitioning in India and had later gone to South Africa to earn my commercial pilots licence". Ironically his parents had applied for a loan and sent Adam for training, he disclosed and lived his gender identity most openly when he was in South Africa.
The news reached his parents who then asked Adam to return and sent him for 'counselling' etc to 'cure' him. "They thought it was a behavioural disorder. When I came back from South Africa they put me under 'house arrest'," Adam recalls the horror that 2017 was for him, "I was locked up without a phone. After a year I tried to escape my home… I was taken back, but I eventually succeeded. My parents are not in touch with me anymore, my brother is very young, so he is not aware."
However, Adam eventually found a family that loves him, of close friends who he lives with now, "I have a big family now, and more family in the community," he says, in his calm voice that seemed to reflect the peace he is finally finding within.
Handsome young Adam, is at the moment focussed on returning to South Africa and finishing the last phase of his qualifications as a commercial pilot. However, it may be a while before Adam flies in india. According to news reports the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) is now working :on a poliy for transgender pilots". The DGCA had refused to issue Adam Harry his flying licence.
It was reported that they denied the licence because Adam was undergoing hormone replacement therapy. He was "declared unfit to fly". This issue is something Adam will handle later on. For now he is focussed on getting his final flying licence.
Adam Harry is a star, an example to the young, to keep a focus, ignore naysayers, find kindred spirits and work towards a life goal. He laughs away compliments on his good looks, and soothing voice. However, he will graciously accept a compliment on his superb acting in his debut film Binary Error.
According to Adam the film has made him even more aware of the treatment meted out to the community. He often has to explain what a trans man is. "Trans men have less visibility in Kerala. People ask me 'what is this trans, you are just a man'. I have changed my official documentation to "make" as a gender identification. There is a transgender option now, and I identify as a man."
That cinema reflects life, is amply illustrated in this film, starring Adam Harry, and Sunny Waye in key roles. The story revolves around a trans man living in anonymity, his relationship with his mother, and society. For Adam, it has been a cathartic experience, to say the least.
"Now the hiding is over" says Adam, his voice the happiest it has been in a while. "I worked in a theatre group called 'mazhavil' (rainbow) which had trans artists and have always been interested in films. Director Anjana [George] called me and I was so happy. The crew trained us, and everyone was very supportive. At first I thought it would be so difficult, but it was not. My shoot was one day, and that one day of facing the camera has had a massive impact."
When in the film Adam's identity is finally revealed, it does come as a surprise to the audience as well. Adam has now done a couple of short films but he is clear that he will earn his pilot's licence and not become a full time actor just yet. "I am preparing for scholarships so I can go back to South Africa and clear my exams. It is very hard for a trans gender pilot to get a licence in india. Airlines also have a lot of problematic clauses," he says he wants to take it one step at a time. Adam will return to India to face the challenges but for now the open sky becomes. With a rainbow running through it.
The filmmakers deserve all the awards and salutations there can be. It takes, courage and conviction to tell a tale of a transsexual person, in a largely transphobic world. Even the world of cinema has been a cliche when it comes to sexual inorities.
Remember the last time you saw a transgender person or character portayed on screen? Chances are they were there for crude comic relief, and if that was not bad enough the characters were played by male actors dressed in women's clothing and garish makeup.
A classic example are popular 'comedy' shows on television. In mainstream cinema the trans person is often depicted as a 'eunuch' who can either be seen as a victim, or a villain. In most of those films too, the character is often played by a male, and sometimes a female actor.
It then makes one sit up and notice, when a sensitive film, revolving around a trans person comes along without much fanfare.
Binary Error, the Malayalam short film, directed by journalist Anjana George, starring Sunny Wayne, and Adam Harry, bravely steps into uncharted waters. It premiered on the Nerambokku, a youtube channel, started by filmmaker Midhun Manuel Thomas. It is not merely an empathetic film, it is a high impact one, without loud histrionics, or dramatic dialogues. It is a well told story that leaves the viewer wanting to learn more.
According to its director Anjana George, a journalist, it is a passion project, "I wanted to be a filmmaker 10 years gao, when I returned to Kerala after my studies. But it was difficult back then, especially for a woman."
George went on to become a journalist with a leading newspaper, "I have been writing on cinema, especially gender in cinema. My friend Midhun Manuel Thomas had started the production company Nerambokku. Sunny Waye is also a good friend. We are all from Wayanad" she told The Citizen. Anjana George wrote the story and screenplay of the film with Sunil Sankar.
"I had written a story on queerlessness in Malayalam cinema. We see trans people's characters enacted by CIS gendered actor, and [often] it is shown in a tabboo way…" she recalled, "people belonging to LGBTQI communities were asking 'why are we not featured?'"
Casting Sunny Wayne, a known actor also ensured a larger audience, said George, that they were all friends and ensured a comfort level for the crew. The crew even had a 'performance director' , something that is not a regular feature. "I was thinking why not have a technical expert to look at the performance, as we have an editor etc. He was with the actors all through till the post production," said George, "Except Sunny all others were new actors. This is Adam's debut film."
She recalled that she cast Adam after asking friends from the community to suggest names, and then held auditions. "Adam was the one who consistently stood by us. He had confidence from day one. I have tried to do justice to Adam's character, by asking Adam to write it… taking his consent for everything we have done with his character," said the director.
Adam's sublime performance seems to come from a place of lived experience, his dialogue delivery is as natural as his real life conversations. Interestingly Anjana recalled that Adam also improvised "even at the last minute when he asked if he can rewrite a dialogue, I said you can."
The perpformance was hard on Adam as his closed friend Anannyah Kumari Alex, a 28-year-old trans woman, had died, allegedly by suicide, and even through all the crisis he was going through, he stayed committed to the film. "He was under hormone therapy and he had side effects, body pain etc. but he remained dedicated to the project"
"I admit as a cis person i did look at the cinema in a hetro way, but i have tried to do justice to Adam's parrt by asking his consent with eevrthing…"
The film, edited by Lijo Paul and shot by cinematographer Ashwin Nandakumar was not aimed at just a rainbow audience, or to be released during pride month. "I didn't have anything in mind. We jumped into the water and had to swim. The film took one eyar, in between Covid happened. We completed the shoot in two and a half days! We also had our budget constraints," recalled George.
The making of the film itself has been a cherished experience for the team. "My biggest satisfaction is that now, every crew member who was involved now has a better understanding. Including the people who gave us the location. I felt it was so easy to normalise something that we had been putting aside. I felt satisfied. In journalism an article may be read by a thousand people, but writing a film has reached lakhs already without any promotion. That is something we are happy about," she said.
Will the team send the film to international festivals? "It is an expensive affair. We can't afford it. We are all bankrupt making this film perfect. I did want to send it but then I realised I have to pay," she laughed.
The film does not have typical melodrama. The performances are restrained, even from Adam Harry who had the most emotional role and yet little screen time in the typical sense.
"Everyone who watched the film said 'we are so surprised', the ending is fantastic" recalled the filmmaker. That many said they would never have guessed who the trans son was, is according to George an example how "it is not considered normal still. The surprise is because of social conditioning."
"I think it is a problem of society. Mine was a simple normal story. I don't want to blame anybody, but it is the awareness that matters. It is about a rainbow parent. She knew it was her daughter who was living next door, but she only showed her love through the light she left on in the veranda" said the filmmaker adding "if we had sensitivity towards every gender this movie would not have been a surprise."
Binary Error streams on YouTube, and has now garnered around 4,52,783 views so far.