Narrow bridges

Trans Kashmir crosses gender lines and tells a human story

Kriti Film Club, an initiative for the preservation, screening and distribution of documentaries, recently organized the screening of a one-hour documentary titled Trans Kashmir in Delhi. The film, co-directed by Surbhi Dewan and SA Hannan, explores transgender life in Kashmir.

They live in pockets of Srinagar as most of them came from other parts of the union territory either to earn a living or to find shelter when they were driven out by their families as they are born without a defined and “acceptable” sex. The “intermediate” people had to struggle from birth to death.

“Growing up in Srinagar in the 80s, I had witnessed the struggle of the transgender community. I had read many articles in the local press about their struggle for basic rights. The community had started to come out of the closet to demand her rightful place in society. I called Surbhi to suggest that she make a film about wrestling, and she eagerly took up the challenge,” Hannan said.

Surbhi and Hannan were batch mates at the Film School at the Rochester Institute of Technology in New York. After their return, they were planning a film together, looking for an interesting and stimulating subject.

“When I heard about the transgender community in Akmal I felt great. Firstly it was a completely new entry point, no one ever thinks of gender minorities when they think of Kashmir! In addition to that, there were people talking about Within the community, a court case had just been filed and some kind of momentum was building and it all seemed to make for an unusual and compelling story,” added Surbhi.

Surbhi didn’t have much interaction with the community before making the film. She had seen them teasing and laughing at them in the streets, and found it cruel, but a lot of trans people took it in their stride, because they were used to it and had no way out. One told how she was ridiculed, teased and teased at school by the other children and when it became unbearable she had to stop. Most of the people interviewed in the film had virtually no education. This worsened their social situation and, more importantly, their financial situation.

In order to create rapport with his subjects, Hannan began to look around and approach the community personally and through friends. “It was not easy and often put me in awkward situations. I was snubbed many times. I quickly realized that 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 neighbor, I remember making a video call to Surbhi to have them interact with her, we also got in touch with Aijaz Bund who runs the Sonzal Welfare Trust. They work for the welfare of the transgender community, and he connected us with the other transgender women in the film. It wasn’t easy at first, but eventually we struck a chord. with them,” Hannan recalls.

Surbhi added, “We were both sure that we wanted to touch on a topic that was outside the mainstream narrative about Kashmir. When I heard about the transgender community, it felt right to me. First, it was a completely new entry point, no you never think of gender minorities when you think of Kashmir!Secondly there were people talking within the community, a lawsuit had just been filed and some kind of momentum was building. It seemed like it would create an unusual situation and exciting 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 color nor form, yet I am caught up in His wondrous forms…”

The beautiful subjects, who spoke freely and frankly with the directors are, -Shabnum, Nissar, Simran, Babloo and Reshma. All but one of them were disguised as men although their names, with the exception of Babloo’s, were feminine. They express themselves well despite having barely had a formal education. It was a little surprising to find that most of the interviewees dress like men, but identify with female names, except for one who identifies as female.

Why? “They probably wanted to be seen that way by society, as people conforming to so-called societal norms. They would openly dress up as women in their youth. Something the younger trans generation is doing in Kashmir, like Simran is doing in I am sure some of them dress as women in their private lives and when performing at weddings,” Surbhi said.

The film was shot over a three-year period, with long gaps due to the pandemic and other disruptions. The characters in the film are either native to Srinagar or are based there and rarely visit their places of origin. The frame of reference therefore remains Srinagar. Surbhi and Hannan said they did a lot of research and planning beforehand before going to shoot. As most of their technical team was also local and had been working under these conditions for some time, the directors and crew were not bothered by the situation in the area.

The subjects that appear on rotation in the film are often captured dancing around in their glitzy costumes or talking about how their matchmaking business was down. One could decipher from their interviews that their lives were at a critical stage. Nissar, the eldest of them, said she could barely manage in a cramped room without water or a toilet and did not know what would happen to her after living like this for some time.

“The working title of the film was Transgenders of Kashmir. And then, towards the end of the film, we thought of many titles and even took suggestions from friends and colleagues. We focused on Trans Kashmir which sounded clean, catchy and easy,” Hannan said. “We had been toying with the word ‘transition’ because it had multiple connotations for the community. Personally, I would have preferred something more poetic but I also see the value of to be direct. We imagine a global audience for the film, and the subject matter is complex enough, so we decided to go with a simple title,” Surbhi added.

Preparing the subjects must have been a daunting task, but the two filmmakers managed to get them to talk without being aware of the camera. Hannan recalls, “Once they started performing and singing, they forgot about the camera. Maybe it’s because of their love for their art. We didn’t do any special preparation to film their performances. During our conversations, we tried to capture them as candidly and organically as possible.”

According to Surbhi, “We filmed them mostly in their homes or in familiar surroundings, which makes their portrayal organic. Some of them were relatively comfortable with the camera as they were used to talking to people before. journalists. Reshma enjoys a certain level of fame in Kashmir. She has made TV appearances before and has been featured in a music video. Simran (the youngest character in the film) was afraid to talk 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 took the cameras out.

Reshma’s voice rings out with clarity as she sings a Kashmiri song, the music video for which has garnered over 40,000 views on YouTube. After failing the fifth standard, Reshma was told to learn tailoring, a craft she has practiced for more than a decade. But the urge to sing never left her and she escaped from her family to sing on special occasions and celebrations, but was soon discovered. Even though she was beaten and ridiculed by her family, Reshma did not stop singing and eventually established herself as a leading voice.

“Aijaz Bund (gender rights activist featured in the film) knows the realities on the ground well from his many years of working with the community. We also had a Kashmiri student from Jamia Millia Islamia who helped us with research plus a couple of subject matter experts advising us,” Surbhi informs. With his support, they were able to convince community members to come to the screen and talk about their lives. Bund Hijras of Kashmir: A Marginalized Form of Personhood was the go-to resource for filmmakers while trying to understand the community and its challenges.

In 2020, the Jammu & Kashmiire Board of Directors extended the coverage of the Integrated Social Security Scheme (ISSS) to include transgender people. The scheme grants them Rs 1,000 every month. But several members share a similar story, of leaving home at a young age and not having the required documents to benefit from the program. During the last conversation with the members, the administrators found that only one of the members they had interviewed was paid.

The public interest litigation filed by Aijaz is still pending in the Srinagar High Court. In recent years, extreme isolation and the loss of their livelihoods have forced many into prostitution. Young transgender women continue to arrive in the city from villages in Kashmir. This new generation comes out and appropriates the movement. The directors also met with local historians to learn about their past lives and traditions. One of the renowned historians of Kashmir, Zareef Ahmad Zareef also features in the film.

The film ends with graphics informing the audience of the current status of the film’s topics. In early 2022, Reshma was diagnosed with cancer. She is currently undergoing treatment in Srinagar. His application for the state-issued pension plan is still pending. Multiple blockages have left Simran homeless and homeless. An aggravated medical condition affected his ability to walk. Aijaz and Shabnum helped her get back on her feet but lost contact with her soon after. At the end of 2021, Nissar was diagnosed with diabetic foot. She suffered a severe heart attack in early 2022 and returned to her village.

Shabnum struggles to resolve some issues with his biological family. She recently adopted a chela (disciple). Babloo and Shabnum parted ways due to a personal disagreement. Uncertain about the future, Babloo’s greatest wish is to continue the fight for justice.