Often referred to as hijras and kinnars, transgender men and women are a part of society just like any other individual, regardless of how different their lives may be. Oscar-nominated filmmaker Deepa Mehta and actress Sirat Taneja have created a documentary to bring to life a story about dual identities and the hardships that the LGBTQIA2S+ community members continue to face, despite the support they have found around them. Mehta and Taneja take the baton and continue the fight for equality in “I Am Sirat,” a documentary, presented at the 48th annual Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), on Taneja herself.
“I Am Sirat,” set in Delhi, India, is shot completely on a smartphone. Talking more about filming the documentary on a cellphone — a conscious choice made by the ace director — Mehta confidently says:
It wasn’t a creative decision. It was the only decision we had [to] make the film the way we wanted to, which was very intimate and with nobody else around us. When Sirat was telling her story, she was free to tell it without a crew. That’s the way we wanted it. There were no cameras, no sound, no lighting. It was her life, she was in control of it.
The story highlights the deep intricacies of Taneja’s dual identity. At home, her mother cannot accept the idea of a trans daughter and requires her to be a man, even though she’s made many attempts to tell her family that she does not identify as a male. With her efforts to express her true, authentic self, falling on deaf ears, Taneja sets out to live a life that appeases both her family at home and herself. She goes as far as being her mother’s son in the house while renting out a room for her beautiful clothes and makeup elsewhere in the city; this room is the keepsake of who she really is, the woman she always longed to be.
At one instance she is even physically assaulted for expressing her true gender identity. While the film does not depict the assault, it showcases the traumatic aftermath of it. But the violence doesn’t discourage Taneja from living out her truth. If she’s oppressed at home, she leaves that baggage at the door on her way out — in public, she’s a woman.
The documentary allows viewers to see how Taneja carries this dual identity and how it impacts her as a person. We see her lose many things she considers important in her life, including her job with the Government of India and the love of her life, all because of her trans identity. The myriad of hardships that she faces can be seen throughout the film with struggles not limited to personal and social, but also financial and psychological.
Taneja lives in a single-parent household with her siblings. As the eldest child in a low-income household, she is required to take on her late father’s responsibilities as the breadwinner of the family. In addition to financial issues, the lack of a father figure in her life creates more obstacles for Taneja, including those around sex reassignment surgery. Enter, the idea of following tradition.
It would be remiss to not mention that “I Am Sirat” grazes over the idea of how paradoxical modern-day India really is. On one hand, there are talks about progression, making space, and living your most authentic life; on the other, people like Taneja are asked to put up facades in the name of tradition. Tradition, conservative ideals, and possibly even patriarchy are at the forefront of the oppression that Taneja and her counterparts face. So, even for a country that’s made some notable changes to its governing policies, many of its outdated conventions still trump the law.
“I Am Sirat” really makes the viewers reflect on how far the world has come in offering support and camaraderie to the LGBTQIA2S+ community on a broader level — mainstream media has made important strides to bring equity and inclusivity to the forefront — while hardly ever paying heed to the struggles these minorities face day-to-day with their loved ones. There’s an element of duality even for them in their fight to be recognized; they want acceptance from the public as well as their families. A story like Taneja’s puts into perspective how transgender men and women will never choose the easy way out; they’re determined to be an honorable part of society regardless of what it will cost. A heartbreaking truth, to say the least.
“I Am Sirat” brings about an important message for its global audience: never forget to celebrate who you really are, undeterred by the trials you’re put through. And Sirat Taneja is a living example of this simple life lesson, who danced her way from the TIFF red carpet right into our hearts with her soulful story.
November 2, 2023November 2, 2023 6min readBy Nida Hasan
It’s not every day that a film leaves you feeling completely overwhelmed with a flood of mixed emotions — from grief and hopelessness to fear and rage, all the while brimming with a sense of pride for the protagonist. This usually is a testament to the maker’s cinematic prowess; their ability to not just engage their audience but also invoke a response. In “To Kill A Tiger” however, this is a result of both the director’s unrestrained and incisive approach and the eye-opening reality that unfolds on screen. Emmy-nominated filmmaker Nisha Pahuja’s documentary, “To Kill A Tiger,” is not at all gritty or violent in its depiction; there is no blood and gore that compels you to feel the pain and empathize. It’s the trauma, collective suffering, and the almost sickening reactions that surround the struggle that makes it an eerie watch.
In essence, “To Kill A Tiger” is an unfiltered look into the aftermath of a horrific sexual assault in Bero, a tribal village in Jharkhand, India. The film starts off with Ranjit, a poor rice farmer and 13-year-old victim Kiran’s father, recalling the details of her brutal rape, at a family wedding, by three men including her cousin. After Ranjit files the case, the perpetrators are arrested immediately, but the road to justice is long and dreary, and the chances of getting it, woefully small.
In India, where a woman is raped every 20 minutes and where 90% of those rape crimes go unreported, Ranjit’s unwavering support for her daughter and her right to justice is a rare sight. He is joined by a host of activists including those from Srijan Foundation to further his cause, in the hopes that his unlikely win may bring some form of systemic and societal change. But in his almost 14-month-long, arduous journey, Ranjit and his family find themselves stuck in a destructive cycle of victim-blaming and the intense pressures of upholding the community’s so-called honor. Comments like “she should have known better,” or “she must’ve been a tease for boys will be boys,” and suggestions of marrying her off with one of her rapists so as to keep the village united and let peace prevail, are a harrowing reminder of how much of rural India is still so deeply entrenched in patriarchy and powered by toxic masculinity, which is what actually led Pahuja to this case in the first place.
“After the Delhi gang rape. I decided I wanted to make a film on Indian masculinity. I spent a fair bit of time researching and raising funds for the early development phase because it’s such an abstract concept; how do you tell a story about masculinity?” Pahuja shared, while chatting with Brown Girl Magazine.
“Over the course of my research, I came across the work of a Delhi-based organization, Center for Health and Social Justice. They, essentially, are pioneers in the space around masculinity. They understood very early on that if there were any substantial, effective strides to be made to end the discrimination that exists against women, one would actually have to tackle masculinity, and give men a new way to be male. The film that I initially set out to make was following their work. They were running a program in the state of Jharkhand and Ranjit was enrolled in that program. And that’s how I came across this story. It wasn’t like I was looking for a story about a sexual assault. The incident just happened around that time.”
But shifting the focus to a deeply personal story with an uncertain future, and one that was highly sensitive to its surrounding environment (significantly volatile in nature), posed a series of challenges for both the family involved and the crew. For one, it was crucial to ensure that the fact that there’s a camera present does not, in any way, influence Ranjit’s course of action; and that both Ranjit and Kiran have room and the freedom to make decisions as they see fit.
“We always made it very clear that they shouldn’t do what they were doing for the camera, or for the videos. We told them we will support whatever decision they want to make and that they shouldn’t feel a compulsion to keep pursuing this. We wanted to ensure that they were pursuing justice, in spite of all the things that were going on. Because we were all worried for them. We didn’t want them to be in any kind of danger or to be in a position where they were unsafe,” Pahuja stressed.
As is evident in the film, there are plenty of moments when it seems Ranjit would jump the ship. Apart from the mental and financial burden of keeping up with innumerable court dates, and a system that does little to help the marginalized get justice, the threats to his family’s wellbeing were insurmountable. In one instance, we see this growing hostility veer towards Pahuja’s crew — the villagers question the filmmaker’s continued interest in the incident, warning her to stop meddling in their community’s affairs. Pahuja recalls the instance:
“It was a scary situation. We were aware that this eruption might happen; it wasn’t unexpected but when it happened, it was a shock. You know what I mean? We had been in that village for several months filming, trying to get people on our side, trying to create relationships, even with the boys’ families. And Ranjit was fine with that; he understood why we needed to do that. We made a lot of effort to not be a bull in a china shop; we were very careful. We were certainly aware of the sensitivity and of the possibility that there could be conflict, but not to the degree that [it] happened. I was shocked, I was afraid but the primary emotion that I had was also one of guilt. I felt very ashamed of myself for disrupting something very complicated.”
In the face of such adversity, with the world shunning her and with every possible witness jeopardizing her shot at justice, it is Kiran’s unblemished view of the world, her relentless faith in good winning over evil, and her fierce determination to see her attackers pay for their crime, even at such a tender age, that’s truly admirable. As a viewer, you’ll find yourself at your wit’s end watching Kiran constantly relive her trauma, repeating meticulous details of the incident to one legal official after the other, but she perseveres, also lending her father the courage and the strength to continue her fight.
Is “To Kill A Tiger” a depressing exposition of the inherently patriarchal, and significantly problematic, mindset of the Indian population that is in turn breeding rape culture? Yes. Does it leave you incredibly frustrated and disappointed over the bare minimum impact that Ranjit and Kiran’s defiance and eventual victory has over prevalent attitudes? Yes. With a plethora of rape cases in India suffering a fate worse than Kiran’s, was it a story that needed to be told? Definitely yes. Though a world where women’s voices are not silenced may still very much feel like a utopian fantasy, “To Kill A Tiger” is effectively opening a dialogue by laying bare the roots of it all. Through this profoundly resonant story, Pahuja is helping us understand why whilst taking the first step towards the ‘how’ for her work, and the scope of impact, doesn’t end with the audiences.
“Right now, we’re working with Equality Now; they’ve come on board as our impact partners. And we’re devising a kind of global strategy in terms of what are the things that the film can achieve? And the change that we’re seeking is both at the legal level and at a systems level. And of course, at a cultural level as well. For change to happen, you have to change culture, and culture comprises many different layers. So you have to have an approach that looks at all of these different layers. We have some very specific things that we know we want to do such as creating a fund for survivors. We also want to create a coalition of survivors in India. And then, of course, we want to work on masculinity. We’re really hoping that with Ranjit being the role model, the film can travel with [the] organization to have an impact on men and boys.”
“To Kill A Tiger” is currently showing in cinemas across the US.
“After so Long” is a poetry film created for Simha’s EP, which is streaming on Spotify, Apple Music and Amazon Music. The poem was collaboratively written by Simha, a U.S. native, and Jae, who is based in India, during the 2020 lockdown. “After so Long” was recited by Simha and their parents. In 2022, I directed and produced the film through my studio, Star Hopper. “After so Long” premiered on Nowness Asia in March 2022.
This film is a worldwide collaboration among trans and queer south-Asian artists from the United States, India and Canada. It was recorded, shot and filmed during the lockdown of 2020 and 2021.
Awake at 10 am but out of bed at noon,
I want to be here where I lose myself in these sheets
Glancing through half-shut eyes
At the gold pressing past my window
The glimmer remarks on the ledge of my bed
But the voices are so loud
Like dust collecting in the corner of my room
I am unaware to why I’m still here
With the chilling doubt of the breeze…
I’m swept into lucidity After so long
Mil rahi hoon mein aaj iske saang barso baad,
(Today, I’ll be meeting them after so long)
Koi paata nahi diya tune
(But with no destination sight,)
(What should I do?)
(Where should I go?)
Shayad agar mein chalne lagoon,
(Perhaps, if I keep walking)
Inn yaadon ki safar mein
(Down this road of memories)
Mujhe samajh mein ayega,
(I will find out)
Yeh rasta kahaan jayega,
(Where this road leads)
Inn aari tedhi pakadandiyon pe baarte hi jaana hai,
(Through the twists and turns of this winding roads, I must keep going on)
Mujhe mil na hain aaj uske saath,
(I wish to meet them today)
(After so long)
I feel like I’m retracing my footsteps
From these concrete stretches
To broken cement walls
Chips and cracks forge their way for new designs
I see the old abandoned buildings
That once held the warmth of bodies
Now just hold memories
Supporting the nature’s resilience
In vines and moss
After so long
Dhoondli shishe mein jaaga leli hai
(These isty mirrors have offered refuge)
Bikhri hui laatao ne,
(To these scattered vines)
Zameen pe uchi ghaas pe
(Amidst the tall grass stretching from the ground)
Lehrati kamsan kaliyaa
(The swaying little buds)
Bheeni bheeni khushboo bikhereti
(Spreading honeysuckle scent through the air)
Phir wahi mausam,
(I lose myself in reminiscing, the same season)
(The same heart)
(After so long)
Phir bhi mein chal rahi hoon aaj
(Still, I keep carrying on today)
Khudko khudse milane ke liye
(In the pursuit of my higher self)
Inn galiyo se guzarna hain aaj
(I must pass through these streets today)
Chaalte chaale jaana hai aaj
(I must keep going on today)
Kabhi hum milenge kisi mor paar
(Someday, we’ll meet again, somewhere on this road)
(After so long)
Kabhi hum milenge kisi mor pe
(Someday, we’ll meet again, somewhere on this road)
(After so long)
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It is the strength of both British and South Asian cinema that every few years, and with increasing regularity, a film comes along that is able to successfully and thoughtfully bridge the highs and lows of both cultures. With the recognisable cross-cultural DNA of films like “Bend it Like Beckham”, “Bride and Prejudice”and others before it, Shekhar Kapur brings to the silver screen an honest and comedic representation of East meets West with “What’s Love Got To Do With It” — an exploration of love and marriage across international norms.
Written and produced by Jemima Khan, the film draws from elements of her own experience of marrying then-Pakistani cricket star and now ex-Prime Minister, Imran Khan, and relocating to the country for 10 years.
“Particularly in the West, Pakistanis would quite often be seen as terrorists, fanatics and backwards,” says Khan, as she reminisces about her time spent in Pakistan over Zoom. “My experience of living in Pakistan was very colourful, vibrant, and fun. I always felt like the rom-com side of Pakistan was more surprising than anything else.”
A film not just about the heart, but with a lot of heart of its own, “What’s Love Got To Do With It” touches on South Asian families, culture, individuality, and marriages in the 21st century. Set in the UK and Pakistan, this is a feel-good and fun story about childhood best friends and neighbours, Zoe and Kazim, AKA Kaz. And as the narrative unfolds, new light is shone on their friendship and questions are asked about the cultural norms and practices we have grown to accept.
It isn’t your usual ‘boy-meets-girl’ tale. On the contrary, they’ve known each other forever; the fabric of their lives intertwined. Kaz is a British-Pakistani doctor of “marriageable” age, opting for an “assisted” marriage set in motion by his own desire rather than parental duress.
“I think we’ve replaced the term “arranged” with “assisted” because South Asian parents now trust their kids more to make the right decision for themselves,” said Shahzad Latif, sitting next to Lily James, who nods in agreement. “It’s still a process. Some parents may have more confidence in their kids than others, but we’re getting there.”
Zoe – played by Lily James – is a professional documentary maker living on an inexplicably fancy houseboat (bit of a stretch for somebody having difficulty funding projects, but, at this point, a crucial ingredient for London rom-coms). As a white British woman, her method of finding love isn’t one that involves parents or family.
“It was a no-brainer for me to be part of the script,” says a smiling James in response to whether any culture shocks were encountered during filming and table reads. “Pakistani culture is so rich and colourful, and it was important for me to showcase this side of the country. So no, no culture shocks per se, just more singing and dancing in comparison to British culture!”
Zoe’s camera is the vehicle through which the film examines Kaz’s “contractual love”, as she trawls dating apps while following her best friend down the assisted aisle.
Emma Thompson’s Cath plays the comedic matriarch to Zoe, eager to witness the conclusion of her daughter’s swiping days by being with someone suitable. She’s found a family in Shabana Azmi’s Aisha Khan – a more layered mum — one that is embracing both tradition and modernity. It would be fair to say that Azmi successfully sells cinema-goers on the difficulty of that struggle.
“Today’s society is slowly coming to terms with providing children the space they rightfully require and deserve to make decisions,” says Azmi, reflecting on how scripts and films have evolved over time. “Gone are the days when parents would blackmail their children into marrying the first person they come across. Just because they are their kids doesn’t mean they are actually children. They are adults with views and minds of their own.”
Kaz is then introduced to Maimoona (Sajal Aly); a shy introvert from Pakistan, unsure about the idea of moving permanently to London. She’s dealing with internal battles of her own; battles between personal desires and societal expectations.
“Maimoona may not have verbally said much, but her face said everything,” explains Aly, looking beautiful and radiant as ever. “She is torn between what she wants and what society silently shoves down at her and eventually, she goes with what the latter expects.”
The film navigates between London and a fabricated Lahore filmed in the suburbs of the British capital; a feat that comes as testament to the film’s production design. Kaz and Zoe’s jaunts across Lahore, backdropped by its magnificent architecture, set the stage for Pakistani music legends to shine, including the mesmerising voice of Rahet Fateh Ali Khan.
And if this wasn’t enough, Nitin Sawhney and Naughty Boy add further melody to the film’s music, as they talk about their experience of creating appropriate tunes such as the foot-thumping “Mahi Sona”.
“It was a great process and experience to create an appropriate language and expression of music which added elements and flavours to the film,” says the duo enthusiastically. “It’s also an ode to our South Asian heritage.”
Even though the tone of “What’s Love Got To Do With It” is distinctly feel-good, the film thoughtfully explores the unconventional ways that relationships may be built, and what multiculturalism can teach one another. Is it, in fact, more sensible to be practical about relationships? Is it possible to learn to love the person we’re with? Is love really the only ingredient needed for a successful marriage? Why was Kaz’s sister shunned for marrying outside of their culture? And do Western relationships draw more on the ideas of assisted partnerships than we realise?
A clever reference is drawn from the moment Prince Charles shattered many royal dreamers’ hearts with his dismissive “whatever in love means” comment upon his engagement to Princess Diana, thus proving that these notions may be closer to home in the West than one might believe.
James and Latif are a charismatic pair, with Zoe married to her independence and Kaz gently questioning her prejudices. The film is also a vivid demonstration of British talent, with Asim Chaudhry playing a hilarious yet questionable rishta uncle, comic duo Ben Ashenden and Alex Owen appearing as a pair of TV commissioners with a briefcase of ridiculous ideas, and Nikkita Chadha as the confrontational Baby — the film’s feisty rebel, in love with dancing.
“It’s incredible to be part of such a diverse and stellar cast,” smiles Chadha animatedly, while sipping on tea at Soho House in London. “My character is defiant and nonconformist — perfectly conflicting with the name “Baby “. I’m really excited for everyone to watch the film.”
Divorce is still stigmatised in South Asia — a theme often carefully avoided in desi films and television. Khan gently addresses it as a twist in the film – with a reminder that be it love or assisted marriage — amicable and mutual separations are a possibility.
As a complete package, “What’s Love Got To Do With It” deftly wraps up all the emotions associated with love and family in its joyful, musical, and vibrant 109-minute runtime. With its cast, music and direction, this classic rom-com is set to make you laugh, cry and, even more importantly, make you think about the multi-dimensional nature of love within and across cultures. The film is now showing in cinemas worldwide, and we highly recommend it.
Desk bound by day and travel bound all other times – Queenie thrives on her weekly dose of biryani and chilli paneer. She recently released her first book called The Poor Londoner, which talks about comical expat experiences people face worldwide. With degrees in Journalism and Creative Writing, her work and research on gender inequality in the travel industry is taught in universities across the globe. Her travels and everyday fails can be found on Instagram (@thepoorlondoner) and YouTube (The Poor Londoner).
Originally from Karachi, Pakistan and now blended into the hustle-bustle of London, Marium is a trainee technology consultant, by day and sometime also night, and also finishing her bachelors in Digital Innovation. In the midst of striving to be someone, she enjoys dreaming about the impossible (impossible according to desi standards and sometime Harry Potter impossible as well), and writing about them. She enjoys baking, decorating things and a cup of chai!