‘Their stories shook me’: Filmmaker Divya on her film about trans sex workers

Tamil Nadu based independent filmmaker Divya Bharathi who is known for her documentaries ‘Kakkoos’ and ‘Orutharum Varela’, is making her feature debut with ‘Jillu.’
Poster of Divya Bharathi's debut feature film, Jillu
Poster of Divya Bharathi's debut feature film, Jillu
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Forced into sex work from a young age, the protagonist Jillu, a transgender sex worker who is tired of the curveballs thrown at her, looks into the camera at one point in the film and says a good night’s sleep is all that she wishes for. A perpetual sense of dread looms over her life. Every time she tries to break free from it, either by giving a chance for the ocean to meet her as she prefers to describe her visits to the beach, or by taking a bike ride across the city with her friend – perhaps the only sequences in the otherwise hard-hitting film that has a soothing effect on the viewers – it is immediately followed by scenes depicting dejection and her community’s relentless struggle for dignity. Jillu’s story, as one can guess, forms the crux of independent filmmaker Divya Bharathi’s debut feature which is named after its protagonist. 

Shortly after concluding the preview show of her yet-to-be released feature film in Chennai, Divya tells TNM that despite receiving backlash and being caught in the midst of legal battles for her previous projects like Kakkoos and Orutharum Varela, she is driven to continue making films about the lives of people hailing from oppressed communities, for hearing stories about their struggles, rattles her conscience. “I felt there was a gap between the discussions that happen on social media platforms like Twitter, Clubhouse etc and the reality of oppressed communities at the grassroots level. I want to bridge that gap through my films,” she says.

The film, which unravels like a documentary, tracks the harsh realities faced by transgender persons in Tamil Nadu, who are forced to earn a livelihood through sex work, begging and folk dance shows. “I was working on my documentary film Chaatla which is based on the life of transwomen who are sex workers. I was travelling across Tamil Nadu for close to six to eight months. It was while working on the documentary that I realised I couldn’t capture some aspects of their lives through documentary. I felt the obstacles they face in their relationships with their families, romantic relationships, and the day-to-day experiences could be captured through fiction,” the filmmaker says.

Some of the people Divya met during the course of interviews for Chaatla such as Dharini, Sudha, Revathy, Lakshaya, and Shallu, subsequently became part of the film’s cast. “Though they are not trained actors, they did not find it difficult to face the camera, because it was their life experiences that were being translated on screen. It took them three four days to get used to being in front of the camera, but they subsequently got used to it,” Divya shares.

Jillu went on floors in December 2019 in Villupuram and the crew wrapped up shooting in February 2020, before the onset of the pandemic. Shortly thereafter, the post-production work commenced in Madurai. Jillu’s technical crew includes cinematographer Kartheeban, music composer Yuthishtran E, editor Anand, lyricists Gireesh and Yugabharathi.

When asked about the censor certification, Divya observes, “The film was certified under ‘A’ category by CBFC despite us taking cognisance of all the proposed cuts and removing those scenes.”

The film is produced by Tony I Oliver under the banner of Sunhall Media Pvt Limited. “The producer is a doctor by profession who belongs to a community of fishermen in Thoothoor (coastal town in Kanyakumari). He watched Orutharum Varela and wanted to support my work. I don’t think popular Kollywood producers would bankroll the projects done by an independent political filmmaker like me,” Divya reveals. The team is currently on the lookout for OTT platforms for streaming the film. “Although I faced difficulties finding avenues to release my previous works, we could organise small-scale screenings for the documentaries. That cannot be done for feature films, and we lack the financial capital to opt for theatrical release, OTT is the only option we are left with,” adds the Orutharum Varela filmmaker.

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