Trans people must have tools to tell their own stories: Activists at Kochi Biennale

Among the films discussed was Jayasurya's 'Njan Marykutty', which the activists felt was not an accurate representation of trans lives.
Trans people must have tools to tell their own stories: Activists at Kochi Biennale
Trans people must have tools to tell their own stories: Activists at Kochi Biennale
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Jayasurya may have picked up the Kerala State Award for his performances in Captain and Njan Marykutty, but trans rights activist Sheetal Shyam believes the film hasn't made the transgender community proud. At a panel discussion held at Kochi Muziris Biennale on the topic of the representation of the transgender community in the media, Sheetal, who hails from Kerala, said, "The film Njan Marykutty got this acclaim only because of actor Jayasurya’s value as an actor and the movie has not made the transgender community proud."

“When a person from another community tells the story of trans people, it will not be our story,” Sheetal further added, although the film had won praise from a section of the trans community in Kerala when it was released.

The panel discussion, which was held at Cabral Yard in Fort Kochi on Thursday, was preceded by the screening of the movie Transfinite by Neelu Bhuman.

Sheetal, who is a model and television actor in Kerala, has also been a part of feature films like Aabhaasam and Ka Bodyscapes. In 2016, Sheetal was awarded the Trans Achiever Award by the social justice department of the Kerala State Government.

Satya Rai Nagpaul was one of the four panelists at the event. Satya is a gender rights activist, cinematographer of the acclaimed film Aligarh and the founder of Sampoorna, a network of trans persons in India.

The other panels were Gee Imaan Semmalar, a trans activist, artist and educator, and Daya Gayatri, a model, writer and theatre artiste. Gee has written extensively about the issues of the transgender community on various platforms. In 2014, Gee co-founded Panmai theatre with Living Smile Vidya and Angel Glady. Gee is also famous for the documentary which he made on the trans men of south India. Daya Gayatri is the co-founder of the Mudra Charitable Society and the first transgender student of Kerala’s much acclaimed Maharaja’s College.

Though Daya said that she appreciates the fact that Jayasurya, a mainstream Malayalam actor, showed the courage to do the role of a transgender person, she holds the view that the movie did not do justice to the life of a real trans person.

“All of us have come from the lower strata of society through various struggles. We have faced many obstacles in life to come up to where we are now. This happens because of the inspiration that we get from other members of the trans community. But in the movie Njan Marykutty, they show a transgender person living among cisgender people, completely alienated from the trans community. That is not how we live in real life,” opined Daya.

Meanwhile, Daya spoke highly of the Kannada movie Nanu Avanalla Avalu by BS Lingadevaru and the Tamil film Narthaki by Kalki Subramaniam as they depict trans life more realistically.

“Films like Transfinite are important because it is very seldom that we see an African-American trans person or an indigenous trans person, who remain at the margins of society, being represented on screen. There has to be multiple representations of marginalised positions on screen so that we can see ourselves there, without having to imagine ourselves as some white character. The film Transfinite shows us these multiple representations of the marginalised,” said Gee.

“A lot of mainstream films have been used to ridicule or instill fear about trans folks. So, I think that it is important for us to have the tools to tell our own stories. It is even more important that the most marginalised among us have these tools,” said Gee.

He also stressed on the fact that cisgender people who act the role of transgender persons always bag awards, whereas equally talented trans actors get no such recognition.

“Trans actors are always typecast to play only the roles of transgender characters, whereas cis persons can enact anyone under the sun,” added Gee.

He was also critical about Nandini Krishnan’s book Invisible Men: Inside India’s Transmasculine Network which was published in 2018. “It is known as India’s first transmasculine narrative but there are huge ethical issues with the book. One should read that book to know what not to do while representing trans people,” said Gee.

Satya, who works mostly in north India, holds the opinion that south Indian movies represent trans persons more correctly than in Bollywood.

“There should be dedicated resources for the cultural expression of trans people, be it in films, literature or theatre. Because if we don’t have the resources to express ourselves, then we cannot have the representation. At present, these resources are managed by only cis savarna people and it is high time that they reflect upon what they have been expressing about us all this while,” said Satya.

Possibilities for a non-alienated life for a trans person

Given that the theme of the present edition of the Biennale is ‘possibilities for a non-alienated life’, the panelists also delved on how this applied to a transgender person living in India.

“Even though there is a visibility for us now here in Kerala, we are still in a position where we cannot confidently say we have the rights as queer people to live a dignified life,” said Daya.

Though the trans community in general faces challenges to lead a non-alienated life, things are much more difficult for trans women. There exists a certain privilege for trans men, the panelists said, as they are not often questioned or ridiculed the way trans women are.

“My experience of alienation is more protected than my trans women sisters out there. But since, we as humanity are connected, there are no single issues or lone battles," Gee said, adding that his view of a non-alienated life would be more inclusive of all marginalised communities - like the adivasis, Dalits, Muslims.

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