Posted by Josephine Varghese
Despite favourable Supreme Court judgements in recent years, the queer community in India continues to be largely ignored, invisibilised and side-lined. The recent controversy surrounding the Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Bill 2018 is a prime example for the ongoing disregard of trans voices at the highest levels of governance in India. The prevailing ignorance around trans issues in India is an outcome of existing misunderstandings around sex and gender. The depiction of LGBTQ+ characters in popular culture and cinema has perpetuated myths and stereotypes around the community. It will require a concerted effort from the part of government, media and civil society to undo the harm done by negative characterisations and stereotyping of queer people in visual media, and in everyday life.
Njān Sānjo (I’m Sānjo) documents the life of a dynamic young man named Sanjo in a transphobic suburban locality. Sanjo’s insights spill over the struggles with his gender identity, lack of inclusive spaces and minimal awareness of trans masculine identities in Kerala. Sánjo, who was gender assigned female at birth also shares his passion for mathematics, hockey etc. and how they were key to his survival and realising his gender identity.
This short documentary attempts to delve into questions of autonomy of a trans man, from Kerala, and the scope of inclusion for trans persons in contemporary Indian society.
One of the highlights of this documentary is the fact that the entire team – both cast and crew – consist of members of the queer community in Kerala and allies.
Njān Sānjo provides a platform for the life and thoughts of Sanjo, a trans man from Kerala, shared in his own words. One of the highlights of this documentary is the fact that the entire team – both cast and crew – consist of members of the queer community in Kerala and allies. Jijo Kuriakose, the debutant director of this film, is openly gay, and a prominent voice in the LGBTQ+ activist space in Kerala. He is a founding member of Queerala, a community organisation working to further LGBTQ+ rights and wellbeing. Co-operative community projects such as Njān Sānjo empower the queer community to bust myths and stereotypes surrounding their community, and should receive support and funding from the government and wider civil society.
The transgender community face multi-dimensional challenges – social, economic and political. Significantly, community members must go through the arduous process of navigating the archaic, reductionist ‘gender binary’. Trans men and women face challenges linked to their assigned sex at birth and consequent gender expectations. For example, take the case of trans men. Since trans men are assigned female at birth, they are often subjected to a great degree of patriarchal control and scrutiny from the part of their family and society, especially in the early stages of their life, teenage and young adulthood. The pressure to get married starts early, and there are stifling restrictions on freedom of movement and expression. In Kerala, as in many parts of India, trans men are less visible in the public sphere than trans women. The documentary, Njān Sānjo is a step in the direction of addressing the lack of visibility of trans men in Kerala.
Njān Sānjo stands out on many counts. In this article, I highlight two aspects that struck me as most important.
Njān Sānjo challenges mainstream depictions of queer people
As mentioned earlier, generally, the depictions of trans people in literature, media and popular culture have been problematic. Mainstream film and media have the tendency to portray queer people as objects of curiosity – as outside the ordinary. This feeds into existing belief systems that view queer lives as an aberration from ‘normal’. Njān Sānjo challenges such depictions. The film follows Sanjo, as he goes his about his daily life, commuting through familiar locations in Kochi for work, sport, food and leisure – a setting relatable to any ordinary resident of the city. It sends the message that Sanjo is not strange or peculiar. Like any other resident of Kochi, Sanjo is just Sanjo.
Sanjo is the protagonist and the documentary moves forward through his voice. The documentary, therefore, is a vehicle to amplify Sanjo’s voice rather than a medium that hijacks it.
The film does not hijack Sanjo’s voice; it acts as a vehicle for it
Another tendency of mainstream depictions of queer people is to narrate or portray queer lives through the language of the filmmaker or writer. This creates a power imbalance, as the queer person does not always get a say in how they are being depicted. The perspective, (or ‘gaze’) of the interviewer, scriptwriter or director dominates, which often disempowers the queer person being represented. Recently, for instance, the book Invisible men, about the lives of trans men faced criticism from the trans community for its problematic depiction of trans men. Prominent trans activists argued that the author, a cis-woman, disregarded the concerns raised by the trans community, portraying trans men through a ‘cis gaze’. Njān Sānjo, on the other hand, prioritises Sanjo’s own voice. There is no one else talking in the film. Sanjo is the protagonist and the documentary moves forward through his voice. The documentary, therefore, is a vehicle to amplify Sanjo’s voice rather than a medium that hijacks it.
The documentary is about 14 minutes long – a suitable length for screenings at schools, colleges and elsewhere to raise awareness around transgender youth. It has not been released online, but can be obtained directly from the filmmakers for public or private screenings (contact details attached below).
I wish the film’s cast and crew the best and hope Njān Sānjo reaches a wide audience.
For public/private screenings and access to the film, please contact Jijo Kuriakose (Director): email@example.com
Access to the film is provided for free, but any contributions (small or large) towards covering the production expenses are welcome. As a collaborative community project, the members of the community themselves have borne the cost of production.
Josephine Varghese is a PhD candidate at the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at the University of Canterbury. You can follow her on Twitter and email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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