Your work focuses on subcultures and marginalised communities including your latest project for the Vogue Pride series, which celebrates Drag Syndrome, a professional artists’ group of drag queens and kings with Down’s syndrome. What inspires you the most about these minority groups?
I find that the full spectrum of humanity can be found in groups and individuals who live on the outskirts of society, whether they choose to be there, or have been pushed out by the mainstream. I’m particularly interested in the margins of queer culture, and shining a light on places where you can still be punished for your sexual preference. As a queer person living in the west, I feel it’s important to use my platform as a filmmaker to highlight the challenges many LGBT+ people still face.
Your Nowness documentary, Nirvana, about the Koovagam Festival in Tamil Nadu focuses on the carnival and beauty pageant of transgender people from all over India. How did you come across the festival in the first place?
I’ve travelled extensively in India and have always been interested in the position of trans people, known locally as ‘hijras’. Historically they were seen as good luck, possessing magical qualities. After the colonisation of India, perceptions shifted into them being seen as a bad omen in parts of the country. My interest and subsequent research into this niche pocket of queer culture lead me to Koovagam, the largest gathering of trans women in Asia, and perhaps the world.
You also reveal the darker side of transgender life in India through your interviews and filming. To what extent did you know the community’s back story before you decided to film or did it reveal itself while you were filming?
I knew that trans women in India, and in many parts of the world, have limited means in which to make a living. In India, most people who transition are committing to a difficult life, where money is made through sex work and begging. There are strict structures within society at large here, and through filming I found out that this extends to the trans community. The elder trans women act as pimps, and run houses where they look after the young, in exchange for the money that is made through sex work and begging. It’s safer for trans women to stay in these hierarchical communities than trying to make an independent living.
How did you win the trust of the people you portray so intimately? Was it a process of getting to know them before the festival?
I contacted a local charity, Born2Win, which was set up to support the LGBT+ community in Chennai. Through them, I met Chintu, a trans woman who was subverting norms but living independently, she was more progressive in this way, partly due to the support she has from her family which is rare as most trans women are rejected by their families. We spent time with her and her community before the festival, and travelled to Koovagam together. At the festival we met Aaliyah, a beautiful trans woman, whose story is more typical – rejected by her family, she relies on sex work and her trans family to survive. Both Chintu and Aaliyah were very open, and trust was built by spending time intensely with them, even staying in the same brothel / hotel during the festival. Sadly, Chintu took her own life earlier this year – so this film has become a celebration of her life, and she is immortalised within it.
In Nirvana which you made 18 months ago during “normal” times, you expose the everyday hardships along with the camaraderie of being part of a community – most having been shunned by their birth families. Now during the Coronavirus lockdown it must be unspeakably difficult for them to survive. Please tell us about the charity film you have collaborated with Mullen Lowe India and Chrome Pictures on ‘They are counting On Us. Let’s Count Them In’, to raise funds in support of the Indian Trans community.
Since making this film I have kept in touch with Aaliyah, regularly checking in on how she’s doing. During the pandemic, trans lives are being disproportionately effected in India, as they rely on contact with people to survive. Life was already challenging for them, as they are shunned by mainstream society. When Chrome Pictures approached me to rework Nirvana into a call for action to help this community I was grateful for the opportunity to give back to a pocket of LGBT society which is close to my heart. It’s amazing that this film has had a renaissance and has hopefully bought about some change in how these women are perceived, which is the most I could have hoped for.
LINKS and Notes:
The Phool Versha Foundation is a non-governmental organization in Mumbai, Maharashtra, which is working with Nammyoho Daan to raise awareness about LGBT communities across India, and collecting funds to provide food packages for the trans community during the Coronavirus lockdown. Members of the trans community have starved during lockdown in India, with as many as 30 deaths already within the community. In a country of 1.3 billion, the transgender community constitutes approximately 2 million, who are badly hit by the Coronavirus lockdown because they make their living by handouts at weddings, engagements, funerals and births plus begging on the streets, all their support comes through social interaction, which has been eradicated.
The Foundation is instrumental in providing extra nutrition for those in the community suffering with HIV, who are unable to get their medication whilst the pandemic has a stronghold. So far the charity have helped 4370 LGBT families and there are many more that need support. For international donations they have tied-up with the organisation IAHV (Art of Living).
For more information about The Phool Versha Foundation and Nammyoho Daan go to: https://phoolvershafoundation-nammyohodaan.org
To donate, click on the link: https://phoolvershafoundation-nammyohodaan.org/
The charity has associated with Kineer Services to help the LGBT community: http://www.kineerservices.com
Art Director: @derekhardiemartin
Editor: Aurelien Boisson
EP: Juliette Larthe
Associate Prod: @tom_manaton
Colourist: Ludovic Roussaux @okaystudio & @m.y.l.e.s
Nowness -@gavinhumphries @bunnykinney @shelleybones
& @jess.kohl production
Credits for India:
@iamitrsharma @nesswadia @go_garry @kanika.d @mllintasgroup_
@pictureschrome @kineer_blessed @laxminarayan_tripathi