“This place is so beautiful; we thank God we were born here. That our destiny was to be born like this is another matter,” says Nisar Ahmad, a transgender man featured in Trans Kashmir. This paradoxical statement says it all about Kashmir—the larger paradox that this new feature-length documentary, directed by Surbhi Dewan and S.A. Hanan, is set in.
Kashmir is known for two things—its unmatched beauty and the perennial conflict. Like every other society, it has its own problems and realities which are not necessarily attached to the conflict, although they are exacerbated by it. One such reality is that faced by the transgender community of Kashmir.
Shot in the beautiful Kashmir Valley, the film is primarily a compilation of the personal stories of a few ordinary transgender people and a transgender activist, woven into an interesting and coherent narrative. As it depicts the everyday life of the Valley’s transgender community, it attempts to place them within Kashmir’s complex social fabric. At the same time, it tries to tell the hidden story of the community and its afflictions that otherwise go unremarked.
Before watching this documentary, all this writer knew about this community’s presence in Kashmir was Reshma, who had become an overnight sensation due to his unique style of singing and dancing. Looking at the popularity of Reshma, one might think that transgender people live a life of dignity in the Kashmir Valley. One realises after watching this documentary that the reality is rather grim.
When it comes to Kashmir, it is very difficult to not let the conflict overshadow what are otherwise important issues. The significance of Trans Kashmir rests on the fact that it manages to maintain a balance between depicting one aspect of life vis-a-vis the conflict. While there can be no denying the intensity and impact of the conflict on the daily lives of people here, one needs to look beyond it to understand where the transgender community stands in Kashmiri society. Though the conflict has aggravated their suffering, there are many other problems that equally hamper their lives.
As the story moves forward, the protagonists talk about the various discriminations and ill treatments they face. In one scene, Reshma recalls an incident where he was spat upon and manhandled by a passer-by. In another scene, transgender activist Aijaz Ahmad Bund highlights the attitude of the medical fraternity towards them. He recalls how a doctor had once recommended shock therapy for a transgender man. There are bureaucratic hassles as well, which are made worse by the low level of education in the community.
The chief among their daily struggles is one they face across the country: the lack of viable sources of livelihood. In the Valley, the community has traditionally earned a living through matchmaking, but now this vocation has been taken up by many other people, thus significantly reducing their prospects.
Another problem that comes up in the film is narrated by Shabnum, who talks about property rights and the troubles the community faces while laying claim to property that is rightfully theirs.
Specifically in relation to the conflict, Reshma recalls how they were once forced by the armed forces to sing and dance, which made them feel humiliated.
Trans Kashmir is a testament to the power of documentary film-making. While it sheds light on the struggles faced by Kashmir’s transgender community, it will also hopefully serve as a guide for academicians and policy-makers. But most importantly, it could help initiate change in social attitudes.
Hearing directly from those who have endured social exclusion, unemployment, and conflict provides a portrayal that simple narration can never match. The writing and editing are superb, propped up by immaculate cinematography. To take separate elements and lace them together the way Trans Kashmir requires some skill.
In one of its final sequences, the film mentions that in August 2017, the activist Aijaz Ahmad Bund filed a Public Interest Litigation in the High Court of Jammu and Kashmir seeking social and political inclusion of the hijra community, as no lawyer was willing to take up the case. It further sought their rehabilitation and recognition as a marginalised and vulnerable section of society. Even though the PIL is still lingering in the High Court, Bund continues to improve the lives of the transgender community through his NGO Sonzal Welfare Trust.
The film thus ends on a note of hope. Hope that one day the community will indeed get its due.