Documentary

Transcending barriers

Print edition : April 26, 2019

K. Prithika Yashini at the first day in office. She had to overcome many challenges to don the uniform.

Prithika passing through the different stages selection.

With her colleagues.

Grace Banu, friend and mentor.

Bhavani Subbarayan, lawyer.

Prithika at her desk.

With her parents Kalai Arasan and Sumathi.

Transcender, a documentary that captures the life of K. Prithika Yashini, the first transgender person to join the police force in India, calls for a public dialogue to draw attention to the cause of the vulnerable community.

In what can be termed a historic endeavour, on October 9, 2017, K. Prithika Yashini became the first transgender person in India to be a police officer. She is a Sub-Inspector in Chennai. In fulfilling her childhood dream, Prithika shattered the glass ceiling for transgenders who are condemned to a life of begging and prostitution in a society that refuses to accept them as equals. Donning the khaki was even more significant for someone like her. The police are sometimes an accessory to or direct perpetrators of crimes against the transgender community. There are numerous instances of transgenders working on the streets being harassed, beaten up or abused by men in uniform. So, for Prithika, to be an officer in uniform meant pushing the imagination of the criminal justice system and bringing hope of a more just future for vulnerable communities.

With this achievement, Prithika also became the pride and inspiration of a community struggling at the margins of society. But getting there was not an easy task. It was only Prithika’s relentless perseverance that made her overcome the daunting challenges along her way. Her story has now been made into a documentary titled Transcender. Directed and produced by Fr Ernest Pathi, the Director of Don Bosco Institute of Communication Arts (DBICA) in Chennai and a student of film studies, the documentary captures the triumphs and frustrations of her journey. “Many people asked me if it was a spelling mistake. But no. It recognises the struggles of transgender people in general and Prithika in particular, who rose like a phoenix back to life. We want everyone to transcend the social stigma and enter a new life,” Ernest Pathi told Frontline.

As for him, the making of the film while being a part of the Catholic establishment also meant broadening horizons. The church’s stand on issues of the queer community has been fuzzy at best. Even while Pope Francis has spoken about welcoming gay people, he has said that they cannot be part of the clergy. “The Bible does not use the term transgender but mentions eunuchs in many places and suggests that they are as much the children of God as anybody else. In the structure of a hierarchical church, women priests are not welcome but there are many denominations that keep an open arm and are loving and understanding,” he said, indicating that things were changing.

The mainstream media’s caricatured and transphobic portrayal of transgenders was what first disturbed Ernest Pathi as a child and softened his heart towards the community. In a landmark judgment on April 15, 2014, the Supreme Court instituted the third gender status for transgenders. While that opened up a series of possibilities for members of the community, it did not drastically alter their lives or completely erase society’s apprehensions about them. Ernest Pathi was pursuing his master’s in fine arts in film and TV production from Loyola Marymount in Los Angeles when Donald Trump took over as President of the United States and proposed a ban on transgenders in the military and initiated many other such excommunicative measures against the community. Deeply upset by the occurrings in the U.S., Ernest Pathi realised that back in his country, the Supreme Court had taken a groundbreaking step in recognising the identity of the third gender. The DBICA, which undertakes media interventions, decided to address the issue and lobby for the rights, dignity and social inclusion of transgenders. Ernest Pathi chanced upon a news item about Prithika and thus began the process of documenting the success story.

The making of the film

Born Praveen Kumar in Kandhampatty village in Tamil Nadu’s Salem district to Sumathi, a homemaker-cum-tailor and Kalai Arasan, a driver, Prithika was academically proficient and fiercely competitive. The dress code in her school forced her to wear the clothes of a boy. But she cherishes the moments when her mother used to dress her up as a girl. In Class 12, she started growing her hair and in college broke the news of her gender identification to her mother. The parents found it very difficult to accept it, and her mother went into severe depression.

In the documentary, her father describes it as a great misfortune that befell their family. The parents took Prithika to many temples in a bid to “straighten” her. When that did not work, they took her to counsellors and psychiatrists. All this was too stressful for Prithika, and she left home one day.

The night she had to spend at the bus station in Chennai was something she will never forget. It was here that she met Grace Banu, who became her friend and mentor and would see her through the most difficult days of her life. A human rights activist, Grace Banu said: “It’s [the transgender identity] a challenge to the normative structures of caste, tribe, lineage due to which people find it difficult to accept.” Likewise, anything that challenges the structure of a family is taboo for society, for it simultaneously threatens the structures of the state, religion and other institutions.

On February 8, 2015, Prithika applied for the post of a Sub-Inspector, but her application was rejected. With Grace Banu’s help she contacted a lawyer, Bhavani Subbarayan, who filed a writ petition to change her male name on certificates to that of a female and obtained a favourable verdict from the court. At the time, Prithika was so broke that Bhavani bore all the expenses of the case. Thereafter, at every step of the application process, from writing the examinations to giving the physical test and interview, Prithika had to approach the court. Prithika was inducted as a Sub-Inspector in October 2017. This not only lifted the cloud of gloom from Prithika’s mind but also helped her family reconcile with her identity. Thanks to her case, it was also decreed that a third category should be created in the police department, which meant a huge achievement for the community.

According to 2011 Census, there were 4.88 lakh transgender persons in India. One estimate says the number could cross 20 lakh. Tamil Nadu has over 40,000 officially registered transgenders while there might be thousands who live obscure lives. The documentary calls for a public dialogue to draw attention to the cause of the vulnerable community. It was released on March 31 on the occasion of International Transgender Day of Visibility. The film has been selected for two international festivals, Peace on Earth Film Festival, Chicago, and Wicked Queer: The Boston LGBT film festival, one of the oldest and largest film festivals in the world for the LGBT community.

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