Conversation with ‘Trans Kashmir’ director Surbhi Dewan 

  • December 31, 2022

‘Trans Kashmir’ – a documentary directed by Surbhi Dewan & S.A. Hanan tells the stories of the transgender community of Kashmir.  Five trans women from Kashmir share their stories, how they live their lives & how society has treated & is treating them over the years. But interestingly this film through the trans community also reflects the masculine, militarized state of Kashmir. Defying the same repetitive angle of storytelling from Kashmir ‘Trans Kashmir’ breaks the stereotype; a group from the diverse trans community of Kashmir comes alive before the audience. The film took three long years to complete. Surbhi Dewan visited Kolkata with the film during the 16th Dialogues Film Festival. Sudarshana Chakraborty from GroundXero in conversation with Surbhi Dewan about the film, the process of its making & how she connected with the lesser known trans community from Kashmir. 


Surbhi Dewan at the 16th Dialogues Film Festival.


GX: What encouraged you to make this kind of a documentary? Why did you choose this subject?

S.D:  I wanted to do something in Kashmir.  I got some access to Kashmir also, because I had my collaborator in the film from Kashmir, we have known each other for some years, we were classmates in film schools together. So I had been talking to him, we had been discussing the possibility of doing something together, we were keen on doing something in Kashmir. But the idea was to look for a fresh angle, a fresh perspective. We used to discuss a lot of ideas.


Then the trans community started to appear in the local media in Kashmir. That’s when my friend told me about this, shared some of the stories, and you know it seemed like a really interesting new area, which nobody was really talking about. In terms of Kashmir everybody has a very set idea of what’s happening there, the same kind of stories are coming out from there, they are reaching us in the same format, same way,  same angle… I used to feel that people around me are just tired of listening to the same stories every time from Kashmir. So the idea was sort of approaching Kashmir from a different perspective, at the same time break that masculine militarized narrative, the idea was to look at it from a human angle but at the same time look at a different community that symbolically represent everything that is going on in Kashmir and at the same time they have their own stories, they have their own culture, their own struggles also which you know are more layered, more complex and nobody is talking about it. Even though they have connections with other Hijra communities across South Asia, at the same time people will not think of them even in terms of LGBT movements.


But something was brewing. In 2018 when the movement was beginning that was what we noticed, we started looking into it & that was when we decided. Initially we were not sure about what would happen because we did not know how much access we would get but we were encouraged to see some people from the community speaking up already in the media Like Dr. Aijaz Bund who was doing a lot of groundwork within the community, he did his PHD on the community. So he was associated with them for many years already. So we thought if we can reach out to him & can get access through him that would really help us & that’s how it all worked out. So we started the research around late 2018 & in 2019 we started filming.


GX: When you started researching and then shooting, as a filmmaker, what was the first thing that struck you most?

S.D: You know when I was reading about it, doing the research I knew I was going to be a complete outsider. Everything was going to be new. That was kind of exciting for me. But you know, having read whatever there was in the media about the people we were going to meet, it did not feel real, I was not able to connect, too foreign for me. All of it was very different for me.


GX: Sorry to interrupt, was it the first time that you were visiting Kashmir?

S.D: No, I have been to Kashmir before but as a tourist.


GX: Okay…then?

S.D: It was very different as a tourist.  Okay…So when I read about them I was trying to write a proposal for a development grant or something for the film. But I was unable to do it because by just reading about them, they were not real to me. So, that’s what changed when I met them. Everything changed. They were in flesh & blood in front of me. After having interacted with them, spending time with them, I just could visualize the film in front of me, I was able to write. Everything came alive after meeting them. I knew that just being in these places, getting access to these lives & homes – were so unique & once in a lifetime experience for me. Seeing that side of Kashmir, entering people’s rooms, sharing meals with them, having a cup of tea…yeah…it was a very different kind of an experience.


GX: On what basis you chose these 5 characters who are there in the film?

S.D: So amongst the five – three of them – Bablu, Shabnam & Reshma – they were the ones who were appearing in the media interviews. They were already in the forefront of the movement. They were very friendly with the media, very comfortable in front of the camera & were happy to meet us. So they were there for sure. Apart from that they were sort of similar age group…not similar…but let’s say between 40s to 60s. We also wanted to look at someone much younger, someone even older. So we started looking. Also Bablu, Shabnam & Reshma all were doing very well for themselves. Two out of three of them were from Srinagar, so had their families & their biological families lived with them. So it was a very different set up. We wanted to look at different people, people who don’t have any family, who don’t have biological family’s support, who came from outside. Like Simran – who at the age of 14 came to Srinagar on her own. So, yeah…that was the idea. Those were harder to get, because they were not in the media, they were not familiar with the process. So that was a bit of a challenge, but we were happy to search for them. Nisar’s narrative was also very different. Do you remember Nisar?


GX: Oh, yes yes…it was so striking.

S.D: Yes, at that age, after having seen so much & seeing the newer generation – how they are coming out…So, it added so much to the narration. That was the idea to have distinct voices because we were trying to represent the whole community which is still very diverse. But to have at least some different voices within that, was the idea.


GX: Was there any point while developing the script or while you were in the process of shooting when you felt like ‘can I do it?’ You know a point when one feels stuck?

S.D: So many points. During filming everybody was very kind & generous. I’m sure I made mistakes or said things which might have been offensive. But they were very kind & generous, because I was just trying to understand. I think they understood my intention because when I was doing the interviews I had a lot of questions & I might have asked questions which might have sounded like stupid questions; which were innocent questions but which also came from a place of not knowing or ignorance. But they were very kind, generous & accommodating with their responses. So…yes…during production I felt like everybody was very kind. It became important during post production. I was sitting in Delhi, taking the decision of what goes & what does not go. So collaborating with Kashmir was part of the process. We were not subject matter expert. We were conscious we needed other people. So we had a couple of advisers, they were from different parts of the world. We would share with them. We were trying to explore the layers.


Here I want to say – there is one thing called ethics & the other thing is the safety of the characters. That was their primary concern. They were used to people writing about them, they were in the local media, so their concern was not that they would be misrepresented. Their concern was regarding some other threats, because the production happened three years ago. The film was getting finished after a gap of three years. So the concern was that – ‘Have we said anything which can get us into trouble?”Because the political climate also changed in the meantime. Those three years were a lot. So in that sense we were very serious about our responsibility, nothing should happen neither to the cast nor the crew, anybody associated. Because again, I was sitting in Delhi, taking decisions – that will not have any impact on me, directly. So that was sort of something we were very mindful of, we also made sure that we had a legal advisor to look at things before we take any step, because safety was a real concern, because you know, sometimes we just forget.


We were thinking of it as a film. I’m not an activist. I’m a filmmaker. I was thinking of – how do I tell the story? I’m changing the structure, I’m moving things around, I’m using the material in the way that I feel will best serve the purpose of telling a good story. So just being mindful of the impact that it can have – mattered to me. And then we managed to get the censor with the ‘universal’ certificate which was also important for us because we didn’t want the film to have any sort of obstacles in terms where it can be screened, who can watch the film – not that we have been able to reach too far at a time, to get on television, to get on more fast medium, it has not happened yet. But we have everything that we need, so nobody can really prevent that from happening. The idea was that the focus should be on the community, on the character. They shared a lot with us which we are not able to put in. Some stories they told us during production, then, immediately told us not to use that. We thought let’s not keep that in the film. But at the same time we did not compromise on the issue & the fact that the conflict has impacted them & we really wanted to have that bit in the story. So we managed to show it in a way that does not distract the audience, at the same time they are able to understand, of course the community is being impacted & continues to be impacted by what is going on.


GX: I’m coming back to that a little later. But as you say you are a filmmaker & not an activist – I would like to ask you, while you were shooting in a place like Kashmir, filming these people – how did you maintain a balance between your cinematic aesthetics & how to represent the political conflict & how they are living within the situation?

S.D:  In the interviews what they told us a lot of that had to do with what happened in the 90’s, early 2000. We wanted to have that information, we wanted that to be a part of the story, but visually we used archival footage, we used some shots of the city, it was not hard to find, because every other day when I was there was a shut down, everywhere you will go you will see the physical markers of the political scenario. You point the camera there & whatever you get will be a reflection of…everything there has been shaped by the conflict. So in terms of visuals we tried to get that, and sort of juxtaposed it with their narratives, their experiences, first hand experiences that they shared with us.


And yeah…when I say I’m not an activist I want to say that I’m sensitive to their life stories, at the same time my role is to tell the story to an audience, or make it available as a tool for people who are working as an activist to use the film. My job is to capture the narratives, to do a good job at telling the stories in the most balanced humane way possible, just to make them real. The audience should feel like, ‘Oh, I’ve met this person’, ‘I know what their life is like’, ‘I know the different side of the Kashmiri community’. And the other part of my job was to make it available for whoever wants to use it & to have it seen by as many people as possible. That’s the response we received. Whoever watched it in Delhi, Bombay, Bangalore, whatever screening we had so far people were like – “Everybody must watch this film because it’s such a new way of looking at Kashmir.” That’s why I think there is a need for new ways of looking at Kashmir. It cannot be just this film. There are more & more. You can’t put it into just this one box, this idea of Kashmir – you know, there is so much more going on there. More & more stories like this should come out & there should be more representations, be it books, be it films, be it any other medium – to reach a much wider audience.


GX: So, as you spoke about masculinity, military presence, when you started filming there did you feel intimidated?

S.D: I definitely would have, but I was surprised, because the team I had there with me, the local team, from Kashmir, they were like, “Yes, we can film. We don’t have to be afraid.” So, looking at them, there was a sense of defiance almost, which is completely understandable, and such a normal part of their life, because they are used to it. For me, coming from Delhi, it was like, “Oh, no, there is a cop, I can’t film here, I don’t have permission.” That’s the way my mind works. But being there, it was like, “Areyh, this is why we are here. We’ve come to film. Of course we can film.” So we went out, we got our cameras out and we filmed. We saw some stone pelting happening, we got that on camera, we didn’t use some of it, because again our legal advisor advised that. But yes it was a very different experience, it was like, “Oh really we don’t have to be afraid!”


GX: I noticed in a scene that your car was moving & there were military people standing…

S.D: So, we actually stopped there & filmed them. There some arguments happened between some residents…a bunch of women came out actually, very angry, at the militaries- a long argument took place.  So we witnessed all that but a lot of it we did not keep in the film. But just to be able to see how the locals in Kashmir deal with the oppressive presence of the military is the way of life that it takes a time to understand & to become comfortable with the situation. The dynamics of what was happening in front of me was one of a kind of experience.


GX: Have you ever been stopped from filming?

S.D: No. I think, you know, for me it was like I was watching a sort of power dynamics, where both sides know what is happening. So, we were not stopped.


GX: So, there was no problem to get permissions?

S.D: We had permission issues once. We wanted to use the drone & that became an issue. So we have a couple of drone shots but the cinematographer had filmed them earlier on his own & we were given access to that footage. We wanted to use drones but drones are a risky thing to use in Srinagar. We were not able to do that. But apart from that we mostly shot in people’s houses, so in that sense there was no issue. A lot of the sequences you see, the workshop, the meeting of the community, all these were indoor places, people we know have access to these places, so it was not a problem.


GX: I noticed almost at the end of the film one of the characters Bablu says something like, “I’ll not join any protest against the State if it’s not about my rights, but if it’s about my rights I’ll come forward.” How do they react to state oppression?

S.D: I think what Bablu was trying to say was –“I’m not interested in politics but for my rights I’ll stand up” – as Bablu is also one of the spokespersons of the community – I think & I’m not sure but there might be an official position in the community now too –


GX: In many parts of the country we can see transgender community is joining protests against State oppression. The whole political scenario in Kashmir is different. So when you saw them thinking like this, did it impact you or how did you connect?

S.D: It was me going from outside, I had to understand what was going on there – that, the trans community in Kashmir are operating within a set of unsaid but very specific rules that had been set by the society, the larger society. So as long as they perform within those very specific unsaid rules they are given the space that they have which is being a part of match making, being a part of weddings, having a traditional set of livelihood. In politics also as Aijaz said there have been trans people, they have been very vocal, there is one person actually whom Aijaz mentioned briefly & we had one photograph. But that person is a very controversial figure, and has been trying to not get attention because she got into trouble because of her involvement. So there have been instances of trans people being very political, being part of the resistance & whatever is going on. Though largely they have not been allowed to because it is very masculine…the idea of resistance is also very masculine, women & trans people have also been sidelined – that’s what I learnt from Aijaz. So in terms of politics I think there was that…’This is your place, stay here, we will let you be. That also involves them being walking on the streets or even if they are in sort of public spaces things can go wrong. Things are definitely changing. Even within these three years we were making the film we did hear & even recently I was reading some pieces of news in the local media in Kashmir where they were talking about education for trans people, how can they improve their status in the society.


GX: Yes, they were talking of it in the film also. Different schools etc…

S.D: Yeah, but now see, them talking about it is one thing but that has also shifted in the larger narrative of the region. So that is very interesting. People are writing in the media, not just interviewing them, recycling the same story again & again but really sort of engaging with the subject, engaging with the ideas of ’Okay, what can we do about it?’ ‘How can we educate our children so that they behave better than we have been?’ ‘How can they get an education so that their livelihood is secured?’ It could be an impact of the attention that they have been getting in the media, that they are finally being noticed & people are beginning to think about what can be done.


GX: Has the visibility increased?

S.D: Yeah, yeah, visibility has increased for sure & it started before we started filming, that’s how we noticed them. Because visibility has been increasing & it’s just getting more & more…because newer, younger members of the community are speaking up, there are some who are using social media on their own, there are a lot of young voices that are coming. So in that sense I think even if it’s a miniscule change, because this kind of behavioral change takes time…so I feel it’s heading in the direction where people are beginning to take them seriously. In some sense give that respect by thinking about…’Okay, they also exist.’ And yeah they are losing their traditional form of livelihood. What will they do next, if they are not able to do this? What can happen to the future generation? I think there is a discussion, a dialogue that has started which is really fantastic.


GX:  Now I want to address the religion issue. They belong to a traditional, conservative Muslim society. What they told about gender affirmative surgery, how they see it all are linked, in a way?

S.D: Yeah, you know that was also very surprising for us.


GX: You know it seems that somehow they are comfortable with the man’s body & a man’s identity.

S.D: Yeah, it was all new to me. I was also trying to understand it. One idea is that it happens sometimes with age. As people grow older they tend to go back to even their biological name, i.e. their dead name, with age the identity seems to transform. My reading is…Aijaz talks about different fractions within the trans community…we got access to one group. There are multiple groups. These multiple groups function with different sets of rules. So there are groups where sex work is okay. There are groups where surgery is okay. There are groups where they don’t dress like men. There are different sets of beliefs. And probably they are treated differently, looked at differently. So this group we met with, because they agree to come on camera, they seem to operate with these rules where they are accepted very easily by the larger society.


GX: …And they don’t want to lose it.

S.D: Of course. They are negotiating so many complex things, so I think there is a sense of – ‘we can let this go as long as we at least have something. At least we have this space, even if it’s a tiny one.’ My understanding is, given a choice their life might have been very different. If they were living in a different context, a different time, their choices might have been very different.


GX: But they were also saying like – “Allah has given me this (the male body)”…

S.D: I think it’s a way of rationalizing, justifying whatever the situation is, the context they have to live in.


GX: How do the religious heads, say the Imams, react to them? Have you met any of them?

S.D: Yeah, yeah. They are not against it.


GX: Okay…yeah, we see Bablu working in the mosque.

S.D: Yes. It was another interesting thing actually. Visually we showed it but we could not include it in the story. It is also a traditional role the trans community has always had. Cleaning up the mosque has always been a role of a trans woman to do it. So we were also surprised. We were there during Ramzan. It was during Ramzan & you know while Bablu was there & saying something like, doing this is going to give brownie points with god (laughs). During Ramzan it’s doubled or tripled because it’s a greater privilege or a sacred act.


GX: I was a bit surprised, because you know fundamentalists can say ‘It’s your previous birth’s sin that’s why you are born like this’ & spread hatred, superstitions against the community. But here that’s not there.

S.D: Yes, for sure.


GX: Have you come across any trans men?

S.D: So we were curious. We asked Ejaz because he was sort of our guide. Also because he was looking at the larger queer community. It was that trans women are the only ones visible. Even in that small space they are the only one visible. You will not see any other gender identity person coming out. So we were told that yes, there are trans men but they are not out in the open & I was told that it’s easier for them to pass because they are not noticed until they reach a marriageable age. So in that sense maybe they are able to get a basic education, able to be financially independent. So they are sort of on their own. That’s what I came to know. I asked people who know. Because even though we started with the idea of trans woman community, of course when we learn that Aijaz is working on a larger scope we did ask if he can & he sort of considered the idea of widening the scope of the film as well. But we were told very clearly that nobody else will come on camera. There is too much on stake for them.


GX: So now that the film is finished & it’s being screened at many places. So what are your plans now? How are you planning to reach a larger audience?

S.D: So there are some organizations who have shown interest. One of them has started to show our film as a part of a gender sensitizing workshop at academic places. Apart from that we already have educational distribution internationally, so that the film can be acquired by school libraries, college libraries in a lot of English speaking countries. We are trying to put it on TV, on OTT. TV is something we are very keen on because it has a much wider & varied viewership. OTT puts you in that niche, specific audience segment. We really want to be in academic places, to have cultural screenings.


GX: Do you plan to go back & do further work?

S.D: You know, the thing is that I do want to do more things in Kashmir. But I don’t think with the same set of people or the same community. But with them is an association that will continue. I’m in touch with them, I want to stay in touch with them. I want to know what happens. I want to be able to go back to Kashmir with the film. I’ll try to show it there. This still has not happened. But we are going to try again. As winter has started, we’ll try in the spring, next year. I feel responsible. I’ve taken their story, I’ll try my level best to give back as much as I can in whatever way or form I can.


GX: You know as you say ‘responsibility’, many times it becomes dependency, they look for you, may become financial thing also. At any point do you feel burdened?

S.D: As you say financial, yes, during filming, some people asked for money. We did not film them. Because we thought they are looking at short term gain & it’s unethical for us to pay. Then it’ll become a very weird power equation. Bablu was the one who was very clear that it was not about money & Bablu told other people in the community that – ‘Don’t think it as a short term gain. Our stories are going to go out & that is more valuable for us in the long term.’ So we really appreciated the fact that Bablu understood that & was so vocal & it really helped us to get access to other people & have them understand what we are trying to do. It’s not like they expect anything. Also I feel it’s because it was such a long process, that way they also understood it, like whatever comes will be a bonus. I keep them posted, I tell them about screenings. Some of them were able to travel, so I asked them if they wanted anything to say.


Reshma passed away this November. I could not stay in touch with her because we had a language issue. I wrote about her on my instagram.  I felt very connected with her, the very little time I spent with her, in spite of the fact that we did not speak a common language; there was so much grace & beauty. She was the most famous out of all the five characters in the film, we decided not to focus on her because we wanted other voices also. But just the way she spoke was so peaceful, even when she was saying the most heartbreaking thing there was such a lightness. She ended up in the film the way she was because even if other people would have said the same thing, the way she expressed, the look on her face, the smile – it was so magical. So her passing away was really hard on the community & even for me it was a huge loss.


It’s a genuine connection I feel with them. It’s not that they expect anything. I feel like I want to know how they are doing, to be in touch with them, & I want to be able in whatever way I can to contribute. I did think about my collaborator, we invested our own money in the film, it’s fully self funded. When we do start to get some earnings from the film, we definitely want to contribute through Aijaz or any other way to the community, not exactly to the characters, because they may not need it but to others…through Aijaz as Aijaz will be the best person to guide us.


GX: Did the whole process take you out of the comfort zone of your filmmaking?

S.D: Not a comfort zone of film making…but I think the filming part of it was definitely out of my comfort zone. When I was there in Kashmir during production it was definitely out of my comfort zone. But I think that was exciting for me. Putting the film together, the process was not new, I’m familiar with that. But I learnt so much from this film & yes it has been a life changing experience.


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