Hosted across three major cities of Pakistan, the AKS film festival opened dialogue on the representation and depiction of transgenders in cinema. Will upcoming serial Mor Mahal be any different in its portrayal? Instep takes a look.
Mocked and humiliated at every instance, transgenders to date have not been fully embraced by our society. Attitudes towards transgenders range from the confused to the hostile and though gendered inclusion is one of the most popular debates of our times, the trans-community is conveniently ignored as part of the bracket.
In 2012, transgenders experienced a tipping point in Pakistan when the Supreme Court recognized the ‘third gender’ and entitled them to all basic rights enjoyed by any other citizen of the country. However, as game-changing as the law sounds for a developing nation, these have only been guaranteed on paper. This bigotry is close to Ali Saleem’s heart, a cross-dressing phenomenon of the entertainment world and talk show host, who feels that a lot more needs to be done for the trans-community.
"They still don’t have any political representation. While women have reserved seats in all provincial assemblies in Pakistan, the khwaja saras unfortunately have no allocated seats or quota in the government and/or beyond," Saleem asserts while speaking to Instep on the neglected state of the trans-community in Pakistan. "You have schools and colleges for both men and women but you have none for the transgenders. It won’t be an overstatement to say that they merit being number one in a list of the most helpless people in this country. They are not protected by any law whatsoever. They are jobless, forced into prostitution and deprived of due dignity. And the irony is that they have been part of our culture, our religion, our heritage and our history for hundreds of years now and yet disregarded as if they were born a mutant just yesterday."
This battle for recognition transcends even to cinema - a medium that is otherwise celebrated for its liberalism. According to Forbes, only 0.4 per cent of all onscreen Hollywood characters are portrayed as queer and, more than often, by cisgender actors instead of transgender ones even though 3.5 per cent of the total American population identify as lesbian, gay and transgender. With about 500,000 members in the community, such media-related negligence is also felt strongly by transgenders in Pakistan. Aggravating sentiments further is the stereotypical depiction of transgenders in whatever characters that do exist. Transgenders are either sympathized with as if they were suffering from some sort of a biological disease or are relegated to being a mere source of comedy. All this and more was brought to life at the AKS film festival, held recently at T2F in Karachi.
Organized by indie filmmaker and creative director of AKS Saadat, activists Kami, Neeli Rana and Jannat Ali, the AKS film festival was initiated as a not-for-profit movement back in 2012 to promote the visibility of marginalized groups, particularly transgenders, and establish a dialogue to empower them.
"I started working with the trans-community in Pakistan in 2011. I was making a film on them, called Chupan Chupai (Hide and Seek), that was not meant to be informative as such but was more a look into the legit issues that they face and it was quite a success. It was screened at festivals across 70 countries and premiered in Copenhagen. We invited our protagonist Neeli Rana to the premiere and that was the first time she travelled outside of Pakistan and was thrown into a festival where people asked all sorts of questions. She was so overwhelmed and happy that she suggested there should be a similar platform back home. That’s when we decided to work towards establishing AKS," Saadat shared of the journey that led to the formation of AKS. "We held the first edition of the film festival in Lahore and Islamabad with the help of our friends. The second edition was held in Copenhagen in 2015 with a particular focus on the Pakistani trans-community. It was held over seven days and was quite successful in terms of encouraging considerable debate on the topic. This was our third edition and the first in Karachi. And it was interesting to see the positive response from people because around 80 per cent of the attendees were not from the trans-community."
Held over a period of four days in Karachi, the festival featured a series of shorts and features, from both Pakistan and across the globe, followed by interactive discussions with some of the filmmakers. Jamil Dehlavi’s controversial 1988 film Immaculate Conception was also screened amidst a house full of indie film enthusiasts and members of the trans-community but drew significant criticism from the transgender audience members for its stereotypical depiction. An attendee Shahzadi particularly pointed out to the garish and tacky avatars that the film showed them in and how filmmakers needed to feed less into the negative stereotypes associated with transgenders and instead show them in a positive light. Dehlavi acknowledged the concerns and welcomed the critique.
The shorts, on the other hand, did more to create awareness and eliminate the stigma attached to the ‘third gender’ by narrating the gritty reality of being a transgender in Pakistan and the mind-numbing dilemmas one has to live through while growing up. Amina Malik’s Katchi and Saqib Noman’s As I Remember were particularly gut-wrenching in their depiction of child abuse, transphobia and cissexism. They painted a brutal but honest picture of transgenders’ struggles with both moral and physical acceptability. In fact, Katchi is based on real-life events experienced by a Pakistani transgender guru. On the international front, Karachiites got a taste of Sean Baker’s critically-acclaimed Tangerine - a brave, ramshackle comedy on the lives of two fiercely independent and strong trans-women trying to survive and make ends meet.
Over the four days, it was interesting to see transgenders shed off their cloak of invisibility, let go of their fears and take control of their narrative to give Pakistanis a much-needed reality check. We are often too quick to demonize transgenders but it is in fact our heteronormative world that is less innocent then perceived to be. What’s more important, however, is not to simply realize the injustices but to stop wasting ink and paper in stating the obvious and instead make a collective effort in making these people matter in equal measure as any other gender.
Geo’s upcoming fantasy series Mor Mahal has taken a small but no so insignificant step in this direction. Not only does Ali Saleem play an influential and decisive Shola Jaan in this period epic but around 40 to 50 khwaja saras were taken on board as part of the cast. "About 40 to 50 people of the trans-community were employed for almost 8 months and given a chance to earn decent money. They were given the same kind of respect that any other artist deserves and this definitely a notable contribution. If Mor Mahal becomes a runaway success it would probably be because of the prayers and good vibes of these people," said Saleem.
With power, politics and romance at the heart of its story, Mor Mahal could have easily gotten away with an ideal normative gender expression. But by acknowledging the presence of eunuchs in our culture and by establishing a creative space for transgenders, the team at Mor Mahal is definitely on its way to break the binary. That said, it still remains to be seen if Sarmad Khoosat’s direction shuns stereotypes and presents them in a positive light because it’s about time we dissociate with a despotic prison of a reality and embrace what is only natural.