Trans and gender non-conforming identities as reduced to media spectacles for audiences, which comprise largely of cis folx. We have seen numerous projects around trans identities that barely consult with the community members themselves and end up misrepresenting their narratives. While recent mainstream efforts like the Malayalam film Njan Marykutty have garnered some approval from community members for their sensitive portrayal, the decision to cast a cis actor as a trans person remains questionable. When most media efforts co-opt trans people’s experiences for self-serving purposes, what we need instead is media that feature trans persons’ stories in their own words. The short documentary Njan Sanjo by Jijo Kuriakose, an artist and the co-founder of Kerala-based queer organization Queerala, does exactly that.
Within a mere 15 minutes, it gently paints the slice of life of Sanjo Steve, a simple unassuming man from Kochi who is passionate about sports and math. He is shown riding on his bicycle to public spaces for a cup of tea or to catch a match, and when many films would have used this segment as an opportunity to objectify him with cutaway reaction shots of cis people, Njan Sanjo’s lens retains Steve’s subjectivity. He beautifully uses the set theory in mathematics and basic food references to question rigid gender binaries and hopes for an inclusive future for the ‘T’ in the LGBTQ+ that will no longer remain silent. He has cast his vote during the general elections after learning that a trans candidate (Chinju Aswathi) was contesting, even though the process required him to use the ladies’ queue. He finds a support system in his Malayali trans brothers, who believed and empathized with his story when most medical professionals were more than willing to write off his identity as a mental disorder. Moreover, Sanjo Steve is blessed to have an understanding mother who embraced him when he revealed his true self.
In an exclusive interview with team Gaysi, director Jijo Kuriakose shares his experiences working on Njan Sanjo and articulates his thoughts on the importance of self-representation in queer-centric media.
Q. What was it like to build a rapport with Sanjo over the course of filming? Was he comfortable facing the camera from the start or you had to work on that aspect?
I met Sanjo at a hospital while he was with a trans brother for a health service related enquiry at the hospital. The conversation with Sanjo had very interesting elements on his passion for mathematics, not as a subject but as a relatable aspect to various aspects of our daily lives. This helped build a rapport with him and the frequent meetings with him, during the subsequent days really helped me understand him as a person and learn of the challenges he faces due to his gender identity.
In terms of facing the camera, Sanjo had slight worries initially like most persons who appear in front of the camera for the first time. However, this was erased as he started narrating for the visual documentation. This was possible primarily because we ensured the documentary’ crew had spent many days interacting with Sanjo before the shooting commenced.
Q. Can you speak about Njan Sanjo’s reception at festival circuits? How have community members in particular responded to the film?
Njan Sanjo has been selected for the Reel Desires- Chennai International Queer Film Festival, happening on first week of August. The film was also one among the curated package of documentaries and short films, screened for Q-loid, a one-day queer film festival organised by Queerala, in association with Women in Cinema Collective (WCC) and PSBT (Public Service Broadcasting Trust).
We have submitted the film for some international film festivals and are waiting for the results. However, the lack of funds halts our attempts to take the film to international festival circuits as most of the international festivals have a submission fee, which we cannot afford to remit. Meanwhile, we are trying to reach out to educational institutions, government departments, and IT firms to have the documentary film screened as part of their initiatives on Diversity and Inclusion and associated advocacy efforts.
Since I am not able to upload the film on social media and streaming apps yet, I share the password-protected link to those persons who wish to watch the film and share criticisms and feedbacks. One particular response I cherish the most is from a trans brother who called me after watching the documentary. The person said how he felt liberated as he could see himself in Sanjo and the person cried for many minutes during the call. I think while the purpose of creating sensitization among public is pivotal, having self-relatable materials for queer persons to accept themselves and be connected with the community is equally essential.
Q. The trend of having cis-community members speak on behalf of the trans community is very problematic. Many a times, even within queer representations, a cis LGB person often ends up performing as trans characters. Can you comment on the importance of self-representation, particularly in the context of Njan Sanjo?
I always advocate for self-depiction and find it a political tool to portray the survival struggle of an individual. The documentary project has agreed, with Sanjo, to function only as a medium for him to express his views, notions, life experiences etc., than asking the protagonist to bring in a narration based on a script. However, the situations that I found as essential for documentation were explained to Sanjo and he just indulged in giving the best.
What attracted me the most was his way of articulating each dialogue he presented, all based on his life-experiences and his clarity of thoughts pertaining to the diversity of gender. In terms of cis-persons performing trans characters; I find it a matter of privilege. However, it is essential that representations, especially when less discussed diverse gender identities like gender fluidity, a-gender, gender non-conforming etc. are considered; the topic has to be well studied rather than treating as characters with scope for awards, when done by cis-persons.
Q. Your word of advice to people researching or creating queer-centered media, specifically on the Trans-community?
Learn, Unlearn and Re-learn is one phrase, which I would like to pass to any person who genuinely likes to work on queer-centric media/art etc. One can spend time to know the actual issues faced by LGBTIQ+ persons and let the media be a way to carry their voices than placing the focus only on a directorial perspective. At any point, the ethical practice of agreement to the protagonist has to be an ideal, I would say.
Q. Can you briefly share your experience working in the space of the media arts, besides Njan Sanjo? Also, any future projects to look out for?
I was an assistant director for Ka Bodyscapes, a gay themed Malayalam movie by Jayan K C, which was done two years back. The film was refused certification by CBFC, which quoted that the film promoted homosexuality. I learned, during the film’ pre and postproduction period, how hard it is to create films on queer themes, in Kerala, if it pertains to homosexuality. I also joined hands with some gay artists and initiated an art journey titled Homomorphism. I curated two editions of the same, respectively in Dec 2015 and July 2018 at Cochin. I have also done a photo-series on male-bodies and same-sex intimacy among males, named Androphilia, which I plan to publish as a photo-book by next year. I wish to do a short film on same-sex romance in the near future and create documentaries that throw a light on elements of intersectionality like religion, caste, disability, feminism etc.
Njan Sanjo is currently playing exclusively in festival circuits. For public/private screenings and access to the film, please contact Jijo Kuriakose (Director): firstname.lastname@example.org.