In June 2018, during the shoot of Assamese film Outcast, someone on set passed a homophobic comment. It didn’t take the film’s makers even a minute to tell the person to be on his way out. That kind of banter – whether humorous or unintentional – had no place in the environment they were trying to build.
For Outcast, Assam’s first film on its transgender community, merges the personal and political for its actors and creators alike. Produced by Milin Dutta, a transgender man based in the US, and directed by Mumbai-based filmmaker Prakash Deka, Outcast will hit the film festival circuits starting May. Deka’s wife, Bitopi Dutta, a Ph. D research scholar based in Dublin, has also been a part of the creative process, apart from acting in the film. All 3 hail from different parts of Assam.
The filmmakers believe that Outcast tells the story of the up-until-now-silent narrative of the 11,000-strong transgender community of Assam.
However, even before its release, the film has drawn considerable ire from the state’s transgender community, represented by the All Assam Transgender Association (AATA), a body which describes itself as “a helping hand to maintain the dignity, prestige and respect of the TGs of Northeast India.”
The opposers have first and foremost, a problem with the name of the film. “In the recent part, our community has been accepted in various walks of public life. We were being neglected before but are now slowly getting acceptance. It is extremely wrong to say we are ‘outcasts’,” said transgender activist and founder of AATA, Swati Bidhan Barua. Barua is Assam’s – and India’s third – transgender Judge, a position she earned in August 2018. “We have had a long history of fighting for our existence, this film nullifies the effort of all these years.”
The plot of Outcast follows the journey of a 16-year-old who leaves his village to join a gharana. “The struggle that ensues tells the larger story of discrimination, gender, identity – and emotion upheaval, of course,” said the film’s director Deka.
The movie, which was filmed in Nalbari, Guwahati and Tezpur, has a primary cast of about 6 actors. “For the protagonist’s role, we wanted to have someone from the hijra community, but it did not work out. But, Benjamin Daimary, who ultimately played the role, was perfect. As a member of the LGBTQ community, Benjamin later said that this whole process of being involved in the film was an empowering experience for him on a personal level,” said Dutta, describing the film as an intensely “personal and political” process.
The poster of the film, that represents Daimary, with heavy make-up and jewelry, is another point of contention for the AATA. “The poster is offensive too. They have portrayed a gay man with heavy makeup and wearing jewelry – this stereotypes the notion how a transgender should look,” said Barua, “They have hurt the feelings and emotions of the entire community.”
However, the filmmakers say that their intention was to give visibility to the hijra community of Assam. “The hijra community in Assam is practically invisible. Hijras are perceived to be a ‘North Indian’ export. In fact, very few know about the indigenous transgender community of Assam – the lives they lead, the discrimination they face, the gharanas they stay in, the struggle before they leave their homes to join the gharanas,” said Dutta, in an interview to the indianexpress.com before the controversy had broken out.
The gharanas – a household where transgender women in live together – are a relatively recent development in Assam, unlike in the rest of the country. Over the last 2 decades, they have sprouted up in pockets of the state such as Tezpur, Tinsukia, Nalabari, Karbi Anglong and Guwahati.
While there have been no films on the transgender community in Assam, many recall a TV show on the local Rong channel that did portray the character of the transgender respectfully, a narrative that has for long been represented with an intention to provide comic relief throughout the country.
Meanwhile, AATA’s Barua is planning to take up the issue with the Central Board Of Film Certification. “I appreciate that such a sensitive theme was chosen but the name of the film irks us.”
Filmmaker Deka said he did not wish to comment on the issue.