Of Kashmiri transgenders and keeping it personal — documentary filmmaker Surbhi Dewan

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By Sukant Deepak
New Delhi, June 6 (IANS)
Even as she is busy editing her full-length documentary feature on the Kashmiri transgender community, New-Delhi based filmmaker Surbhi Dewan smiles that while most of her previous work has been personal, including ‘Daughter of Nepal’ and ‘A Thin Wall’, this is the first time she is venturing into an alien territory — in terms of theme, culture and place.
Collaborating with Kashmir-based filmmaker Akmal Hanan for the yet untitled film, 35-year-old Diwan points out that a few years back, the community started grabbing a lot of news space. “Traditionally, they have enjoyed the role of matchmakers in that society. While they do sing and dance at weddings, unlike their counterparts in many other parts of the country, they don’t go for badhai — when a new baby is born, they don’t go and ask for money in exchange for blessings. Their livelihood depends on weddings. However, things are changing. Young people are meeting on their own, there are mobile applications etc. and even non-trans people are coming into the match-making business, as it is in other places.” She adds that getting concerned about losing this sole source of livelihood, the community started demanding more rights and more livelihood options, and they have even approached the judiciary.
Dewan completed her MFA in Film from Rochester Institute of Technology, New York after getting a degree in Political Science from LSR College in the capital.
Pointing that it was not very easy to make the trans community members open up to the them as the former had had some forgettable experience with a section of print, television and online media as they would mostly do a half-baked job, Dewan points, “It was important for us to let them know that we would not just shoot anything and upload it to YouTube, that it would be a long-term engagement. Ultimately, they were very welcoming, generous and let us in their homes and lives.
It was while doing her Bachelor’s Degree at LSR that Dewan got introduced to the world of documentary and was completely smitten by it. “While I was interested in photography and writing from my school days, seeing the work of some of India’s best documentary makers like Anand Patwardhan and Saba Dewan made me sure that this was something that I wanted to do,” she says.
However, it was during her time in the US that Dewan was exposed to a different genre of documentaries altogether — more personal films. “So that also opened up my mind that they can be entertaining, and very personal too. That film-makers could tell their own stories, and also those connected to larger themes and events. Historical documentaries make it very worthwhile. But I look at it from a very personal perspective.”
Admitting that documentary filmmaking, especially in India can be a challenging place to be in considering the non-existent distribution avenues and not enough platforms, Dewan laments that there is no culture of watching documentaries either. “The conventional ideas associated with documentaries are that they are informational or educational. While there is a lot happening internationally in terms of documentary videos, in India there is a very small audience and If you don’t have an audience, nobody really wants to give you that platform,” says Dewan, who also runs ‘Painted Tree Pictures’ in New-Delhi to sustain herself.
Even as ‘Daughter of Nepal’ was on an OTT platform till recently, she says that the digital medium can prove to be a turning point when it comes to documentary films in India. “They have immense potential in terms of reach and varied audience,” she concludes.

(Sukant Deepak can be reached at sukant.d@ians.in)

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