In India, transgender people — known as hijras — live somewhere between sacred and scorned. Hindu texts characterize them as "holy hermaphrodites," able to bestow fertility and bring good luck or bad. But social boundaries separate them, and surround them in mystery and shame.
One woman who has lived as a walking paradox is trans model and activist Rudrani Chettri. She has been working for years to keep the lives of hijras afloat and is now embarking on her boldest and perhaps most dangerous mission yet: creating India's first transgender modeling agency. The agency is an effort to bring employment and income to transgender women who are otherwise relegated to begging. It is also an effort to bring visibility to an extremely marginalized community and shed new light on how India sees them.
Chettri is the fierce and empathetic emotional center of Hijra, a new feature documentary film about her activism in development, helmed by Indian-Welsh director Ila Mehrotra. The Advocate spoke to Mehrotra about how she aims to give voice to the oft ignored voices of transgender people in India.
The Advocate: How did you begin this project?
Ila Mehrotra: I started this film three years ago, when I realized that I’d never properly spoken with a transgender person in my home city, Delhi. They’re known as hijras, and according to ancient beliefs, they’re said to have supernatural powers, they can bless you or curse you — and yet they’re also considered to bring shame upon their families. Many are despised and treated as outcasts; they’re often thrown out by their families and reduced to dangerous lives of begging and prostitution on the city streets. I had seen them begging at traffic lights in the pollution-choked streets of the city, but I thought they were intimidating figures, and I had never tried to properly speak to them about their lives. I'm not the only one — most Indian people lead their lives separated from hijras by centuries of prejudice and stereotypes.
So one day, I went to meet a transgender activist I had heard about, Rudrani Chettri, and she just totally blew me away. She’s amazingly brave, funny, and determined; she set up a charity, Mitr Trust, to help her fellow hijras, and when I met her, she was also dreaming up a new groundbreaking venture to establish India’s first transgender modelling agency. She told me it’s a way for transgender people to try to get respectable, safe, empowering work, but it’s also a piece of activism, a way to try to get the Indian media, and the wider community, to stop seeing them as “shameful” and “ugly” and to be despised, and allow them the space to define themselves, as they want to be seen, as beautiful in their own right.
Take a look inside India's first transgender modeling agency.
What will the documentary showcase and what impact do you hope to make?
This documentary follows Rudrani’s journey and the stories of her aspiring hijra models as they face rejection, isolation, and violence, and try to carve out their own space, and find their own identity in a city built on so many complex layers of tradition and modernity, a place which treats them so brutally and yet whose complex, fluid, multiple narratives do seem to hold out the possibility of self-definition and self-expression for our lead characters.
We want the film to raise awareness and promote international LGBT solidarity. We want it to make a powerful advocacy tool for Rudrani’s work, showcasing her inspirational story to challenge prejudice and to promote tolerance. We want to to tour the cinema and festival circuits, and it will also have international distribution to make to sure the film gets seen by audiences globally — including screenings for young, disadvantaged people across India.
Watch Rudrani encourage transgender women to love themselves.