Something strange and rousing took place. Sirat, a trans woman in Delhi, collaborated with noted director Deepa Mehta and cobbled together I Am Sirat, a playful, scattered, masti heavy, metaphor heavier documentation of her life. An Instagram personality, she thinks quickly, naughtily, and is full of the garbage-mouthed charm we love to see realized on screen. She was in the audience at the 12th Dharamshala International Film Festival where I Am Sirat had its India premiere (following its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival), whipping out her phone every now and then to shoot videos of the screen showing her film, which also has vertical videos from her Instagram, and vertical videos she shot of herself. This desire to archive even that which is yours, that which is already archived, is both odd and moving. Taking a video is now fast becoming an act of validating, an act of producing validation, like evidence for the soul. That the film itself is not enough. A video of the film? Now we’re talking.
As the credits rolled to Sonu Nigam’s “Ran Rang De”, she got up, overjoyed by an audience reaction that laughed loud, clapped louder and longer and with no pause, broke into a dance in that dark inflatable theater, lit only by the lights of cameras that wanted her captured for their Instagrams, their archives. She knew where the cameras were. Her salwar floated as she twirled.
She would not stop performing, for us, for herself, and it was this pump of joy, of serrated words, of a coy body language and soft voice that would erupt into dance and profanity without provocation, onto which the crowd latched. A director wanted to cast her, another called her beautiful — “sirat se, surat se”. The Q and A session had more comments than questions, more rapture than curiosity. In that sense, I Am Sirat is a tricky film, it produces a character that has all the markings of curiosity — a trans woman, whose body is subjected to more doubts and questions, from law and civil society — which it buries under the charisma of its character. We rarely get answers. We get only Sirat.
This charisma blinds you to a lot of the film’s obvious snags. Its surface is too scattered and repetitive. The central tension in Sirat’s life is the fragile existence she leads — as Aman at home, with her widowed mother, and as Sirat at the workplace, on the internet, and now, in the movies. She rents a room where she can change into and out of her clothes — we see her changing, clothing coming off, with no hint of worry or being watched; both an emotional and a physical exhibitionism. The film keeps pushing you to believe this fragility will iron out, that a moment will make landfall on the film, when Sirat will stop doubling her life. But we only get promises of Sirat to herself. At the festival, when I asked her if her mother had seen the film, she said no, and that her mother only knew that Deepa Mehta wanted to make a film on Aman, not Sirat. She spoke of her resolve to tell her mother of this double-life, of her transness as whole, non-negotiable, and unslippery, when she is back in Delhi.
The most prickly thorn in this dense affection, however, is that the film lacks rhythm. We are told that Sirat was beaten and thrown out of her house when she was younger, but we also see her living with her mother, with no tether between one incident and the other. How does one boomerang back to the troubled home? Where was she in the interim? There are no dates, no sense of time passing. What is offered, instead, are stretches of moving dialogues where we see the disorientation of performing as a man for one’s mother, the walking to and from her other “home”, the changing into and out of, the logistics of dysphoria. The editor Kabir called this existence “schizophrenic”, a schizophrenia that the film, in his reading, mirrors in its form, where Sirat’s footage is vertical, and Deepa Mehta’s horizontal. I am unsure of the use of vertical videos on a horizontal screen — all that dark space where stories, bodies, subtexts could have been crammed — and am more unsure of the moving between the vertical and the horizontal, almost as if the film is unable to find a common meeting place between the subjectivity of Sirat Taneja and Deepa Mehta’s directorial gaze.
Excited by metaphors — one about a bird leaving a cage keeps coming up — the film animates its central conflict by invoking Toba Tek Singh, Saadat Hasan Manto’s short story about India and Pakistan exchanging asylum inmates, ending with the titular character laying down between India and Pakistan’s barded border, in a no-man’s-land. That no-man’s-land is Sirat’s limbo, her existence. This metaphor comes out of nowhere, and sealed with Sirat singing, later, “Hum Dekhenge”, the film ends on a note that hints at India-Pakistan unity, collapsing the end of that animosity to the end of Sirat’s dysphoric fragility. But this feels odd, like someone trying to forcefully sublimate politics into one’s identity. Metaphors do not provide resolutions. As Roger Scruton writes, “Metaphors make connections which are not there in the fabric of reality, but created by our own associative powers.” In some sense, every time the film leans, panting, on its metaphors, it feels like it is abdicating the “fabric of reality”, more comfortable with being suggestive, because hope seems to lie only in the realm of rhetoric, not reality. In one of the most bare-faced, pulping moments of the film, Sirat attests to this fact of her existence — “Kaash pe atki hai”, that it is stuck on “I Wish”.
Even as the film allows us to be with Sirat’s triumphs — getting a TG Certificate and identity card, getting a job — it is haunted by her pain. She notes, “For years, my identity was in my body and my heart. Now it’s in my hand.” But, of course, she has to hide this card, too, from her mother. Instead, she celebrates with her family of choice at India Gate, her sakhis, two handsome, twinky boys.
For years, decades, we have been arguing the merits of representation, passing passionate rhetoric for rational argument. Some gave up, and chose the path of authorship instead. More than seeing ourselves on screen, what we desire is to write ourselves onto the screen; to write, direct, produce, act; to see our material lives elevated by cinema. I Am Sirat comes from the stables of authorship, a defiant story that tries to repurpose pain as hope, whose gossamer progressive sheen is both tantalizing and incomplete, whose bowing down to the tenets of filmic resolution is both moving and suspicious. Such is, perhaps, the tragedy of telling your story, when your story is yet unfolding in full force. After all, one of the central problems documentary filmmakers face is to answer the question — when to stop filming?