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Deepa Mehta’s ‘I Am Sirat’: Duty vs self-determination

Film-maker Deepa Mehta on her attraction for ‘stories of human struggles’

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Film-maker Deepa Mehta’s latest documentary I Am Sirat (2023) is doing the rounds at various international film festivals. It profiles Sirat Taneja, a transgender woman based in New Delhi who lives and works as a woman in her professional career and as a social media personality, but holds the familial responsibilities of a son to her widowed mother.

Mehta first met Sirat five years ago on the sets of the web series Leila where she was playing the part of a transgender guard.

“I got to know her during the intensive rehearsals we did led by Neelam Mansingh Chowdhry,” remembers Mehta, best known for her Elements Trilogy – Fire (1996), Earth (1998), and Water (2005). “It was here that I encountered her spirit, challenges and the ability to meet them head-on  – it was something that left me immensely impressed.”

The duo kept in touch over the years and in November 2022, Sirat asked if she would consider making a documentary about her struggles. “I thought about it and agreed to do it only if she would be my collaborator,” Mehta reveals. “She would set the narrative arc of the film and I would facilitate her telling her story.”

She clarifies that her films are not about dealing with the unspoken, and that she does not even think in that direction. “What attracts me to stories, from Fire onwards, is the human struggles to be seen, and how the characters go about achieving their rightful place in the human struggle.”

 

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Researching the subject, Mehta read extensively on the subject, books such as Me Hijra, Me Laxmi by Laxminarayan Tripathi, Arundhati Roy’s Ministry of Utmost Happiness and The Transgender Rights: Identity and Mobility by Dr Madhusudhan B.

Mehta finds it interesting that Sirat, is still ‘Aman’, for her mother, the son she gave birth to.

And what is deeply moving is how she has kept the delusion alive for her mother.

“It is the age-old cycle between duty and self-determination, a battle embedded deeply in the Indian culture,” opines Mehta.

Pleased at its festival reception and the fact that it is being shown on CBC network in Canada, she hopes that a streaming network in India picks it up. “So far they have refused us. But like Faiz’s iconic poem at the end of the film, I have not given up hope … ‘Hum Dekhenge’.”

I Am Sirat has been edited by filmmaker Kabir Singh Chowdhry, whose debut film Mehsampur won the Grand Jury Prize (India Gold) at the 2018 Mumbai Film Festival.

For him, working on the film as an editor has been a journey into the depths of the psycho-social world of transgender persons. He admits, “I found myself navigating uncharted waters, delving into the subtleties and subcultures that define Sirat’s world.”

Having Sirat by his side while editing provided him a window into her soul, ‘a glimpse into her experiences, fears, and aspirations’.

“It was not merely about making her comfortable, but about forging a deep connection, a bond of trust and understanding where she could express her thoughts without hesitation,” he reveals. “Naturally, this came with an intention to create a more collaborative approach.”

He is also the Associate Producer of the documentary.

Deepa Mehta is currently working on the script of Burnt Sugar, based on a novel by Avni Doshi, and awaiting the making of Troilokya, a film being written by Juhi Chaturvedi.

She elaborates, “Troilokya is a true story based in the late 1800s in Calcutta about a woman serial killer. I am looking forward to the challenge of portraying a killer as the lead.”

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