Deepa Mehta and Sirat Taneja discuss their documentary ‘I Am Sirat,’ which chronicles a journey of identity and acceptance 

After premiering the film at the Toronto International Film Festival, followed by screenings in London, Chandigarh and Dharamshala, the Delhi-born titular trans star Sirat Taneja finally finds her way home

Published - May 16, 2024 05:55 pm IST

Sirat Taneja and Deepa Mehta at the Delhi screening of ‘I Am Sirat’ at the India International Centre hosted by Engendered

Sirat Taneja and Deepa Mehta at the Delhi screening of ‘I Am Sirat’ at the India International Centre hosted by Engendered

At the India International Centre at Lodhi Road, Engendered — a Transnational Arts and Human Rights organisation — featured the Delhi premiere of Academy Award-nominee Deepa Mehta’s documentary film I Am Sirat, co-directed by its titular trans star, Sirat Taneja.

The evening, which gradually turned into a lively gabfest among Delhi’s queer circles, movie buffs and media mavens, was backed by The Dutch and Belgian Embassies.

I Am Sirat looks at what it means to be trans in India through the journey of Sirat Taneja. The film makes its way through Sirat’s life as a trans woman in Delhi, juxtaposing her dual existence as Aman at home and Sirat in the wider world. Having already premiered the film at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), followed by screenings in London, Chandigarh and Dharamshala, the Delhi-born Sirat finally found her way home.

At TIFF, the film had Sirat positively floored by the outpouring of support, leaving her at a loss for words as the collective sentiments reassured her, “You’re not alone, we’re right here with you.” But it was the screening in her beloved Delhi that truly tugged at her heartstrings, her hometown being where her family and roots lie. For at its core, the film was Sirat’s quest for acceptance among those nearest and dearest to her.

The Delhi screening of ‘I Am Sirat’ at the India International Centre

The Delhi screening of ‘I Am Sirat’ at the India International Centre

Best known for the infamously divisive ‘Elements’ trilogy, the film marked Mehta’s return to documentary style after 20-odd years. Speaking to The Hindu, the filmmaker recounted her initial conversation with Sirat, who sought to share her story authentically. “The film has always been a collaborative effort,” Mehta emphasised, recalling Sirat’s desire to have her story heard, having been friends for four years.

Initially hesitant, Mehta recognised the importance of Sirat’s perspective and the necessity for a collaborative approach rather than assuming full creative control. “I first declined the idea of the film,” Mehta admitted, “until Sirat agreed to do it herself.” This realisation led to the decision to adopt an unscripted documentary style, allowing Sirat’s voice to shape the narrative organically. The result is a unique visual narrative shot entirely on a smartphone, one that blends Sirat’s personal perspective vertically with Mehta’s broader landscape shots for context.

Filming felt like second nature to Sirat, who, thanks to her natural knack for Instagram Reels, practically had a camera glued to her hand throughout. “From dawn till dusk, the camera was my constant companion. Except for when I bathed of course,” she quipped in conversation with The Hindu.

According to Sirat, the film deliberately omits moments where she found herself slurring over English words every once in while, which she attests has never been her strongest suit.

Despite her own story shaping the narrative, Sirat advocates a fresh non-trans perspective on trans tales, believing in the power of outsider curiosity to spark essential questions. Yet, she’s steadfast in her belief that trans roles in cinema should be owned by trans actors, waving the flag for the density of talent within her community and championing equal opportunities. “The trans community is brimming with talent — we have actors, chefs, lawyers, doctors, models and more — and we should all get the same opportunities to get ahead,” she said.

Sirat Taneja in a still from ‘I Am Sirat’

Sirat Taneja in a still from ‘I Am Sirat’

When discussing the challenges encountered by Indian filmmakers tackling sensitive topics within their own culture through Western productions, Mehta dismissed any notion of an easier path. “It’s definitely not,” she asserted, pointing to past controversies surrounding her own films as evidence. “The effigies burned in protest of my earlier films stand testament to that,” she added, recalling the incendiary reception to her work, with protesters burning down the cinema that first screened her 1996 film, Fire.

Despite these challenges, Mehta expressed admiration for the bold storytelling emerging from mainstream Indian cinema, highlighting Vidhu Vinod Chopra’s 12 Fail and Kiran Rao’sLaapataa Ladies as recent examples that caught her attention. She also seemed curious about the India-banned Monkey Man and shared her admiration for Dev Patel’s work.

From obtaining a TG Certificate to finding employment, Sirat’s journey towards self-actualisation is both empowering and fraught with emotions. Though the buck seems to have stopped where it mattered the most for Sirat — at her mother.

Sirat’s journey towards acceptance has been intricately tied to her relationship with her conservative mother, who refuses to see her for who she is. On that note, Mehta highlights the centrality of a woman’s right to self-determinism to the film, noting society’s tendency to label such acts as selfish, only when it concerns women.

While boasting its captivating lead, I Am Sirat still grapples with its pacing, leaving much desired between mother and daughter. Though she still wages a war for acceptance at home, Sirat’s undying optimism (and bawdy sense of humour) is what seems to hold her story in place.

In the midst of the adoring applause from the crowd, Sirat is buoyed with confidence about the adventures that lie ahead. Her journey carries her to the Kashish Pride Film Festival in Mumbai, with a promising new project twinkling on the horizon. When asked about her feelings after baring her soul to her family with such bravery, Sirat’s response is as swift as it is camp: “Hot, sexy and beautiful.”

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