Kalki SubramaniamCHENNAI, India (WOMENSENEWS)–About six months ago Kalki Subramaniam asked herself a question.

"What if India’s transgender women created their own media?"

She got her answer recently, when eight brief documentaries–each between two and five minutes–were shown at the Russian Cultural Center here and drew a standing ovation from viewers after the lights came back on.

The filmmakers turned their attention outward. One movie was about the struggles of the differently abled. Another concerned the abandonment of old people. Another showed the way of life of fishermen.

Interviews with the filmmakers, however, quickly turned the focus back to the troubles of being a transgendered woman in India.

Unlike Kalki Subramaniam–who goes by two names and has always had her family’s support when she needed it–none of the filmmakers uses more than one name.

Transgender women here are often forced out of their families and left to find whatever way they can to survive. Many, according to Subramanian, join other transgendered women who, by long tradition in South India, form a familial structure under a "mother" figure. To forge a new identity many take on female names and often conceal their surnames as a safeguard against harassment.

One of the filmmakers who spoke with Women’s eNews is Kanchana.

"I live in a slum," she said. "For years my identity was a transgender who begged for a living. The day they saw the camera, instead of my begging bowl, it changed people’s reactions towards me forever."

Another filmmaker, Sandhya, says her family is more accepting of her now that she has proved she has a "talent."

Breaking the Cycle

Subramaniam runs the video-making Project Kalki as part of the Chennai-based Sahodari Foundation, which she founded in 2005 to provide transgender advocacy. The foundation runs on the help of a few private donors and Subramaniam’s proceeds from her speaking engagements and awareness programs.

"The ultimate aim is to make sure these girls get jobs as journalists or filmmakers. It will help them break out their cycle of poverty and abuse," said Subramaniam, who met with Women’s eNews in her combined office and residence.

After she graduated from Madurai Kamaraj University in Tamil Nadu with a degree in mass communication and journalism, Subramanian–in a rare occurrence for transgendered Indians–managed to find suitable employment as a media specialist in a multinational company. Her income there paid for her gender reassignment surgery.

"As the first openly transgender person in my college, my life was a lot about sneering teachers and classmates who thought jokes about gender identity were funny," she said recently in a phone interview. "But the course taught me to appreciate the power of the media. Mainstream media has usually depicted us as depraved creatures to be mocked for our gestures and orientation."

The Sahodari Foundation serves transgender people from all backgrounds in Chennai, where the transgender population is estimated to be approximately 1,500 by the South India Positive Network (SIP+), a Tamil Nadu-based nonprofit organization.

Anyone who needs counseling can walk in or call the foundation. Non-transgender people who want to learn more or participate in ongoing projects are also welcome.

"This basic conflict about your sexuality can be devastating," Subramaniam said. "Life is complicated as is it. Many transgenders need professional counseling to deal with this. But that is what is usually lacking with devastating consequences. They are forced to leave home and once that security is gone, most lose direction in life."

More Services Needed

Subramaniam said more groups like hers are needed to provide basic counseling and financial rehabilitation services.

"Most of the funding that comes into India is meant for HIV-affected transgender people," she said. "What we need are also services to make sure that transgenders are not left open to abuse that increases their chances of becoming positive. Creating an atmosphere more accepting of us will prevent hate crimes, enable us to get educated and thus be less exploited in life."

Subramaniam models her video-making project on one run by WAVE or Women Aloud: Video blogging for Empowerment, which is run by Angana Jhaveri and Sapna Shahani.

Once a year the two women gather young women from every corner of India in the state of Goa for a training course in video blogging. No subject is taboo.

Subramaniam used her training session to piece together random footage she had shot over the years and made "Punnagai," her first film.

The title means "smile" in Tamil. Her movie is a mélange of those rare moments of happiness–with family members, teasing friends, dressing up–that are almost guaranteed to make a transgendered person smile.

Making "Punnagai" established the training model for Project Kalki, says Subramaniam. For the project each woman gets a leased camera. They make their movies and then come back to Subramaniam for help in editing, voiceovers and other technical points of production.

"While training the girls in the nuances of scriptwriting and composing a shot, I also told them that the best films they could make would be about subjects closest to their hearts," Subramaniam said.

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Paromita Pain is a senior reporter for The Hindu Newspaper in Chennai, India. She can be reached at [email protected].

For more information:

Project Kalki:

Women Aloud: Video blogging for Empowerment (WAVE):