By Rohini Banerjee:
“The Third Gender— Ignored by most, tolerated by some, misunderstood by all”
A voiceover (by popular actor Anushka Sharma) tells us in the opening of a unique new music video, where India’s first transgender band sing and perform. The band, which consists of four singers from India’s Hijra community—a transgender community that is marginalized, largely discriminated against, and seldom given even the most basic rights—has been curated and promoted by Y-Films, the youth wing of premier Indian production house Yash Raj Films as an effort to break the stigma surrounding the “third gender” in the country. Their first musical endeavour is a cover of the popular Pharrell song, ‘Happy’, to which they make their own refreshing additions. There are poignant lines in Hindi interspersed in between the original lyrics which make one think and question the kind of treatment that is meted out to the Hijras in the country. One of these lines go: “Khush raho nacho gao duniya tere saath na ronewaali” (Be happy, dance and sing, because the world won’t cry with you).
Through lyrics such as these, one is forced to reflect upon the abject conditions to which this community is subject to, and the neglect and humiliation they face on a daily basis. It’s heart-warming to see that this band takes such an optimistic view, despite these struggles. The overarching message of this song is to be happy, and to spread happiness, and to live for yourself and be yourself despite the inhuman ways in which the world looks at you and treats you. This overwhelming sense of positivity is what makes this song special, and this band special. It makes you think twice about that Hijra woman begging at a traffic signal whom you turned away with a dismissive or rude gesture.
However, this video is not completely devoid of problems. The lyrics in which they talk about being happy despite the situation they are in somewhat reinforce the notion that these people should continue to live in the margins of society and be happy with their lot; and not agitate against the discrimination they are facing. The lyrics seem to imply that they will never transcend their oppressed state, and hence to be “happy” with the little they have. Furthermore, the video also draws upon certain harmful stereotypes surrounding Hijras, such as the fact that they are aggressive, and behave in a flamboyant, obnoxious manner. For a band that sought to defeat stigmas and stereotypes, to reinforce the same is just unfortunate. I wish that, while talking about the atrocities that the Hijra community faces, they also talked about the need for treating them with respect and the need for them to achieve equal rights.
That being said, the creation of this band and the release of this music video is definitely a seminal and important step. The Hijra community desperately needs positive, nuanced representation and visibility in Indian mainstream visual culture—where not just Hijras, but anyone who tries to challenge gender norms is treated as a transgressor, or someone to laugh at—and this initiative is definitely a start in trying to achieve that. It’s important that people see more gender nonconforming people on their screens, and recognize the fact that they are people too, and deserve to be treated with compassion, and this is a great way to start that conversation. It also helps that industry bigwigs such as Anushka Sharma and composer Sonu Nigam have come out in full support of this project, and are contributing to it—something that will hopefully give this band more visibility and help it reach more people.
While I recognize the problems that come with the video, I’m still optimistic that they will try to work on these, and be more hard-hitting, and more political in their upcoming ones. India getting its first transgender band is definitely one of the best things to have happened to our popular culture, and I hope that more such binary-breaking feats continue and that this band proves to be an inspiration for more gender or sexual minorities to come forward and talk about their struggles and issues through our mainstream visual media.