“Walking the Walk”
Review by Dr. Parasu Karimbattil, Dept. of English, Govt. Womens’ college, Trivandrum
Film:Walking the Walk (2015; documentary)
Length:32 mins, 38 seconds
Theme: The Telangana Queer Pride (02/08/2015)
Interest: LGBTI issues, human rights, sexual mores, law and initiatives, general
Direction: Moses Tulasi
Production:Truth Sets Me Free Films
The first thing that crossed my mind when I was watching Moses Tulasi’s film was the thought, nay, conviction, that I should have watched it 35 years ago. I was a child in a middle-class, Brahmin dominated but mixed neighborhood in Hyderabad. Those early 1980s were the days of the pre-liberalization era. Transgender persons used to make an appearance once in a way for alms, but the setting did not make for an exposure that would lead to sensitivity, or even political correctness.
My parents typified the middle-class response to them in those times –they were of a generation that was caught in the trough between the traditional openness to gender and sexual polymorphism (exemplified in the story and worship of Lord Ayyappa and Ardhanareeswara) and the liberation of the mind that comes with deep political awareness.This trough was the faux modernity of a middle-class India moulded in the Victorian image. In those dark times the appellation ‘transgender’ was rarely heard.
The “respectable” middle class image of transgenders was inhuman and horribly unfair. To “people like us” they were ‘eunuchs’ or ‘alis’ or occasionally ‘hijras’ or ‘kojjas’. They were aggressive like men, but garishly clad like women with appalling dress sense. They asked for money and if one didn’t pay up, they abused, groped (if you were a man) and sometimes even spat uncouthly. They were to be given small change and got rid of as quickly as possible. Why they were driven to begging and what could be behind their strange behavior were matters that even educated adults dared not leave their middle class comfort zones to investigate.And talk about them was punctuated with shudders of revulsion. If we had been firmly told that being born a transgender was a “curse” only to us and not to the transgenders themselves we might have developed the decency to view them differently. One of the transgenders in Moses’s film does precisely that, but sadly, Moses’s film was still 32 years away and my own evolution had to wait a bit longer.
I left Hyderabad in 1983. Four years later, in the boys’ dormitory of an elite boarding school I discovered that I enjoyed the touch of boys the way adult men and women seemed to enjoy smooching in ‘dirty’ foreign films. It took another six years for me to figure out that there were a few people belonging to my own gender (besides scores of the opposite one), whom I actually wanted to make love with.And yes, at long last I started growing in the realization that I was no ‘pervert’ or ‘sex maniac’ but an ordinary human being with a healthy body and slightly broad urges.
To me the greatest aspect of Walking the Walk is that it manages to exemplify and inspire the openness that it advocates in the public discourse about sexual variants. The emphasis on inspire is justified by the first two paragraphs of this review –had I not watched the film I might not have written them at all.
We human beings are deeply and fundamentally social, although competitive capitalism and its attendant ethos often coerce us into behaving as if we aren’t. A considerable part of one’s sense of self is tied up intimately with how one wants to be viewed/ recognized/ acknowledged by the world around them. And this is one truth that comes out movingly in Moses’s film. The Telangana Queer Pride March (or Queer Swabhimana Walk) was not merely about the sexual rights or special interests of a minority group. It was about the right of LGBTI people to exist visibly and audibly. It is about the right to live, love and earn a livelihood without having to constantly deny one’s true self to others and betray oneself before oneself –because that is precisely what we people constantly do when we are put upon to fit seamlessly into the brute heterosexual ubiquity around us. And the deep pathos of this is captured very sensitively by Moses when he turns his camera and microphone to a middle-aged transgender participant in the walk who refers to the compassion of state and society towards animals only to pose the question, “Can’t you find for us in your heart the compassion and love that you have for animals? Are we lowlier the animals?”This is a deep (though probably unintended and unknowing) echo of Jean Valijean’s immortal line in Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables, “I am not even a dog!” When this dialogue is delivered, in Telugu which is simple but which rises to the majesty of poetry in the given context, Moses brings in a rising snatch of the music that he borrowed from the soundtrack of Zubeidaa (2001), which was scored by AR Rahman. That brought me close to tears . . .
For capturing the refusal of people from the LGBTI community to acquiesce in this project of self-erasure, Moses has allowed the subjects of the film to speak for themselves, or, in academe, to articulate their subject positions.
This is not surprising because the pride as well as the film were inspired by the brutal murder (after robbery, physical assault and possibly rape) of a transgender woman called Pravallika on 17th January, 2015 by four extortionist goons. This was the latest in a series of several crimes against these people. Clearly, it was time the walk was walked. The fact that Pravallika was a post-graduate underscores the larger social dimension of her murder, the fact that transgender persons are forced into begging or sex work even if they are educated and as eligible as any others to play a productive role in the market economy. This is a point that is emphatically made by many of the participants in the Pride.
So we get almost the entire story of the Telangana Queer Swabhimana of 8th February, 2015, from the participants and organisers themselves. We get to see –in the resplendent colours of the rainbow and many more, the variety of sexualities and genders we have in the country. We get to hear everybody –the transgenders, gays, lesbians, bisexuals, intergenders, human rights activists who sympathise with LGBTI people, cross-dressers and ordinary (probably straight) citizens who have rediscovered the sensitivity to live-and-let-live. Some of these people, like Mala Mukunda, the determinedly loving and proud mother of a gay son, and Moses’s own sister, Amulya Tulasi, are the near kin of LGBT community members. Others are just passers-by who see the Walk and calmly accept that the walkers have a valid point a humanity no less than that of straights. A working class witness to the march goes beyond that and wonders aloud why people belonging to the polar genders should imagine that they alone should have rights, even the right to weddings and other festivities. And children.
The finesse of this documentary film is seen in the way the director takes a subject which, in essence, is visibility, but does not make himself seen or heard obtrusively. He makes a brief appearance as a gay man who is lovingly accepted by his sister and brother-in-law. Besides that we sense him only in those judiciously used bits of Rahman’s theme music that pipe in when something particularly poignant and appealing to our common humanity is said by one of the walkers. And there is one point where the music is the refrain and first verse of a Telugu revolutionary song that distills the defiance of an individual against the might of the state.
The success of a work of art with explicit social/political purposes will ultimately depend on the readiness of the reader/viewer to accept the vision that is presented in it. India’s non-LGBTI citizenry has, in recent years, slowly but surely proved willing to become a little more accommodative of alternative gender identities and sexual preferences. Walking the Walk has come in at this apt juncture to give this growing consciousness a push in the right direction. It is spectacular without being showy, sensitive without being sentimental and sensitizing without being preachy. Its soundtrack reverberates with the gaiety of the drums that accompany folk dances and rituals like the Bonala Pandaga and the Bathakamma festival. The walkers we meet are a mixture of the sad, the serious, the optimistic, the defiant, the hopeful, the outraged, the irreverent and the irrepressibly light-hearted. And the message written on a placard carried by a walker towards the end of the film reminds of an easily forgotten truth: “Never doubt that a small group of committed people can change the world; it’s the only thing that ever has.”