FOR the first screening of Ek Jagah Apni in October at an auditorium in Bhopal, Muskaan was wary of bringing her family members. While Muskaan, 39, who essays the role of Roshni, one of the film’s protagonists, was thrilled to wear a sari and make-up for the screening, she was aware that her family would not be comfortable seeing her dressed as a woman. “My family still hasn’t accepted me as a transwoman. Many people, including my relatives, continue to question my choices. Irrespective of that, I was excited that through the film, people would see the story of our community,” she says.
Bhopal-based Ektara Collective’s second feature film Ek Jagah Apni revolves around Laila (Manisha Soni) and Roshni, two transwomen characters, who are looking for a house to rent after they are evicted by their prejudiced landlord. The film, whose India premiere is scheduled for the International Film Festival of Kerala (opening on December 9), highlights the struggle of the transgender community for their basic rights and acceptance in society.
Its script developed from a series of conversations that co-writers Maheen Mirza and Rinchin had with Manisha and Muskaan. “While doing relief work during the pandemic, we met Manisha and she introduced us to Muskaan. During the lockdowns, the transgender community was badly hit. They struggled to find work and places to live,” says Mirza. However, the film chose not to set the story during the pandemic as the discrimination they face is a regular occurrence.
Though the story is told from the queer and trans perspective, the search for a space of one’s own is eternal. “Looking for a place to call home is also a metaphor, not just to find a safe space for all but also to create a space where stories like this can be told. In fact, everyone on our team connected with the film’s title,” says Rinchin. Ek Jagah Apni shows Laila being torn between her true self and preserving links with the family she was born into. Meanwhile, Roshni treads a fine line between concealing her identity and living the life that she wants. Together, they overcome their hurdles, forge new friendships and find allies.
Since both Manisha and Muskaan have not completely come out, during the shoot there was always the fear of being targeted and recognised in public places. There were other queer actors in the cast, too. “Even though we had our concerns, the shooting turned out to be an empowering experience. This allowed them to stand their ground and force others to accept them as they are,” says Rinchin. After Kerala, the film will feature at Mardi Gras Film Festival in Sydney, in February next year. Mirza and Rinchin plan to hold more community screenings soon and are hoping for an OTT and theatrical release. The collective’s first feature was Turup (Checkmate, 2017) tells the story of three women against the backdrop of an increasingly polarised society.
Though the first draft of Ek Jagah Apni’s script was ready in December 2020, they started filming around July 2021. The script draws heavily from the experiences of Manisha and Muskaan. Small wonder Mirza was clear about casting Manisha and Muskaan as the lead protagonists from the beginning. The cast, however, had to go through multiple workshops and rehearsals. Like their characters, Manisha and Muskaan share a friendship and have known each other for long. As shown in the movie, Manisha, a graduate, has worked as a teacher and counsellor, while Muskaan works as a cook. However, unlike Muskaan, Manisha lives away from her family.
Some of the defining moments in the film show the characters embracing their true identity. For instance, Laila — who has a bank account in her previous name, Harish — chooses to let go of that identity even though she stands to lose money. “For us, it was the natural progression of their story,” says Rinchin. Though there was a script, the story was not set in stone. It kept evolving. They even reshot a few scenes and added some more as the filming progressed.
One of the most poignant scenes in the film is also the most powerful. Roshni, who dresses as a man when she goes to work for an affluent family, is thrashed by her employer when he gets to know that she is a transgender and belongs to a lower caste. When his wife pleads with Roshni to withdraw her complaint, she refuses. “There was no dilemma or discussion regarding what Roshni should do. We all were in agreement that she shouldn’t forgive. Marginalised people are often guilt-tripped into forgiving,” says Mirza. This sequence is based on the harassment that Muskaan faced while working at the home of a top bureaucrat in Bhopal, who is a Brahmin.
Working on the film has boosted Muskaan’s morale. “Mujhe ek nayi udaan mil gayi (I have found new freedom). I am happy that people are going to watch the film based on our life experiences,” says Muskaan, who aspires to work in the social sector and be financially independent. That would help her to live on her own and support her late brother’s daughters. Since Muskaan lives with her family, she has to keep up the facade of being a man. “While my immediate family still hasn’t come to terms with my trans identity, I’ve found support in my cousin’s daughters. They often suggest what I should wear,” she says.
Ektara Collective is an independent group that collaborates with trained and untrained people to make films that are located in their realities. Mirza and Rinchin are part of its core team. While Ek Jagah Apni pushes the trans narrative in Indian cinema, they are happy that “so many people are standing up” for Saim Sadiq-directed Pakistani movie Joyland (2022). “Joyland is truly a film reflective of our time. It shows us the way forward. It brings out all our stereotypes even though we think of ourselves as progressive,” says Mirza. Their next feature, as a collective, looks at gender justice through a child’s perspective.