By Nadika Nadja
Have you seen the latest Indian version of Pharrell William’s hit song ‘Happy’? The one by Y-Films, the ‘Youth Wing of Yash Raj Productions’, and Brooke Bond Red Label Tea. And the all-new, sparkling bright, 6 Pack Band?
The 6 Pack Band, according to the description on their YouTube video, “comprises six transgender singers hailing from India’s ‘Hijra’ community. It’s an initiative created and driven by Y-Films, the youth wing of Yash Raj Films, to help further the cause of gender equality in India.”
A voiceover (by actor Anushka Sharma), gravelly, perfectly refined and suitably remote, tells us that the Third Gender is ignored by most, tolerated by some, and misunderstood by all. But this includes Y-Films and Brooke Bond too. By lumping hijras and the third gender into one, they’ve managed to continue the misunderstanding and ignorance that generations of Indians have perpetrated.
Is this why our hijras, at least the six very beautiful and amazing women in the video, happy? Or are they happy because Y-Films says so?
Never mind them. The video’s body builders, keepers of the Strong Indian Man ideals, their masculine chests and macho arms ready to protect women, their muscles flexing, are happy. So happy, in fact, that their souls might jump right out of their skins. Equally happy are the inhabitants of Corporate India, in their grey cubicles and fluorescent lights. We don’t know about the rest of India, because Y-Films hasn’t yet told us. I am sure they will get around to it.
But, I, for one, am not very happy.
You see, I am a transwoman. And what worries me is that well-intentioned statements about Gender Equality – that do nothing to dismantle the systems that force many people, including transwomen, transmen, hijras, aravanis, kothis, kinnars, jogappas, thirunambis, thirunangais, and many other people of gender non-conforming identities to live an inferior life, a life of penury and pain – do more harm than good. Incidentally, the third gender category includes all the above identities, and many more.
A music video featuring transwomen – hijras to be more accurate – is a well-intentioned statement. It gives some of us who may identify as hijra a greater degree of visibility and normalisation that will help in the long run.
However, when that statement is packaged and presented as part of a corporate/brand’s attempt at gaining social capital, and when it is created and executed by those not identifying as hijra, it simply perpetuates the oppression hijras have always faced. And it further pushes into the background other identities and gender roles.
A music video – such as ‘Hum Hain Happy’, featuring a cover of one of the most viral, popular songs in recent times – could have been a great vehicle to actually push gender rights and gender equality into the mainstream.
Transwomen talking about their lives is an exercise in honesty. If the video and the song had the full involvement of the hijras featured in it, right from the conceptualization, development and scripting up to the performance, then this video would have been at its most honest. When a community comes forward to talk about its struggles and its joys, its victories and its setbacks, there is an honesty and beauty in their telling.
However, when the lyrics to the song are not about the hijra community itself, but written for/by cis, straight men, listing out the ‘problems’ these men in middle-class India face, it tells me (and other people) that hijras (and other trans* identified people) exist merely to entertain. Especially since the ending credits show that the director, producer, choreographer and editor are all men. The women in the video become props – talking, acting, singing props, mouthing words written by others, for others.
The idea that gender is binary is largely a European construct. Colonisation and European imperialism have spread this idea around the world, imbibing cultures that had place for more fluidity with a rigidity that continues to oppress trans* people today. Modern India, and other former colonies, inherited these ideas and formulated them into nation-building rhetoric. We (Indians) were once weak and effeminate, and so we were conquered. Now we are strong and masculine, and we will take over the world. To be strong, to be independent, to be ‘safe’ from ‘foreign invaders’, the men must be men and the women must be subservient.
This leaves no place in mainstream society for those transcending gender boundaries. In India, hijras and other trans* people are forced into sex work and begging to earn a livelihood. Transwomen like me who may come from more privileged backgrounds (caste and class privilege, economic privilege, and many more) lose the support of our families when we come out as trans*, and often leave home to somehow eke out a living on the fringes of society. Transmen from not-so-advantaged backgrounds are forced into marriages that negate their very identities.
An ‘alternative’ gender identity is a great thing. It opens up human expression. It breaks down artificial walls. It tells you and me that nature and biology aren’t restricted to, and don’t fit neatly into two boxes. It means we do not have to be limited to what the world says we are. And so, there is indeed a lot to be happy about being a hijra, being a thirunangai, an agender person, a transman, a transwoman.
But ‘Hum Hain Happy’ is not about this at all.
The hijra community in India has historical currency. They have been a part of Indian society through its evolution and many changes. This does not mean they are immediately accepted. Although visible, they still live sub-par lives. Despite their daily struggles, despite police brutality and social ostracisation, despite decades of mistrust and ignorance, hijras have struggled and fought to give themselves a little bit of political power. This is amazing. And so they do have a genuine reason to be happy.
If ‘Hum Hain Happy’ talked about this, if it showed the hijras being happy for their own specific reasons and because they have many things to celebrate despite all their problems, then this video would have driven home an absolutely wonderful point. You may force us down, but you cannot keep us there.
Instead, the video is all about Middle Class India problems. Angry bosses and unsatisfied girlfriends and petrol prices. Cry me a river.
As a postscript, it is being reported that Sonu Nigam, who is collaborating with Y Films for the 6 Pack Band (to ‘lend his voice’, as one headline put it), will soon release a new single with them.
More men in music videos. Exactly what we need.
Nadika is a non-binary (gender), non-binary (sexual orientation) person based in Chennai. She writes and edits for a living, and tweets @nadjanadika
(Featured image courtesy Y Films, YouTube.)