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From Bhopal To Cannes: How A Movie About Trans Women, Starring Trans Actors Made It To The Top

Ek Jagah Apni is a breath of fresh of air amid mainstream Bollywood films that often caricaturise trans characters

If you raise a toast every time you see a cis-gendered man crossdressing for gags on national television, you’d die of alcohol poising rather quickly. Bollywood has been a bane of existence for repressed minorities, with one of its biggest victims being the LGBTQIA+ folks, and within that, even more severely, the transgender community. 

If it isn’t Akshay Kumar playing the role of a straight man who is ‘possessed by a trans spirit,’ it is Vani Kapoor or Adhah Sharma taking the roles designed for a trans person. It makes one wonder, is anyone even trying here? Well, some are. During my research for a different story, I stumbled upon a small, independent and made-in-Bhopal film, which (believe it or not) made its way to the Cannes marketplace. 

Called Ek Jagah Apni, the movie revolves around two leads — Laila and Roshni, essayed by trans women, Muskan and Avni respectively. The premise here is simple. The duo is looking for a house to live in. A problem so mundane,  you wouldn’t entertain it beyond a few Twitter rants. But because of their gender identities, Laila and Roshni’s struggles are more complex than simply finding a decent broker. Echoing this, Maheen Mirza, one of the directors of the movie, said, “Our stories are universal, but our experiences are unique.” 

Maybe this is what helped Ek Jagah Apni become one of the five movies to be selected for the Goes to Cannes section at the Marche du Films. I briefly spoke to Mirza and Rinchin, the co-director and writer, who work as part of a group, Ektara Collective. The two discuss what it takes to make cinema more representative, and accurately too, alongside walking us through the process, challenges and journey to Cannes. 

Edited excerpts from an interview.

What was your initial reaction when you found out that Ek Jagah Apni was going to be part of NFDC’s Going To Cannes category?

Rinchin: We were excited because this was a great opportunity for us. Ektara has made films before, which have fared well and been appreciated, but we haven’t explored much of the other side of filmmaking. We’ve always been more interested in creating the film and showing it to the local community. Of course, Cannes has branding, which allows us into a larger platform. 

Can you tell us a little bit about Ektara Collective and the work that you do? 

Maheen Mirza: We are a diverse group of individuals, who belong to different socio-economic and gender backgrounds. We wanted to tell our stories, in our context, and talk about experiences that were real to us. But soon, we realised that there was no space for it in mainstream cinema. That’s when we decided to do it ourselves by combining different ideas and experiences and forming a collective vision, which can be expressed through the medium of fictional films. We have been doing this for a while now. Our first film was back in 2010, and since then, we’ve worked on five more. Ek Jagah Apni was our second feature film after Turup (2017). We’ve also made three short films in the last 12 years. 

This must be a challenging space to operate in. Which factors have played a role in keeping you motivated?

Maheen Mirza: There are two factors here. First, there was the challenge of applying the same process of film making that we’re used to seeing, and accomplishing it to a doable degree. We also wanted to do this in a way such that the quality was not compromised, because we wanted to attain a better standard. The other motivation came from everyone within Ektara — we’re all very passionate about cinema. In many ways, it is a big part of our lives. 

Have you received any formal training in filmmaking? Or, did you have to start from scratch?

Rinchin: It’s a mix. We have different types of individuals here. Some have received formal training in filmmaking, while others learn on the job and then go ahead for formal training. The baseline is, whether you’re trained or not, you’ll have to put in the same amount of hard work as anybody else. 

What was the casting process like for this film? Were Avni & Muskan your picks from the get go?

Rinchin: Yes, they were our picks right from the beginning. For the others, we followed the regular casting process. They all did a month-long acting workshop before we started production. 

What were some of the challenges you faced shooting the movie entirely in Bhopal? 

Maheen: Since we’re from here, we already had an idea about the locations and which ones would’ve helped us tell the story better. We did not shoot on sets. For example, Avni’s house was one of the locations of the film. However, we did have some problems in procuring the right equipment. You have to travel to either Delhi, Mumbai or Hyderabad to get them. If we had access, we would’ve tried shooting with different lenses and cameras. 

( Image credits: Ektara Collective, T-Series, Fox Star Studios )