For eighteen days of the year, the small village of Villipurgam in Tamil Nadu is transformed into ‘Koovagam’, the largest gathering of transgender women in Asia. Filmmaker Jess Kohl visited the area with the support of local transgender NGO Chennai Dost to film this compelling portrait of the lives of two attendees—Aaliyah Kahn and Chintu Dolly.
In India, trans women, or hijra, are often seen as a bad omen, and are forced into a life of prostitution and begging. Koovagam becomes a space to celebrate and build friendships and communities in a supporting environment, free from the persecution of the wider world. Speaking about her profile of this unique queer community, Kohl explains: “Being queer is becoming more and more accepted, which allows me to examine the edges of LGBT society, the pockets who are still fighting for acceptance from their communities. I’ve travelled extensively in India and have always been intrigued by the role of the third gender in Indian society. Both feared and respected, these colourful and beautiful trans women attend weddings and funerals, demanding money in the name of their god, Aravan.
“The women have an odd place in society—they are accepted, but in the roles of sex workers and beggars. When I discovered Koovagam, I knew I had to go and immerse myself into this culture. The longer I spent there, the more I began to see how heavily Indian queerness contrasts with the West. Being gay in India is still very much illegal and not accepted, which, in my opinion, is partly why there is such a huge community of trans women – if you’re an effeminate boy, you will be pushed into this community, because being gay isn’t really an option. So being trans is society’s way of acceptance.”
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