In a unique and powerful collaboration between students, scholars, artists and activists, the South Asia Center (SAC) has wrapped up another year of their Teaching Artist Residency. This year’s collaboration began two summers ago (2017) when Penn students traveled to Kolkata, India to partner with Anandam, a grassroots LGBTKH+ organization based in the red-light district of Sonigachi. Under the guidance of SAC Assistant Director, Amelia Carter, Penn students learned alongside Anandam’s members how to tell stories of survival and resistance through film.
Their goal was to create an educational film on contemporary LGBT issues affecting Anandam's community in West Bengal. The group followed a community driven approach to producing the film by empowering the main characters of the film with the role of "Director" so they could decide how their stories were depicted and how the narrative unfolded. Students contributed a tremendous amount of effort as Assistant Directors on the project and all participants learned flexibility in working under challenging and constantly shifting circumstances.
About the Film:
The film, Until and Unless, follows the story of four individuals and the impact of systemic oppression through India's legislative system on their lives. The stories of Sintu, a transwoman community leader raised in the Sheoraphuli red-light district; Nitu, a transwoman sex worker who lives a dual identity as a man named Nitai; Lovely, a Kothi person who lives a closeted life while working in an office environment, and Pratap, a trans- teen still navigating her identity, are featured in the film. At the time of shooting the film in 2017, the LGBTKH+ community was still living under a repressive law, Penal Code 377, that criminalized their lives and livelihoods. At great risk to themselves, Anandam’s members wanted to speak out against the state, familial and interpersonal violence. During post-production, Penal Code 377 was repealed on September 6, 2018. Despite this joyous moment, the community was acutely aware that their fight for liberation and human rights was not over because of this victory, but finally ready to begin. The film now serves as testimony on the impact of 157 years of legalized repression.
About the Teaching Artist Residency Program:
With the film in its final state after two rounds of summer trips to India through the SAC Research Internship Program and the Pulitzer International Reporting Student Fellowship the South Asia Center’s Teaching Artist Residency brought Sintu Bagui, Nitu Giri and Dr. Soma Roy, the film’s co-creators from Anandam to Philadelphia in November 2018 to screen the film widely and engage with local and national audiences. The goal of the Teaching Artist Residency is to use the relatable and familiar medium of art to teach about the politics, culture, language and history of South Asia. Meet the Teaching Artists:
● Sintu joined the sex-worker collective Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committeeor Durbar, as a peer educator in the year 2009 and in 2010 became the Secretary of Anandam which is the LGBT wing of the organization. She also served as Director of the Targeted Intervention Project which is a HIV intervention program for men who have sex with men and transgender communities in West Bengal. Sintu took a leading role in helping to organize and conceptualize the making of Until and Unless and was able to mobilize community members and stakeholders in participating in the film.
● Nitu Giri is the President of Anandam and has been functioning as an active member and organizer since 1996 when she helped to found the organization. She has been a sex-worker peer educator at Durbar for more than a decade and was responsible for directing her role in the film. Nitu is a valued member of both the trans and sex-worker activist communities whose insight and vision were essential in the making of the film.
● Dr. Soma Roy has a Ph.D. and Master of Science in Applied Psychology. She has more than 11 years of experience as a Master Trainer with the Global Fund for Fighting HIV/AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria. Currently, she is a Senior Research and Capacity Building Officer at Sonagachi Research and Training Institute, the research wing of Durbar. Dr. Roy has worked with Anandam for several years in the capacity of Advisor and has helped to expand Anandam’s programming to include opportunities like summer research placements, Cafe Melas and educational programs.
The film’s premiere was sold out at International House’s Ibrahim 360-seat theater. This was largely due to an incredible list of twenty partner organizations and groups across Penn and Philadelphia including the Women’s Film Festival and the City of Philadelphia Office of LGBT Affairs.
The audience was very moved and participated in a lively Q & A with Sintu, Nitu, Dr. Soma and Amelia. After the screening, it was clear that the very simple act of having transwomen from the red-light districts of West Bengal speaking in this space for themselves was a powerful disruption. Granting them the title of educator and expert offered the audience an opportunity to challenge their assumptions about class, sexuality, gender and global education.
During their residency, Sintu, Nitu, Dr. Soma and chief organizer Amelia Carter visited nine college campuses- Temple University (PA), New Jersey City University (NJ), Stockton University (NJ), Elon University (NC), Camden County College (PA), Community College of Philadelphia (PA), UCLA (CA), Lafayette College (PA) and the University of Pennsylvania (PA).
Many of these screenings were hosted by gender & sexuality studies programs, but also by geography & urban studies, women centers, international studies, law, sociology, public health, social work and cinema studies; showing that this was truly interdisciplinary and had wide significance for students and faculty. At these events the artists had robust discussions on queerness in a global context and the politics of identity in India. Students asked thoughtful questions about the impact of colonialism in the Indian Penal Code and how Sintu and Nitu navigate family dynamics.
Expanding the outreach to the wider community, the film was also shown at iMPeRFeCT Galleryin the Germantown neighborhood of Philadelphiaand at Prevention Point, a Philadelphia nonprofit in the Kensington neighborhood, that works for justice for people impacted by drug use and the sex industry. This screening connected Anandam with organizers and community members from the trans group, Sisterly Love, and the sex-worker wellness organization, Project Safe. The film was also screened at Satrang, a support organization for the rights of the South Asian LGBTIQQ community in Southern California.
The group was interviewed on the live radio show Urban Insightson WURD radio, the only African-American owned and operated talk radio station in Pennsylvania which has a national listenership of 65,000. The project was featured in publications of the Broad Street Review, Medium and Patch. The group was also interviewed by EndSexTrafficking.com, a website engaging anti-human trafficking activism with a pro-sex-worker approach.
And maybe most importantly, the group hosted their very own Cafe Mela in the U.S., a gathering for the queer community to express themselves and embrace anada (joy). They prepared and shared Bengali food, performed cultural dances specific to the Bengali trans-community and celebrated with new friends.
As Sintu, Nitu and Dr. Soma return to India, the South Asia Center deeply appreciates all the support that made this possible. Thanks to Penn Global, U.S. Department of Education Title VI Program, Anandam, Durbar, and the countless faculty, students and community members who hosted the screenings, gathered an audience, and engaged in thoughtful discussion.