As LGBTQI communities around the world prepare for next weekend’s Pride Parades, NOWNESS premier a PRETTYBIRD Film directed by Jess Kohl at the ‘Koovagam’ Transgender Festival in Villipuram.
India’s Koovagam festival is a celebration of transgender pride, taking place over 18 days and featuring events such as The Miss Koovagam pageant, the biggest Trans beauty pageant in India. Director Jess Kohl describes Koovagam as “Like Glastonbury, but for transgender people and in India.”
Jess Kohl’s new film ‘Nirvana’ is exec-produced by PRETTYBIRD’s Juliette Larthe, and art directed by Derek Hardie Martin. ‘Nirvana’ follows Aaliyah and another trans woman named Chintu as they celebrate at Koovagam. The film premiers on NOWNESS as part of their ‘Radically Queer’ season, which coincides with Pride month. Prior to its launch online, it was screened at Spazio Maiocchi during Milan Men’s Fashion Week as part of the Nowness Video Club, and at Paris Men’s Fashion Week as part of the same season.
Director Jess Kohl commented: “I have travelled extensively in India and always been fascinated by the role of the third gender in Indian culture. They are beautiful, colourfully clothed women who attend weddings and births, demanding money - they are thought to have the power to bless or curse. I am interested in pockets of society whose queerness contrasts with the West, and those who are still fighting for their sexuality and gender to be accepted by their culture. I began researching transgender communities around the world, and discovered Koovagam. I knew it would be so visually arresting and full of interesting people who have lead full lives, and felt compelled to make a film about it.”
The ancient story of Hindu god Koothandavar is at the centre of Koovagam. In Hindu legend fellow god Krishna changed into female form, becoming a beautiful seductress called Mohini in order to marry Koothandavar. Koothandavar was executed shortly after the marriage, leaving behind Mohini to mourn her husband’s death, before transforming back to Krishna’s male form. This story of gender fluidity and transition is understandably poignant for India’s trans community, some of whom even believe that trans people descend directly from the lineage of Koothandavar. Filmmaker Jess Kohl finds this intriguing “intersection between religion, gender and sexuality” fascinating.
Jess Kohl shot the film in May 2018 when she spent time in Chennai, the nearest major city, getting to know the LGBT community there, before travelling to Villupuram with one of the film’s protagonists – Chintu. At the Festival Jess met Aaliyah, who had been rejected from her family and forced into begging and sex work for survival, which is typical of the difficulties often faced by trans communities in India.
The festival’s dates are fixed according to the cycle of the Moon. It’s 18 days long in it’s entirety, with the main celebrations taking place over 3 days. The first day is the Miss Koovagam beauty contest, which is the main event for many of the younger trans girls, especially those who are participating. The second day is the marriage to Aravan, the God of the trans community, which takes place in the Koovagam temple. Festivities continue on into the night, and on the third day there is the smashing of the bangles to signify the death of Aravan. The trans women wear all white to signify their mourning.
Jess approached numerous local NGO’s whilst researching the film, and she came across Chennai Dost, a small LGBT charity based in Chennai.
Jess Kohl explains: “Many of the members of the transgender community in India don’t associate themselves with LGBT groups - being openly gay is rare as it is still illegal, but there are some progressive individuals who are coming out and encouraging others to do the same. Chennai Dost supports those coming to terms with their sexuality, pushing against the cultural practice of effeminate men being expected to transition, rather than embracing their gender and queer sexuality.”
Jess Kohl is currently in the research stage of some future projects focusing on marginalised, outsider communities in Pakistan, and another in Malaysia.