Tuesday, September 19

Hum Hain Ek Happy Band of Outsiders

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On Wednesday, Y Films, the subset of studio-giant Yash Raj Films that produces and distributes entertainment for India’s youth, launched the nation’s first band composed of hijras, 6 Pack Band. An event in Mumbai celebrated the new initiative and debuted the band’s first song, “Hum Hain Happy.” Y Films developed this project in order to break boundaries and champion gender equality for the marginalized hijra community.

The British tea-maker Brooke Bond Red Label, launched in India in 1903, is also involved in the project. According to a company spokesperson, “Brooke Bond Red Label believes in making the world a more welcoming place by diffusing socially awkward situations. We encourage people to live those little moments that bring us all closer by breaking barriers over a cup of tea.”

The actress and producer Anushka Sharma, in the voiceover for the music video, provided some background about the hijra community, who today face immense struggles to survive, often relying on sex work, prejudice and ridicule from the mainstream, and disenfranchisement from Indian society.

In honor of the band’s launch, Sharma tweeted on Wednesday, “Where words fail, music speaks :).” Indeed, she’s right about the first part. Language has historically failed to account for or encapsulate the multiplicity of dimensions that is hijra.

Through the colonial and into the national era, hijras have slipped between the gender binary, existing as a “third gender,” or as what anthropologist Serena Nanda calls “neither man nor woman.” Historically, precise prescriptions were the linchpin of colonial thinking. The British, bent on freezing social groups into moral categories, ordered India along strict lines of race, religion, gender.

The unique constellation of practices encapsulated in the hijra, however, confounded the unforgiving taxonomies of the British administrators. As a result, the Criminal Tribes Act of 1871 classified hijras as a “criminal caste,” since their castration practices threatened everything the Victorians knew about what it meant to be a reproducing male.

What’s interesting, though, is that before the British Raj placed hijras into a criminal caste, according to historian Lawrence Preston, hijras held documents given to them by local kings that proved their hereditary right to lands. This protected them from potential abuse, and ensured they didn’t have to wander and beg. India supported hijras within an inclusive, syncretic system.

Unfortunately, the British refused to inherit the responsibility for such “abominations.” As a result, hijras’ lands, granted by earlier Hindu and Muslim rulers, were confiscated, forcing hijras from the countryside and into joining a “large urban underworld,” where, according to Preston, “they became confirmed beggars, perhaps prostitutes,” sealing their fate to this day.

Since the 1990s, Western LGBT labels have entered the language of India’s bourgeoisie, and hijras have either inhabited or resisted the “T” term, transgender. Hijras in part self-identify as “trans” — either to access cultural capital in upper classes and accept becoming the “T” in exchange for the promise of human dignity — or they refuse this blanket term altogether, in order to cling to historical traditions that ultimately limit the funding they receive from activist groups in India’s metropolises.

The LGBT human-rights industry reproduces Western constructs of sexual selfhood that privilege identity politics, individualism, “coming out,” and public visibility. Numerous scholars, however, have questioned the Western logic of a national right to sexuality as “progress,” the lack of which justifies foreign intervention, humanitarian agendas, and third-world altruism.

So here’s the thing about “Hum Hain Happy.” Y Films, according to the studio’s website, is a “platform for talent — both on screen and behind the scenes — who will break and set new rules of story-telling.” No doubt these six hijras are talented — they’re youthful, vibrant, and full of life. I can’t wait to see what else they come out with.

I’m not entirely sure, though, that the music, to quote Sharma’s tweet, speaks all that well. “Hum Hain Happy” is the first song (of six) that 6 Pack Band has released. The choice, whosoever’s it was, to cover Pharrell’s “Happy” is disappointing.

Sure, it was an instant hit when it was released at the end of 2013. But 6 Pack Band’s debut ditty is so frictionless it slips away from my mind. When I try to hold onto it, all I can recall are Pharrell’s original lyrics. I don’t feel as if anyone could immediately or intuitively identify with the cover. The emotion beneath the song’s shiny, sugary surface escapes me.

Could almost anyone connect with this song? What is its range — and does it fall flat?

Mimicry is Professor Homi Bhabha’s famous concept that describes how colonized people would imitate the cultural practices of their colonizers. This strategy made an Other visible in the eyes of a colonial administrator. Colonizers needed Others who were civilized. Mimicry demonstrated that the Other, even though they were different, were “almost the same, but not quite.”

No one’s saying that American culture has conquered South Asian entertainment or sexuality here. But “Hum Hain Happy” is brewed with the saccharine flavor that Western NGOs champion as resilience, progress, and “it gets better.” NGOs deploy all those words overseas and use them, as they wave their funding dollars to attract groups in need, to save brown bodies from seeming backwardness.

“Khush raho… Naacho, gaao… Aao, bajaao tali!” (“Just be happy — sing and dance — come on, clap your hands!”).

“Duniya na tere saath ronewali!” (“The world isn’t going to cry with you!”)

It’ll get better — if you just keep your chin up and smile.

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The malaai on top of the kheer? 6 Pack Band is an initiative openly sponsored by Red Label Tea. Their graffiti-ed logo appears in one shot. The irony just makes me smile. After all, one of the major coups of the East India Company, “the first great multinational corporation”, was that the British sold South Asia’s own tea leaves back to desis as a cheap source of energy while they performed manual labor during the Raj.

Sites of difference are easily boiled off and swirled away. Just like that, a warm, feel-good togetherness can be manufactured, exported, and brewed.

At first, I thought I would’ve liked to see something from this breakout band that had me jamming to a different beat. Something that captured the rich blend of folksy rhythms and filmy notes for which Mumbai’s hijras famously attract stares. Something that froze them into the stereotypical, low-caste — yet vivacious — outsider-image I’ve long conceived of them as. But this would be an entirely romantic and unfair representation of hijras.

Y Films is supposed to be, according to their website, “the dynamic, vibrant start-up at the intersection of films, creativity and youth culture that hopes to challenge the norm and detonate boundaries.” Its aim, “giving the youth a creative outlet and voice that will entertain and unite on film and beyond,” could work — the sentiment and the goodwill are there.

It’s entirely possible that “Hum Hain Happy” will inspire new ways of being a hijra — no doubt in an increasingly hybridized, globalized, and endlessly commoditized world.

But then again, hijras are, by nature or by culture, inherently ambivalent, hybrid beings. They inhere lots of multiplicities, ambiguities within them — man/woman, Hindu/Muslim, urban/regional. Why can’t the blend of East and West that “Hum Hain Happy” resounds with — a less-than-convincing but wholly forward-thinking music venture — be possible within hijras?

This, then, is precisely the beauty of a text. The products we put out into the world, like tea bags and music videos, are nothing but processual, protean things that we have to keep tracking. As we mimic, splice, sip, and share them, they become new things. Our task is not only to consume these products, but also to pay attention to how their new forms can transform us.

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