Destigmatising Transitioning with Shiva Raichandani
Journeys are not always about the destination. In Shiva Raichandani's newest film, Always, Asifa, trans narratives are reworked from the simple turning point many believe them to be into the complicated web they actually are.
Our final filmmaker is Shiva Raichandani, a recipient of Netflix’s Documentary Talent Fund and regular consultant with corporations and non-profits on LGBTQ+ representation. They use media to create inclusive spaces of belonging for those in the LGBTQ+ community. Past works include Peach Paradise and Queer Parivaar.
Their most recent film, Always, Asifa, follows Asifa, the disabled trans activist, who is also Britain’s first out Muslim drag queen, preparing to undergo gender affirmation surgery as she reflects on how her life has - and hasn’t - changed during her transition. With Asifa having featured previously in documentaries on Channel 4 and the director, Shiva Raichandani, having reached the semi-finals of the 2017 edition of Britain’s Got Talent with the London School of Bollywood, there is an abundance of flair and creative pedigree to show these two really can talk the talk, and walk the walk.
Together TV sat down with Shiva to discuss their excitement around the process, what the opportunity means to them, and the stigma around the transitioning process.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Together TV: Tell me about when you first came up with the idea.
Shiva Raichandani: I’ve known Asifa for quite a while. When she mentioned she's finally getting her gender affirmation surgery, I was like, This is such a momentous moment that needs to be captured. It needed to be documented, not just for herself, but for everyone who doesn’t get to see South Asian trans people undergoing something like this. She's been so generous with sharing her story.
TTV: How did you find out about the Diverse Film Fund?
SR: Someone sent me the link and when I looked at it, I was like, Oh, this is amazing, because how often do you get opportunities, at least for people who just want to share stories, but haven't been in the industry? It can be very hard to not just navigate, but find your space within it.
TTV: How did it feel when you found out you were a recipient?
SR: I was stunned! When you've grown up thinking that these are not opportunities meant for you, you don't think that this can actually happen. It’s actually a moment for anyone who identifies like me. It's not just an honour but a privilege, to be able to share a story that's so close to my heart. I think everyone in the community just yearns for more joyful and more positive stories around queerness and transness.
TTV: You mentioned growing up thinking that certain opportunities aren’t for you. Can you speak to that a little bit?
SR: I grew up in countries where we didn't talk about queerness or have the vocabulary to address it or have reference points of someone that was South Asian, non-binary, trans, and was happy. We would just dream of these things. So, when you come into contact with that, it's so beautiful. That sort of inquiry in terms of How are you doing this? How have you made this possible for yourself? What did you have to go through to make this happen? has been such a learning process for me as a filmmaker because I didn’t have these stories growing up.
TTV: What were your biggest challenges making the film?
SR: One of the main challenges with documentaries, especially of this kind, is that you never know what's going to happen. We don't have a date yet for when [Asifa’s] surgery is happening. And so that that sort of unknown was a huge cloud over questions of, how are we going to structure this narrative? But that was such a beautiful problem to have because it made us collectively question the reasons we were making the film. Unfortunately, sometimes trans narratives reduce the transition element to just one moment. That doesn’t do justice to the entire journey. When we talk about transitioning, it's an ongoing thing. It's not just the surgery. It's sort of looking at it in the broadest sense, and understanding what transition is and can be.
TTV: It's interesting because in all films, scripted and unscripted, the main character is expected to go through a transition from beginning to end. So, a lot of people think of trans people as being different. But actually, we're used to seeing stories where someone's meant to go through a fundamental change.
SR: I 100% agree. When it comes to trans people, there is this weird expectation of going on this journey with a beginning and an endpoint, but there doesn’t need to be that very rigid journey. The process is in itself possibly a destination. That in itself is a moment; that journey holds as much weight and beauty.
TTV: What do you hope this film will achieve?
SR: When I had conversations with Asifa, she said that this is such a nice love letter in terms of what she's had to go through. In so many ways, it’s a love letter to all trans people in terms of affirming their journeys. All journeys are valid. I say a love letter because sometimes we see transitioning from a negative lens and it doesn't need to be! It can be such an empowering experience to see yourself move closer to a vision you feel comfortable with. There's so much power in being able to live a reality of your liking.
SR: In many ways the film is a love letter to South Asian, trans non-binary, gender nonconforming people out there because we don't really get to see ourselves in this light. A lot of the stories around queerness are through white narratives but the ways in which we experience transition is so different. To see someone like Asifa visibly documenting her journey is so empowering because it's such a great educational point to humanize the experience. If anything, there's so much fun and joy to be found through it because she’s a performer and not every story around transitioning needs to be sad and dramatic.
TTV: If audiences take away one thing from this film, what would you like that thing to be?
SR: I want them to take so much! Whether it's the joy of seeing someone like Asifa thriving, living her life so beautifully and boldly, or if it's sadness or even grief in terms of resonating with the experience that she's had to go through and is still going through. The process can be so tedious societally and legislatively. I’d also love them to take away peace and hope. There’s something hopeful in that, yes, you can be a trans person and have everything in life that you want. I think there's peace in knowing there doesn't need to be a definitive experience.
TTV: What was it like working with Together TV?
SR: Smashing! Together TV has been absolutely incredible. It's so rare that you get to collaborate with people in such a wholesome way. Obviously, the financing is great, but they didn’t just talk money at us. They gave us training sessions. They brought in educators to teach us and they checked in. They provided us with mentors and a wonderful producer. It can be such an isolating experience as a filmmaker, and knowing that there were people you could run to was great. I don’t think this would have happened without the resources they equipped us with.
TTV: Any advice for those who have never made a film before?
SR: My advice to any filmmaker, especially those early in their journey, would be to trust in the story you want to tell, especially when you're made to think that the story doesn't have a place in the world. I think that is absolutely untrue because only you have that one unique perspective to that story. Don't be afraid to get feedback. As much as we're scared of feedback, having other viewpoints brought in has helped me understand the ways in which I would like to tell my story. There's also trusting in yourself, but knowing that you're never alone in that process is a beautiful thing as well.
Always, Asifa premieres Monday, 28th November on Together TV. Viewers can watch on Freeview 83, +1 channel 92, Sky 170, Virgin 269, and Freesat 164.