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India's First Transgender Band Is Fighting Prejudice One Song at a Time

And Bollywood may just be the perfect platform.
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In the music video for “Sab Rab De Bande,” released last year by India’s 6 Pack Band, a woman in a flowing sari and elaborate bun rescues two others from harassment by men on the streets. The heroine, Fida, pushes the catcallers to the ground, admonishing them with loud claps — a commonly employed Indian cinematic trope of the strong-willed, glamorous girl standing up against social evils.

Except there’s one significant difference: The lead character is a transgender woman. 6 Pack Band’s six members are all transgender women. And with videos featuring Bollywood actors, the band uses a familiar entertainment medium to leverage its popularity and reach a wider audience.

Male-to-female trans people — called hijras in common parlance — are beset by social stigma in India. Often shunned by their families, approximately 60 percent of hijras experience harassment or violence, according to one 2016 study (the same study found the most frequent perpetrators are police and law-enforcement officials).

There has been incremental change toward accepting transgender identity in Indian popular culture. This year, for the first time, India will have representation in Miss International Queen, the transgender beauty pageant held in Chonburi, Thailand. In September, the Delhi Police recruited 21 transgender personsas traffic monitors to greet traffic violators with chocolates — “to break ice and stereotypes,”according to one official at the Delhi State Legal Services Authority.

But 6 Pack Band’s approach represents something different. India is a society that idolizes movies and its stars: Fan clubs often celebrate new releases with boisterous festivities; matinee idols like Jayalalitha and Hema Malini have become lawmakers. 6 Pack Band is backed by one of the country’s most popular and successful filmmaking companies, Yash Raj Films.

The group was the brainchild of video producer Ashish Patil, and was founded by Bollywood music composer Shamir Tandon last January. Tandon says that Patil, a producer at Yash Raj Films’ subsidiary for peppy, youth-targeting Web series and movies, told him of the original idea: “This will not be a frivolous band but will provide a platform for [the transgender community].”

Yash Raj Films sent interns to Mumbai-area traffic signals and bus stations populated by trans people to hunt for talented singers. Two hundred were shortlisted, and later whittled down to six — Fida Khan, Chandni Suvarnakar, Ravina Jagtap, Komal Jagtap, Asha Jagtap, and Bhavika Patil. All are self-taught singers — singing on the streets and at weddings and childbirth is a means of living for the community in India.

In their debut video, a cover of Pharrell Williams’ “Happy,” the group performed dressed in bright sequined robes and ornate neckpieces, forehead pins, and dangling earrings that touched their shoulders.

“Earlier we used to be street singers, but this project has given us a bigger stage,” Ravina says. Only a bit over one year in, the band has produced six videos, attended awards ceremonies, and raked in millions of views on YouTube.

The group’s stardom has even brought some of its members’ once-estranged family members back into their lives. Asha Jagtap recalls how her mother got teary-eyed after watching the videos. She says her presence in the band signaled to her parents that she had been socially accepted. “Whoever you chose to be in life, you’ve proved yourself to be worthy,” she says her mother told her.

Band members have still found the social ostracization that faces the community difficult to cut through. Tandon noted that several missed training sessions when they were denied entry into the building by the security personnel. Nevertheless, members say some now recognize them in public.

“We are trying our best so everyone here knows what living as a hijra is like,” Asha says about their performance in the version of “Sab Rab De Bande” in which she is the lead (there are two renditions). The song follows the life of a cross-dressing boy who grows up to become a hijra only to find himself cut off from society.

Nevertheless, the take-home message is one of hope. “Hum sab aakhir mein rab de bande hain,” says Bollywood singer Sonu Nigam, addressing the viewer toward the end of the song: “In the end we are all God’s children.”