“When we take prasad in a gurudwara, those who are distributing it, give it from a distance so that their hands don’t touch us. If we do any religious service and clean utensils, people say ‘No, no, let it be’. I still say no, it’s alright, I’ll do it,” says Ritika Shergill, a transgender woman from Delhi.
“As I entered the gurudwara, there was a group of boys who were serving langar. One was serving tea and all of a sudden he saw me and said, ‘Where did this f***** come from? ‘. The comment that he made still pains me,” shares Amolak Singh, a gay man from Kanpur.
Ritika Shergill and Amolak Singh feature in Sab Rab De Bande (2020), a 28-minute documentary film made by first time filmmaker and producer Sukhdeep Singh. Shot over a period of four painstaking years, it narrates the life stories of five Sikhs belonging to the LGBTIQA+ communities in India (see trailer here).
At its core, the film is about the exploration of societal, religious and queer community spaces by five Sikh individuals. They are marginalized and stigmatized on the basis of their gender identity, gender expression, sexuality and religion within the Sikh as well as the queer communities, both minority groups.
Through personal interviews, the film brings forth the challenges that the queer Sikhs grapple with within the religious, cishet and queer spaces, and the different ways in which they reconcile their gender and sexuality with their faith.
Sab Rab De Bande (We’re All God’s Creation) opens with sounds of hymns being sung at the Gurudwara Bangla Sahib in Delhi. With serene visuals of the Gurudwara Bangla Sahib and the Golden Temple in Amritsar in the backdrop, the narrator provides a historical background to Sikhism and contextual details for audiences who may be unfamiliar with or ignorant about the religion.
The main storyline consists of interviews with Amolak Singh, an androgynous gay man from Kanpur; Ekampreet, a cisgender gay man from Haryana; Puneet, a cisgender lesbian from Punjab; Ritika Shergill, a transgender woman from Delhi; and the film director and producer himself (Sukhdeep), a cisgender gay man from Kolkata based in Noida. The interviewees speak about personal journeys and experiences around their queerness and religion.
We also get to listen to Bhai Angrez Singh, Granthi of the Gurudwara Bangla Sahib, about his opinion on how Sikhism perceives non-normative genders and sexualities. His interview gives an insight into the queerphobic ways in which the religious gatekeepers of Sikhism regard same sex love, diversity in sexuality, transgender identities, and non-normative gender expressions.
In tracking the lives of the five interviewees, the film brings out the conflicts they experience as queer persons between their own understanding of the expansiveness of Sikhism and the dominant conservative interpretations of the religious teachings in Sikhism. A poignant element in the film is the experience of the interviewees in accessing the gurudwaras as openly or closeted queer persons. As the name suggests, Sab Rab De Bande can also be seen as an attempt to sensitize the religious conservatives to look at Sikhism in a more inclusive light.
The film highlights the coming out experiences of the interviewees, especially the reactions they receive from their families and society at large. Equally, the film breaks the silence around the discrimination and exclusion faced by the Sikhs within the queer communities, and the lack of representation of the queer Sikhs in the traditional and social media.
Sample another quote from the film, this one by Sukhdeep Singh: “Some random people told me, ‘Oh, you’re a Sardar, how can you be on Grindr or other such dating apps?’ Then they went on to provide judgment and said, ‘You’re bringing disrepute to the community. If you have to be gay, at least don’t wear the turban and cut down the hair.”
Sab Rab De Bande is Sukhdeep Singh’s first film and possibly one of the first attempts at recording the lives of queer Sikhs in India. It is significant that the film portrays queer individuals who are articulate and unapologetic about their belief that Sikhism has space for queer people. This brings forth clearly the film’s call for social acceptance and inclusion, and the key message that it is perfectly alright to be queer and Sikh.
The film should serve as an insightful documentary made by queer people, featuring queer people, and for queer people who may be struggling to make sense of their gender, sexual and religious identities.
The film has also started a dialogue on the stereotyping of the Sikhs within the queer communities (and beyond) – for instance, the presumption that the Sikhs are synonymous with comic relief and loud parties or even superhuman bravery on the battlefield. In many of the queer circles of North-East India where I live, Sikh men are nothing if they are not hyper masculine and play the dominant role during sexual intimacy.
Sab Rab De Bande exhorts everyone, believers or non-believers, queer or straight, or divided along any other binary, to see a bit of themselves in the ‘other’ as also shades of the ‘other’ in themselves. In the end, there is no denying that we are all creations of the same pot of clay.
Read also article Homophobia Has No Place in Sikhism by Sukhdeep Singh in the February 2016 issue of Varta – Editor.
About the main illustration: Poster of the film Sab Rab De Bande featuring three of the interviewees – from left to right – filmmaker Sukhdeep Singh, Ritika Shergill and Amolak Singh. Poster courtesy Sukhdeep Singh