Deepa Mehta's documentary 'I Am Sirat' allows subject Sirat Taneja to be seen

TORONTO — Star wattage may be amped down at the Toronto International Film Festival this year, but it doesn't feel that way for Sirat Taneja.

The subject and co-creator of Deepa Mehta's new documentary "I Am Sirat" landed in the city on Tuesday night, having travelled from her home in New Delhi, and got something of a celebrity treatment.

She was greeted with a flood of social media messages from people who attended advance screenings of the film held for LGBTQ+ community members.

"They've all become such good friends of hers in Toronto," Mehta said in an interview the day before the film's world premiere Thursday, translating for Taneja, who was sitting to her left.

"They're Instagramming her and telling her, 'when you come, you can borrow our jewelry.' They're all coming to the screening and they all wanted to come to the airport yesterday. She has never met them and they've become so close."

They were touched, Mehta said, by Taneja's story of living a double life.

On social media, at work at India's Ministry of Social Defence, out in the world, Taneja lives as her true self: a proud transgender woman. But at home with her mother, she retreats back into the closet and assumes the identity she was given at birth — one that never fit.

That duality is explored at length in the documentary, which was filmed in part by Taneja — vertically, evoking the Instagram videos she's posted for years — and in part by Mehta, who held the smartphone camera horizontally.

Taneja tried to come out to her mother once, she says in the film, but it did not go well. Her mother called up Taneja's uncles, who beat her. She went back to a partially closeted life after that.

But social media has long felt like a place where she can be herself, posting videos of herself dancing and lip synching to Punjabi music.

"I started making Instagram reels because I really wanted to be seen," Taneja said, Mehta translating.

Now, "I Am Sirat" is another way for Taneja to be seen.

Mehta says Taneja approached her about the idea for the documentary after they met filming "Leila," a Hindi-language dystopian Netflix series in which Taneja played a guard.

"She had no lines, and every day I found myself giving her another line. She was so good," Mehta said.

Taneja would hang around between takes, she recalled, and chat with Mehta.

The pair would visit during Mehta's regular trips to New Delhi, and one day while they were spending time together, Mehta pulled out her phone and started filming something Taneja was saying about her history, and Taneja encouraged her to make a film.

"I said to her: 'I think it will work only if you shoot your own story. You are in charge of your own narrative,'" Mehta recalled.

Ultimately, Taneja said, she hopes her mother sees the film, though she has no imminent plans to show it to her. Instead, she hopes her mother will hear about the film's subject matter through the grapevine, learn about the support Taneja has received, and watch it herself.

"Maybe her mother will then understand what the dilemma that she is fighting every day is and be sympathetic to that," Mehta said.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 14, 2023.

Nicole Thompson, The Canadian Press