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The film “Bijli” opens with an off-key rendition of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan’s haunting Sanu Ik Pal Chain Na Aave. The poetry of the song describes a man who cannot find a moment’s peace without his beloved. Some might consider this analogous to Bijli’s predicament as a woman trapped in a man’s body: constantly ill at ease without his other “half.” Bijli is Fayaaz, the drag alter ego of this Pakistani-born dancer, who presently resides in New York City.
This short film by filmmaker Adnan Malik is a 15-minute foray into a man’s struggle with gender identity, religion, and social acceptance set against the bustling metropolis of Manhattan. While Begum Nawazish has gained popularity internationally and in Pakistan, carving out a niche for himself as a “credible” entertainer, Bijli tells the story of a man who by day passes off as an ordinary New Yorker and by night transforms into “Bijli,” dancing on stage to Bollywood numbers in sequined chiffon, dainty wigs and fake eyelashes. The word “bijli” is Urdu for electricity or electric current and is a name bestowed upon the dancer by a writer who, for lack of a better word, found her “electrifying,”
Fayaaz’s parents died when he was very young and the film makes no mention of a sibling or close relative, which makes the mystery of his coming to the U.S. all the more intriguing. Bijli especially holds fond memories of his mother. “She loved me. She cared for me like a little girl. She gave me clothes, earrings and bangles on Eid, as if I were her daughter.”
Like many transgendered individuals, Fayaaz is in constant battle with his Islamic upbringing and the crisis of gender that has society in his native Pakistan conveniently shuffle him into the folds of the have-nots and promiscuous. While Begum Nawazish has a solid education to rely on, empowering him to rise above his circumstances, Fayaaz does not have this luxury. Not being formally educated, he comically describes his “allergy to English” as a child and how he learned the language only after he left Pakistan.
Although faced with prejudice in various social settings, Fayaaz shrugs it off as part of life and the challenges that God places upon him. “I am not hesitant about going to a mosque for prayer. Except there is a natural shame in me,” he says. This is a somewhat contradictory because shame is why he does not pray with fellow worshippers. Fayaaz also wants to avoid the resulting awkwardness with anyone who may have witnessed any of his performances. If a Muslim who visits a mosque after a night of watching him dance does not feel shame, why should he feel any different? The social stigma associated to “mujras” or dancers like Fayaaz are deeply rooted in Pakistani society, considered inherent to Mughal culture and not accepted in a “true” Muslim community.
Fayyaz appears most vulnerable while wearing the traditional red headdress of a bride’s outfit and responding to the producer’s off camera comment. “One day I’m bridal” he says in broken English, perhaps referring to a time when he too will have the opportunity to wear one. “I think so,” he answers when prompted again by the producers.
“Adorning myself like a woman is not a hobby, it is a fulfillment of my soul’s desire.” As Bijli, Fayaaz appears happy but to a discerning viewer his perky responses and good will to man attitude at times it feels like a façade, as if overcompensating for the harsher reality of being a transgendered Muslim transvestite. Had he remained in Pakistan, things might have been different and perhaps his little slice of Americana makes all the difference between misery and basic survival.
Fayaaz insists he is not gay and this is probably the only time the producer’s voice is most prominent otherwise the questions asked off camera. “My soul is like a woman’s. My feelings and desires are also like that of a woman. I even see my body as a woman’s body. But I must accept that God has made me a man.” Although for all intents and purposes a man, Fayaaz has been in relationships with other men where he “presents himself as a woman and not a man in drag.”
On the whole, the movie humanizes him, but one leaves feeling sympathetic to his plight in that he wants more out of life, perhaps a partnership of sort—to be loved and cared for. The movie conveys this. What it does not convey is whether that someone should be a man or whether a snip at the doctor’s office might do the trick.
Fayaaz turns the tables on the producers at the end of the clip with a query of his own. “If you see me at a party, and are attracted to me, even though you realize I am a man in drag, what would you do?” The silence on the other end is palpable, followed by a sad tune which plays briefly until bookended by the same Khan song heard in the beginning. “In everyday situations, I can’t reveal the woman inside of me. But at least at parties and performances, I can become that woman. What is the point of living in fear?” he asks.