“He understands me and my art, and loves both,” wrote playwright-poet Oscar Wilde about the love of his life,Lord Alfred Douglas. Wilde was tortured, imprisoned, and driven to bankruptcy and an early death for his ‘crime’ of homosexuality in the late 19th century.
Cut to the 21st century — our age of stylish gadgets, swanky buildings, and an evolved worldview — and see whether the larger society is treating any better those whom it perceives ‘different.’
Naked Wheels, an exquisitely made documentary by Rajesh James, seeks to explore this and many compelling thoughts on life, love, and gender. Naked Wheels is a journey undertaken by a motley group of people, comprising males, females and transgenders. There are college teachers, students, lorry drivers and various other faces from different social backgrounds. “Travel these days means entertainment, reaching various destinations. But I wanted to portray this journey as a metaphor for life, a political act. Our history is replete with such journeys — Yatras — undertaken by social reformers,” says Rajesh.
He chose a truck to travel since it signifies the charm of diversity that is India, like a train. Driving through a plethora of landscapes, carrying a wide range of produce and objects, lorries are truly cosmopolitan, he feels. “The vehicle has a Goa registration number, its owner is a Punjabi, and it is driven by Asokan, a Malayali,” Rajesh smiles. The group travels, eats, and sleeps on the truck, from Kochi to Goa and back.
The film, which has won critical acclaim at festivals across India and abroad, features two transgenders, Living Smile Vidya and Gee Imaan Semmalar, apart from Asokan, the lorry driver who has some profound insights to offer, gleaned from the many years spent on the road.
Naked Wheels begins with Buddha’s words: “You cannot travel the path until you have become the path itself.” This is especially true in the case of transgenders, says Rajesh and adds that his own understanding of the community, which was almost entirely theoretical, was completely transformed after the journey. “They did not have a path carved out for them. They had to create one.”
Each detour, every digression from the well-trodden path of popular culture and morality becomes relevant at a time and age when differences are scoffed at and dissent is crushed.
When Vidya asks why they should pay taxes as the state does nothing for them; when Asokan says there is nothing called unconditional compassion; and when Gee states many children struggling with their gender identity are driven to suicide by their own families, we are forced to look inwards.
As their truck traverses busy junctions, verdant pastures, and serene beaches, it is hard not to feel angry about denying a section of our fellow citizens their right to dignity.
Rajesh says the film is widely perceived as something on the LGBTQ community at least in Kerala while what he means to bring out is the politics of travelling together.
“Most people here look at the transgender community either with contempt or pity. But they categorically declare that their way of life was a choice, and are celebrating it.”
In the same breath, he says how the restrictions imposed on women are purely a social construct and not a function of their gender being inferior in any respect.
Naked Wheels covers a long distance towards an inclusive world. In doing so, it hopes for a society where no more lives are crushed and desire is persecuted just because a majority does not “understand” it.