Exploring the transgender identity in Indian cinema vacillating between the fiction and the documentary

    Indian cinema has come of age in terms of its perceptions, interpretations and representations of the transgender identity. Some films, in the documentary and the feature film format, national and regional, reveal social, cultural and emotional maturity in terms of acceptance of the transgender not quite integrated into the mainstream in real life. There have been attempts, where the transgender identity has been portrayed not only with empathy and understanding but also with the person’s desperate longing to belong, to be accepted for what the person is. Most studies on the transgender identity in Indian cinema zeroes in on the sexual orientation of the person concerned and not on the transgender identity per se. Is there a difference between the two? The author is not extending the exploration necessarily to the transgender’s sexual orientation because he/ she is more desperate about either acceptance by the mainstream or hiding from it and in cinema at least, the sexual orientation towards same sex relationships is almost a ‘given.’ One needs to find out how sexual desire is rendered invisible within their personas or unwittingly presents itself often because of the deep sense of social alienation.

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    Definitions

    The term eunuch – hijra –we commonly use to mean a ‘sexless’ person has been defined in the dictionary as a castrated man. A hermaphrodite is a creature possessing both the male and female organs. A transvestite is a person who chooses a sex other than the one he/she is born as. Facts tell us that neutralized neutral-sex persons are a rarity. The hijra population in India has a well-defined group structure and regional affiliations with a group head. Though Balucharaji is their Goddess and they revere Ambe Mata, there are religious demarcations. Most of them identify with the female sex. Within the eunuch community, incest is absent. Most of them have worked as prostitutes at one time or another. Serena Nanda’s research shows that some persons labelled hijra in India are both prostitutes and celebrants of rites of passage.

    Hindu epics, Puranas and mythology are replete with the courageous feats of true hermaphrodites who, within these scriptures, have always been referred to as the ‘third sex.’ “But after the Arab attack in the eighth century, castration of males in order to put them on specific jobs began on a large scale,” writes S. N. Ranade Centuries ago, guards to king’s harems were castrated to ensure that no co-habitation between royal wives and guards took place. This led to the creation of the ‘third sex’ – the castrated eunuchs. But it was not the end of the story. These sexless wonders realized that perversions did exist in society. Many males found them distractingly attractive. And the potential ‘femme fatale’ was born. Hijras have a recorded history of more than 4,000 years. Ancient myths bestow them with special powers to bring luck and fertility. Despite this supposedly sanctioned place in Indian culture, hijras face severe harassment and discrimination from mainstream people in society, are not allowed to have any organized source of income, and are harassed by the police that arrests them for begging, one of the few sources they have of eking out a livelihood.

    The term hijra is often translated as ‘eunuch’. The archetypal hijra is raised as a man and undergoes ritual removal of the genitals to become a hijra. However, anthropologist Serena Nanda explains that many hijras come from other sexually ambiguous backgrounds: they may be born intersexed, be born male or female and fail to develop fully at puberty, or be males who choose to live as hijras without undergoing castration. The cultural category “hijra” appears to be a magnet for a variety of sexual and gender conditions: ambiguous sexual anatomy, impotence, infertility, homosexuality, and others, which may not have an analogue in Western cultures. Nanda writes that the crude surgery is done by dais (country nurses) whose ‘training’ is based solely on experience. The eunuchs call this ‘operation’ nirbaan meaning ‘mukti’ because the act suggests a ‘transition’ of the person from one ‘life’ to another. Indian legal statutes do not permit such forced castration of males and therefore, there is absolute secrecy around the act of ‘nirbaan.’ The operation is conducted between three and four before the crack of dawn, while it is still dark. No one but the dai-maa and her assistant is present for this ‘ceremonial’ ritual. The act is given the colour of a religious ritual like the acceptance of Deeksha for a better life in the next birth purely in order to veil the essential barbarity and brutality of the custom and make it both acceptable and ‘natural.’

    Cinema and the Transgender Identity

    Indian cinematic representations of the transgender identity earlier came in the form of brief cameo characters such as in song-dance numbers performed in a chorus or, in the character of an effeminate prisoner in Ramesh Sippy’s Sholay. The first empathetic treatment of a transgender emerged in Mahesh Bhatt’s Tamanna reportedly based on the real-life story of a eunuch who rescues a female infant left to die by her rich and powerful father and brings her up as his own. There are no innuendoes around this person’s sex life who barely manages to make a living by singing and dancing at marriage functions or when a baby is born.

    Mani Ratnam’s Bombay (1995) places the hijra in a completely different time-space matrix in a manner of celebrating the humane part of their lives and underscoring through a single scene, the secular character of the hijra who saves one of the twins of Shekhar and Shakila who get lost in the Mumbai communal riots. It is such a brief, blink-and-you-miss-it shot that it is incredible how Mani Ratnam could pack so much of emotional tension and suspense into it so well and in so memorable a manner. The hijra here is portrayed both as an agency – helping the kid find his way back to his world of sanity and safety, and as a subject – expressing his character through this apparently simple act. The hijra could easily have turned the other way and concentrated on his safety like everyone else not involved in the riots was doing. But in the dangerous situation where life is a breath away from death, he does it though he does not know the child and has never seen him before.

    After Madhur Bhandarkar’s Fashion was released, that showed almost every male person involved in the fashion and ramp show industry as gay, there was a furore both among the transgender community and among those engaged in the fashion industry. Priyanka Bhatia of Stree Sangam, a feminist collective of lesbian, bisexual and transgender women, says that except for a handful of films, Bollywood has mostly damaged the fight against the law and reinforced the stereotypes. Sadly, the focus has always been on the homosexual and not on the transgender by birth or by a series of SRS es. Every film made during the 1990s and through 2000 in Hindi and regional cinema are entirely focussed on the “gay” or “lesbian” identity that marginalises the significance of the transgender identity. A few feature films and some powerful documentaries narrate a different and more realistic story.

    I Am Not Your Son, Mom

    In 2002, an aspiring director, Sohini Dasgupta made a 20-minute documentary on Teesta Das, who underwent Sex Reassignment Surgery to change her sex from male to female. The film produced by Buddhadeb Dasgupta is called I Could Not Be Your Son, Mom and has travelled across many festivals. “It is the story of a courageous young person who denies the life she has been given,” says Buddhadeb Dasgupta. The film broke the conspiracy of silence on the subject of Gender Identity Disorder and about people who are victims of such disorders. The fact that they term it a ‘disorder’ proves that we are still not prepared to acknowledge and accept people with alternative gender preferences – a boy who seriously wishes to become a girl through surgical processes or vice versa. “Teesta Das, the subject of the film, not only accepts and acknowledges that she once was “a female trapped n a male body” but is vocal about her choice,” says Sohini.

    “While researching the film, I realized that we hardly know anything about Gender Identity Disorder. Gender conflict is a grey area few are willing to talk about. This widened the canvas of my film. I decided it would speak through two voices – one would be of Teesta, my subject, and I would offer the other point of view, not only as director of the film but also as a mainstream woman and as the main voice-over,” informs Sohini.

    The film would not have been possible without Teesta’s active cooperation. What made her agree? “Most of my earlier interactions with the media lacked a humane touch. They were trying to sensationalise my case. I felt this documentary would spread awareness about these closely guarded truths. People will learn to accept this as an inescapable fact of life,” The condition was that the film had to take a positive approach. “I look at the issue as a gender-identity crisis, not as a sexual crisis as is felt by most but more as a genetic condition that should not be called a “disorder” informs Teesta.

    “Her parents took her for psychological counselling when she turned 13,” says Sohini. “The psychiatrist concluded that she was a boy with predominantly female features so it was back to square one. When her mother was pregnant, she wished to abort the child for financial reasons. I look at Teesta’s story as representative of a unique human-interest story with several dimensions. The banks refuse to open an account in her single name. She is heterosexual by nature she says but is cynical about love because she has discovered that all approaches from men were more curiosity-driven than love-driven,” adds Sohini. Irrespective of its quality in terms of aesthetics and documentation, I Could Not Be Your Son Mom is an honest tribute to a woman of courage who refused to take her birth for granted.

    Sheila Ki Jawani

    In her segment titled Sheila Ki Jawani in the longer film Bombay Talkies (2013), Zoya Akhtar makes a different but beautifully poignant statement on the androgynous personality. Sheila Ki Jawani explores the psyche of a 12-year-old boy who loves to dress up like a girl, puts on his mother’s lipstick, applies make-up, wears jewels and idolizes Katrina Kaif for her item number Sheila Ki Jawani. But his father wants him to become a football player though he hates football and is scared of the field because he knows he does not have the physical strength or stamina or spirit the game demands. He dreams of becoming a dancer like “Katrina.” Considering that Bombay Talkies is a tribute paid to 100 years of Indian cinema by four of the most talented filmmakers in the industry, two of the four films dealing with subjects and characters that were once the target of belittling jokes mark the changes in perspective among filmmakers today. Bombay Talkies is reported to have been a box office hit and this indicates how audience reception to these subjects and characters has changed.

    I am Bonnie

    I Am Bonnie, a documentary film deals with the social ostracism and financial penury a gifted footballer is forced to suffer when she decides to become a male through a series of sexual reassignment surgeries. It is directed by Farha Khatun, Satarupa Santra and Sourabh Kanti Dutta. The film follows the very tragic journey of how Bandana Pal, born intersex, said to have been the best striker in her time (1994-2000) is struggling to keep body and soul alive since she changed her sex and became Bonnie Pal, now married to Swati who, as the film progresses, has been the sole pillar of support for him. The film is on an award-winning spree at film festivals. It won an award at the 22nd Kolkata International Film Festival in 2015 and also another one at MIFF 2018.

    Bonnie Pal, 36, a one-time ace footballer in West Bengal, keeps running from one place to another just to escape the wrath of his family, his neighbourhood and society just because he took courage in his hands and decided to become a man- which he felt he always was, inside. His struggles for pure survival has been captured in.

    The journey of the three filmmakers began when they discovered Bonnie in 2005. He was just 24 at the time and his life was almost over. Between 2005 and 2007, Bandana / Bonnie underwent a series of sex reassignment surgeries done by Dr Baidyanath Chakraborty and his team almost free of cost. He went away to Krishnanagar in search of work in 2006. The couple was socially ostracized and the clubs that gave orders to him to make idols, took this opportunity either not to pay at all or to pay a paltry sum.

    The camera catches Bonnie crafting idols, coaching football boys and girls and even cooking, cleaning and chopping up chicken in Darjeeling where he has fled to with Swati to save himself from attack by everyone. The film crew could not locate him till 2012 when he was in Matigada in Siliguri. Financially, he was in dire straits and could not wait for money to come his way because he now knows it never will. Coaching the under-seventeen team for eight months, he has not got a single paisa. He rues the day he became a footballer because it destroyed his entire life. He also tells his wife that this documentary wills not further his cause in any way. And to think that Bandana/Bonnie was one of the finest strikers of Indian Woman’s football team in her/his short career. In the closing frame, we find Bonnie standing on the precipice of a hill in Darjeeling, his back to the camera, while the voice-over says, “I am like a bird in flight, perching myself on one branch of a tree to another, without being able to build a nest.”

    Chitrangada – The Crowning Wish

    The androgynous personality of Rituparno represents a neglected dimension of homosexuality. It also tries to explore whether his extensions into the field of acting were intended to draw the viewers’ attention to (a) this marginalised community centered on the character he portrayed, (b) the way this brought into the framework of other dimensions of alternative sexual preferences, and (c) find out for himself whether through his performance on screen, the three films that form this group would bring about some shifts in the viewer’s mind that would turn him/her from being biased about alternative sexual relationships or homophobic to becoming homoempathetic

    The three films, Aar Ekti Premer Golpo (Just Another Love Story), Memories in March and Chitrangada that could loosely be labelled under the umbrella of a ‘trilogy’ scripts the filmmaker’s departure from his well-established and carefully fleshed out expertise in presenting ‘comfort-zone’ and ‘audience-friendly’ films that explored literature, relationships, women’s issues and Tagore interpretations. These were films that brought the Bengali bhadralok audience back into the theatres.

    However, a filmmaker like Rituparno Ghosh did not need to fall back on Rabindranath Tagore’s work to prove his point or to take his argument forward about his decision to undergo a series of sex reassignment surgeries to become a full-blooded female. The parallels between Chitrangada’s and Rudra’s stories are forced, unconvincing and do not stand the test of logic. Rudra’s story would have come out as a powerful, individualistic statement all by itself. This so-called ‘tribute’ to Tagore collapses because Rudra is essayed as a self-pitying, sad, forlorn person who feels betrayed and misunderstood in love and in relationships. In the two earlier films Just Another Love Story and Memories in March, Ghosh did it under the ‘umbrella’ of Koushik Ganguly and Sanjoy Nag. He leaned on Chapel Bhaduri for the former film and on an absent partner for the latter. Why couldn’t he tell his story as it is?

    Yet, one needs to concede that no Indian feature film has touched upon a subject like sex reassignment surgery undergone by a man to become a woman like Rituparno Ghosh did in Chitrangada – The Crowning Wish. Ghosh who wrote, directed and acted in the film as the protagonist, tackled the issue of identity head-on through the eyes of Rudra Chatterjee portrayed by Ghosh himself. In the film, Rudrajit is a dancer-choreographer who is in the process of choreographing Rabindranath Tagore’s dance drama Chitrangada (1898) to celebrate the bard’s 150th birth anniversary. He is gay and evolves a strange relationship with the replacement drummer, Partho who is a drug addict.

    Why does Rudra decide on this complex series of surgeries to change his sex? He discovers that Partho is very fond of children. As the law proscribes adoption by two men sharing a love relationship, Rudra does not want Partho to regret not having children so he decides on this sex-change operation so that they can adopt a child.  Sex reassignment surgery however, is a long-term, delicate and complex process that has deep emotional and psychological repercussions not only on the person undergoing the surgeries but also on the people he is closely related to such as his parents, his colleagues in the dance troupe, his friends and most importantly, Partho, his lover.

    Does a surgical transition from male to female essentially bring about associated changes in one’s gender? Chitrangada fails to explore this. Sex reassignment surgeries involve medical anatomical transformation. Sociologists and feminists insist that sex is purely a biological fact over which outside factors have no control. But gender is socio-cultural and environmental. It is determined continuously throughout the growth and development of the individual’s life. “Sex” determines maleness and femaleness, both of which are based purely on physical and anatomical differences either through birth or through SRS. “Gender” determines masculinity and femininity based on cultural differences.

    Feminists have delineated the difference between ‘sex’ and ‘gender’ in order to dissociate the cognition of sex from its cultural implications. Says feminist scholar Maithreyee Krishnaraj, “Terminology is not a meaningless sophistication. Non-Marxist theories have done extensive analysis (commonly denoted by the idea of sex roles) on how gender is psycho-socially constructed. Psychoanalysis and feminism owe debts to each other.” In what way does Chitrangada address this issue? The answer is simple – it does not. The exaggerated form of conditioned and cliché effeminate behaviour one finds in Rudra – talking in soft whispers, the graceful movement of hands, the body language in repose and in dance, are reflective of the way Rituparno Ghosh behaves in real life.

    Chitrangada – The Crowning Wish and all films discussed above, pale against Pedro Almodovar’s The Skin I Live In (2012) that explored the space of transgenetic experiments on humans in terms of the novelty of the subject matter, the slow escalation of the chilling suspense, and the psychological exploration of the human psyche in its most cold-blooded and evil manifestations.  Rituparno insists that Chitrangada – The Crowning Wish explores the right of a person to choose his/her sex in a world where everything is in a state of constant flux. But is Rudra really making a ‘choice’ or is he veiling his confusion with ‘choice’?

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    Shoma Chatterji
    Shoma A. Chatterji is a senior journalist, film scholar and author based in India. She specialises in Indian Cinema, has won the National Award for Best Writing in Cinema twice. She has done her P.Hd and post-doctoral research on Indian cinema. She has authored 24 books of which more than half are on cinema.

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