Transindia @ South Asian Film Festival Montreal

Transgender issues have been all over the news over the past couple of years. Whether it is have accessible bathroom facilities, their serving in the American military, transgender celebrities like Caitlyn Jenner and Laverne Cox or films (The Danish Girl, Dallas Buyers Club, The Skin I Live In) or television shows (Orange is the New Black, Transparent, I Am Jazz) featuring transgender characters. A light is being shone and a voice is being acknowledged. Still we have much to learn about and from. Documentaries like Transindia by Meera Darji go a long way towards education and demystification.

545414290_780x439Transindia is about the Hijras of India. It is about the transgenders that you have not heard about until you watch this short documentary. This is a population in a far off place that we have not known about. The camera’s lens is turned towards the transgender or Hijras of Ahmedabad, India. In the past, the Hijras during the time of Mughal Empire were an accepted part of society. I would go so far as to say they were respected members.

The Hijras are all men who dress and live as women. They are thought of as neither male nor female. Once they get older they undergo a castration ceremony.

After the Mughal Empire came a time of colonization by the British. Things changed for the Hijras once the English came into the picture. In 1871 a law was passed that classified the Hijras as criminals. The law said that any Hijras who walked on the streets dressed as a woman, performed a song or dance in public or played music would be arrested. As a penalty they would receive either two years in jail or fines or sometimes both.

This law remained on the books until 1952. It was only then that the Indian government repealed the 1871 law. In its place they passed the Habitual Offender Act. This remained the law until 2013 when the Indian government officially recognized the Hijras as the official third sex. Unfortunately, due to the decades of viewing them as criminals they remain on the fringes of society. Outcasts in most areas. Shunned by their families and not able to get jobs to support themselves.

Using footage and interviews with Hijras and some of their families this is reality. There is a rawness and honesty about every one of the 30 minutes of the documentary. This feeling is heightened by the fact that the interviewer is offscreen, not distracting in any way from the subjects. We don’t even get to hear the questions, just the answers. This draws you in to every word said by the Hijras and every emotion they are feeling.

Another interesting part of the documentary is the interviews with two of the mothers of Hijras. Despite the fact that they have not shunned their children they are able to go out in public and have jobs. Though they have been shunned in large part by their families. Standing strong they say they just want their children to be happy.

The Hijras are forced to the fringes and can only support themselves through begging on the streets. Though their lives are filled with sadness the documentary does show their strength in that they still have moments of joy. Moments when they can dance, sing and enjoy music.

This is depicted without glossing things over. The darkness is always there. Their lives are tough from childhood bullying to the ostricization they face in adulthood. They cannot even walk through the streets without being called “gay” or “lady”. Still they demonstrate their strength of character in that they remain true to themselves. Keep on their path. Despite the fact that they know by living as Hijras they will never marry nor become parents. It is equal parts tragic and stirring.

None of the sex lives of the Hijras interviewed is addressed by Darji. It is the only downside of the film. You feel the gap. I guess this was her way of remaining neutral or not glorifying the Hijras’ lives. We see the dichotomy that lies therein in that they are different or exotic and yet humans trying to live their fullest lives just like everyone else. Equal parts smiles and tears to be found here.

This is an honest and largely successful attempt not to editoralize rather to present a section of the population as they truly are. There is not opinion forwarded from Darji, just presents her subjects. We are to make conclusions on our own.

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