queering bollywood

Nishma Hindocha: Eunuchs in Indian Cinema

There are different types of portrayals of eunuchs in Indian cinema, such as transsexuals, homosexuals and hijras, which are all part of mainstream cinema. They are usually 'objects of derisive comedy or disgust.'1 In Indian cinema, eunuchs are generally stereotyped and have so far been the figures of rejection. Many of them have been the brunt of crude jokes especially in the song sequences. Many actors cross-dressed with deliberate crudity so that they are not mistaken for a woman but a eunuch in an attempt to evoke laughter. However, this type of humour did not go down well and the mimicking of eunuchs slowly died out. Nevertheless, this changed in time and many Indian filmmakers started to show a different side to the eunuchs, which slowly helped them be socially accepted in Indian society.

In Indian society, the term eunuch is broadened to include homosexuals, sexually abused men, hermaphrodites (intersexed), men who are sexually impotent and emasculated men. 'The term eunuch in India refers as much to a societal role as it does to one's anatomy.' This is because men who are different, whether they are homosexuals, impotent or hermaphrodites, do not feel comfortable to express sexual identity in the normal society because they will not be accepted society as it is not the norm.

The only place eunuchs can freely express themselves and be normal in their own way is if they join the hijra community. Many men turn into hijras because their families have disowned them because they were infertile; and because of that, they have no choice but to behave like women. Some of them ran away from home because of the undesired marriages with females. 'None of us can envisage a life where we are forced to marry females and have children by them. So, the only way out is to cut off our manhood and become hijras. This is the only community, which will accept us and let us live our lives the way we want to.'

In addition, men who are sexually abused from a younger age turn to the hijra community because that community have the same level of understanding as them and they can be and feel comfortable and most importantly have a society that will accept and sustain them. 'Once we found other people like us, they helped us understand our place in society. For the first time, we felt belonged somewhere.'

Hijras are people who are defined in India as eunuchs, (emasculated male) and hermaphrodite (intersexed), this is because 'both terms, as used in India, connote impotence an inability to function in the male sexual role and the word hijra primarily implies a physical defect impairing the male sexual funcion.'

'In the world of men and women we are neither. Because we are different, everyone shuns us. So, we hijras live amongst ourselves in our community. Only here we find acceptance.'

The hijras of India are a religious community who renounce male sexuality and identify with the creative power of Mata Bahuchara (the Goddess hijras believe in). In the West, hijras are generally known as hermaphrodites or eunuchs. The difference between the both is that hermaphrodites are born hijras. This is because they are people 'whose genitals are ambiguously male like at birth' and eunuchs are made hijras, because it refers to emasculated men. The force behind the words hermaphrodite and eunuch is impotence and impotence is central to the definition of the hijra as not man. The role of hijras is deeply rooted in Indian culture that it can accommodate a wide variety of temperament, personalities, sexual needs, gender identities, cross-gender behaviour and levels of commitment without losing its cultural meaning.

Researching on hijras in Indian cinema proved quite difficult because there is hardly any literature about this. However, I did manage to find several articles relating to this topic. Although, they were not as helpful as I hope they would have been. However, what I did manage find was a great deal of articles on hijras in India society. Again, there were not many books that were specifically written on hijras of India, though I did find a few books that were recommended on the articles, which were very useful.

I am going to explore the film Tamanna to identify the many elements of hijra culture and how they have been portrayed within the film. Mahesh Bhatt, director of Tamanna has made a remarkable film that 'evokes compassion rather than jeers.' Tamanna crosses boundaries that have never been crossed before in Indian cinema because 'no director has explored the possibility of making a feature film focusing on the collective and cloistered community.'

Tamanna is based on a true story and 'inspired from a true incident.' The film centralises on a hijra played by Paresh Rawal and explores various issues that many hijras face in reality. The film is based in 1975 in the town of Mahim, Bombay; the theme of the film is about an abandon girl, Tamanna, who is raised by a hijra, Tiku, and the problems that arise.

Bhatt has used a non-stereotypical Muslim hijra in Tamanna. The first time we see Tiku, is next to his mother's dead body, dressed in a shirt and lungi, which is a2

'sarong worn by Indian men.' with many men around him. This is the first non-stereotypical point I noticed in the film. Hijras generally do not dress like males, it is not normal in the hijra community because hijras generally 'enjoy dressing in

women's clothing, and their female dress is typically accompanied by traditionally feminine jewellery.'

Tiku's hair is slightly above his shoulder, which is considered short in the hijra context and again it is not accepted in the hijra community, 'long hair is a must for a hijra.' If a hijra has short hair, it is suggested that they have been punished for something they have done. 'One of the punishments meted out by the elders to a hijra who has misbehaved is to cut their hair.'

In the film, Tiku lives in a community full of men, which is also another uncommon aspect because as I mentioned earlier they are socially not accepted in Indian society and because of this, they normally live in their own community so that they can freely express themselves. Through this aspect, Bhatt has highlighted the point that hijras can live with men and women as a community.

Tiku lives with his best friend Salim, he refers to him as bhai (brother). This was surprising because many hijras generally like to keep husbands. The fact that Tamanna did not show any kind of sexual relations between Salim and Tiku justified that it is a stereotypical view that society has of hijras. By this, I mean that society thinks it is impossible for a hijra to befriend a male because they would either want a sexual relationship with them or want to keep them as their husbands. 'Sinha (1967), in his study of hijra in Lucknow, says, "All hijras have husbands." Although I did not find this to be true, many of them certainly did, and many of those who did not either had had one in the past or looked forward to having one in the future. Because it meant having a sexual relationship, it is contrary to the ascetic ideal of the hijra role.' Despite the fact that Salim is not Tiku's husband in the film, 'they are clearly depicted as a couple in all dramatic sequences of the film.' Both of them live together, make decisions together and face consequences together, all of these are qualities are of a couple.

Tiku is very camp, over emotional and neurotic and on many occasions we see his femininity come out. For example, whilst Tamanna is growing up we see him care for her in a different manner. Almost like a mother would care for her daughter. For example, in one song scene we see Tiku dance for little Tamanna in a feminine manner. We then see Tamanna grown up in the next scene imitating the same dance sequence. Salim is more like a father figure to her and Tiku is more of a mother figure to her, even though she calls him Abu (father).

Unlike other hijras, Tiku 'does not cross-dress nor is he socially part of the hijras who live in groups and dance for a living.' He is a makeup artist for actresses. In reality, it is quite difficult for hijras to get a normal job, because of how they are perceived in society. Hijras traditional role in society is blessing at auspicious occasions, generally on the birth of a son or at marriages another way they make a living is by prostitution. However, Tiku does not play a part of his traditional role, until near to the end of the film. He takes on the traditional role when he is in need of some money. This is the first time we see him dress in female clothing, he dresses up in a black and yellow sari, with typical jewellery to go with his outfit, his face is full of makeup and he is dancing around, swaying his hands side to side. In the hijra community 'the hijra dancers must be dressed in women's clothing.'

One of the important scenes in Tamanna, is when Tamanna learns that Tiku is a hijra. Her reaction to this is like what many people in Indian society have of them. In Indian society, hijras have become something to be feared. 'Nobody wants to be accosted by one of them, be nudged with their elbows, stroked on the cheek, taunted, cursed and flashed.' Despite the fact that hijras have an 'auspicious presence, they also have an inauspicious potential. The sexual ambiguity of the hijras as impotent men, eunuchs, represents loss of virility, and this undoubtly is the major cause of the fear that they inspire.'20 Tamanna is immediately sickened by the fact that Tiku has raised her up and has ever come near her just because he is a hijra. She forgets all the love and care he has given her and how he has revolved his life around her to give her the best. She has a stereotypical view of what hijras are like the majority in Indian society.

Bhatt has included a group of stereotypical hijras in his film to portray the stereotypical hijras in the normal Indian society and their traditional role. We first see a group of several hijras outside a house, dressed in colourful saris and 'flashing their colourful jewellery,' and clapping their 'hands wildly in the special manner of hijras, with hollow palms.' Making so much noise with their high-pitched voices. This was a typical scene because Bhatt has represented exactly how they are in reality. Tiku does not associate with the group of hijras and tries to avoid them. They often ridicule him because he thinks 'that by living with ordinary people he can forget the gender deviation of his existence.'

Bhatt has used two different representations of hijras in Tamanna, which works well within the content of the film. We see both sides of the hijra lifestyle, one, which is more, recognised than the other within society. The way Bhatt has portrayed Tiku in Tamanna is differently to how hijras are in reality, however, by saying this I am not disregarding the minority that are like this and that live like this. Bhatt has attempted to break the stereotypical views that society has about hijras. He has explored issues such as parenthood, friendship, denial and many more aspects. He asserts the audience with a positive message that hijras are successful parents and can bring up a child, because they too have the ability to offer love even though they cannot conceive themselves.

I have briefly highlighted certain elements of hijra culture in Tamanna and how they have been portrayed within the film. Bhatt celebrates the solidarity and loving hearts of the hijras through the character of Tikkoo. This is the first time that a filmmaker has portrayed a hijra sympathetically and positively.


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Bombay (India, dir. Mani Ratnam, 1995)

Hum Apke Hain Kaun (India, dir. Sooraj Barjatya, 1994)

Kunwara Baap (India, dir. Mehmood 1974)

Lawaaris (India, dir. Prakash Mehra 1981)

Sadak (India, dir. Mahesh Bhatt, 1991)

Tamanna, ( India, dir. Mahesh Bhatt 1997)

The Bollywood Story: Indian Cinema (India, dir. Shashi Kapoor)