Bombay Eunuch

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Bombay Eunuch

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Bombay Eunuch

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Traditionally, the culture of hijras—men who have had their external genitals amputated—has been hierarchical, secretive, and closed to outsiders. But Westernization of India has significantly changed traditional roles, and bribes open a lot of doors among the impoverished. For their documentary Bombay Eunuch, three first-time filmmakers with a mutual interest in gender studies traveled to a Bombay ghetto and, with the help of a local social worker, found a hijra matriarch willing to open her home to Westerners in exchange for money. The results are sad and surprising. The film's central subject, Meena, is half den-mother, half pimp to a household full of younger hijras who have been forced to beg and prostitute themselves to survive. Their plight is typical enough among India's approximately 1.3 million eunuchs, who are so marginalized that they can rarely find legitimate jobs, and are likely to be paid less than other workers if they do. Via intimate (and grainy, and sometimes lurching or unfocused) digital-video footage, the filmmakers explore Meena's grubby world, prompting her and her charges to discuss their lives, their problems, and even the illegal ritual of hijra castration. The documentary is strangely split between theory and reality: It repeatedly explains that hijras are considered "neither male nor female, but something in between," but the hijras themselves use exclusively female pronouns, refer to their mother/daughter relationships and their husbands, garb themselves in exaggeratedly feminine saris and makeup, and generally behave like Western drag queens. Similarly, the filmmakers speak academically and at length of the hijras' religious and social roles as luck-bringers, political advisors, harem guards, and ritualistic functionaries, but the hijras themselves seem distanced from such things as they chat about the concrete details of their relationships, the services they offer their clients, and their woefully inadequate protections against HIV. To some degree, these contrasts provide the striking central thesis of Bombay Eunuch, but the directors don't fully come to grips with the contradictions, any more than they come to grips with the Hindi and Tamil languages in the frustratingly incomplete subtitling. Worse, a climactic confrontation that becomes crucial to the film's story was apparently not captured on video at all, so a narrator describes the event while bland stock footage occupies the screen. But in spite of these flaws, Bombay Eunuch's creators have pieced together a unique and moving film, and it's hard to fault them for unprofessionalism in their bold examination of a world that the professionals haven't been able to penetrate.

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