An engrossing look at an East Indian subculture few foreigners glimpse, "Bombay Eunuch" trains its camera on one group of "third sex" castrati living in urban squalor in Bombay. Solid U.S.-produced docu will fit well into various fest, broadcast and gay-studies niches.

An engrossing look at an East Indian subculture few foreigners glimpse, “Bombay Eunuch” trains its camera on one group of “third sex” castrati living in urban squalor in Bombay. Solid U.S.-produced docu will fit well into various fest, broadcast and gay-studies niches.

For centuries the hijiras, or eunuchs, were considered semi-divine beings; they were courted for their marital blessings and feared for their purported power to curse enemies. But with the arrival of British colonization, their ritual castration — undertaken voluntarily by a small percentage of male-born teens — was outlawed and their religious role diminished.

As the whole country’s values Westernized, hijiras found themselves not just de-exalted, but forced into prostitution and/or begging to survive. (The castrations are still performed, in secret, sans proper medical supervision.) Current estimate is that eunuch population — which considers itself apart from traditional man/woman, hetero-/homosexual definitions — may be as high as 1.5 million.

These facts are woven into verite footage of Meena, a 38-year-old “matriarch” who takes no guff while providing a home for numerous younger “adopted daughters” of the same outcast ilk. Cantankerous and bossy, Meena is nonetheless a much loved, protective den mother. But her “family” is constantly pressed for cash, while several hijiras (who are badly ill-informed about AIDS prevention strategies) risk or have already been infected with HIV.

Dicey circumstances take a turn for the worse when the clan travels 18 hours to Bopha, thinking they will be welcome at a “eunuch’s convention” that instead turns out to be a sacred gathering of hijira celibates. Latter violently rebuff their unclean counterparts; mortified, Meena blames the film crew for this humiliation, refusing further contact.

A year later, however, a chanced-upon BBC report finds that resourceful Meena and her surviving “daughters” have found a surprising, respectable new place in society: Their superstitious sway over the lower echelons has rendered them ideal government tax collectors.

Native and Western academics fill in the contextual gaps for offshore auds, making useful comparisons between the gender-identity constructs of different cultures. Flavorsome package vividly captures Bombay slum life, neither neglecting nor overemphasizing the bawdy, drag-queenish flamboyance hijiras bring to its mix (despite frequent police harassment). Some frank sexual talk may require trimming by pubcasters.

Bombay Eunuch

Production

A Gidalya Pictures production. Produced by Alexandra Shiva, Sean MacDonald. Co-producer, Penelope Falk. Directed by Alexandra Shiva, Sean MacDonald, Michelle Gucovsky.

Crew

Camera (color, HD video), Ajay Noronha, Bimal Biswas; editor, Penelope Falk; music, John M. Davis; sound, Resul Pookutty. Reviewed on videocassette, San Francisco, June 12, 2001. (In San Francisco Lesbian & Gay Film Festival.) Running time: 71 MIN.
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