Repping best view to date into the world of the Indian eunuch, “Between the Lines: India’s Third Gender” may not answer all the questions it poses, but helmer Thomas Wartmann provides an intimate glimpse at a community whose members are considered pariahs and conduits of supernatural force. Following shutterbug Anita Khemka in her quest to discover why these castrated men fascinate and repel, docu concentrates on three personalities and uses them as guides to their highly stratified world. Under its nautch skirts, film has strong enough legs to step out into international arthouses.
How the men became “hijras” isn’t much explored: Some were voluntarily castrated, others were forcibly mutilated. Khemka’s fascination stems from childhood and her early unease with these outcasts, whose blessings were sought and curses feared. Her aim to discover why men hire these transsexuals as prostitutes is never answered.
Khemka first encounters Asha walking along a Mumbai beach. Full of attitude and vitriol, Asha begs in exchange for blessings, threatening to reveal her disfigured privates if her palm is left empty. Khemka manages to get on her better side, and down-and-out Asha promises to give her an inside view into the community.
More engaged with life is Rambha, 18, who’s feminine enough to pass as a girl, though she has no illusions that her world contains permeable borders. Rambha lives in a run-down temple with a community of hijras, all arranged in a strict hierarchy that recalls the “houses” in “Paris Is Burning.”
The strongest of Khemka’s interviewees is Laxmi, extremely tall with a Brahmin’s bearing and education. More self-aware than the others (“I love my identity”), as a noncastrated hijra, Laxmi leads a double life, teaching dance and living part of the time dressed as a man with his parents, and the other part as mother hen to a brood of younger hijras in their own home.
The lead-up to a castration ceremony is partly lensed and chillingly calm without feeling coy: a passing train at the moment the knife comes down is meant to elicit a chuckle of relief that the gruesome deed remains off camera. Though mostly shot in Mumbai, Khemka joins Rambha and Laxmi in their journey to the religious transsexual festivities in Koovagam (featured in “Nine Emotions”).
Wartmann captures Mumbai’s squalor as well as its beauty, with a subjective but balanced eye. Transfer from DV is crisp, and editing deftly weaves the three stories together.