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Life as a Member of India's Third Gender Is a Blessing and a Curse

We spoke to filmmaker Tabs Breese, who spent three years with the hijra community in India to learn more about why living as a member of the country's officially recognized third gender is a unique—and uniquely difficult—experience.

by Lucy Draper
Feb 25 2016, 6:00pm

Purushi looks at herself in the mirror. All photos by Sindhuja Parthasarathy

"I didn't tell my family about all of this," says Purushi. "I didn't tell them about wanting to grow my hair or wear a sari." The 27-year-old Indian trans sex worker is one of the three stars of The Third Half, a new documentary which focuses on the hijra community in India. Now touring the international film festival circuit, it has drawn praise from LGBT celebrities like Stephen Fry.

Tabs Breese, a 27-year-old filmmaker from London, spent three years filming with hijra women in India to document their experience of being trans in a changing political landscape. In April 2014, the country's Supreme Court announced that transgender people would officially be recognised as a 'third gender,' a hugely significant moment for the community. But while this decision was a major turning point in theory, it remains to be seen what lasting effect it will have on the lives of transgender people in India.

Broadly: When did you decide you wanted to make this film?
Because my stepdad is from Karachi, I spent a lot of time in South Asia growing up, so I had been aware of the hijra for a long time. After university I worked in Delhi for three months and one of the people I was living with told me about Laxmi Narayan Tripathi—a very outspoken transgender activist, which got me thinking that I'd like to make a film about transgender people.

How did you find the characters?
The hijra are a really closed community, for good reason, so it's really hard to gain access. I had help from a mixture of NGOs, grassroots organizations and some really great charities. At first people were pretty wary. Journalists have tried to cover this subject before. In some ways the hijra community is seen as being problematic by a lot of Indians and the mainstream media don't necessarily do a lot to help with that perception.

So how did you eventually choose these three characters?
It was tricky... But when I first met Purushi, I just knew when I saw her. She was just incredibly still in this sea of laughing, shouting, dancing transgender women. She's just incredibly poised and still is one of the most dignified people that I know. All three of the [leads] are friends and they had a really sweet friendship It was really fun to shoot with them—the whole crew were in our mid to late 20s and so were our characters and it was great to film with people our age.

The crew on location for the documentary. All photos by Sindhuja Parthasarathy

Were the women open to you from the start?
No, it was definitely a process. I think showing that we were in it for the long haul really helped. We expressed interest in their families and personal lives, possibly in a way people hadn't before. We would just sit around with them for hours drinking tea and speaking to their grandmas or boyfriends. We went back so often that I know they wondered, "Why are these people so interested in us?" And they were also curious about us, many of them haven't traveled further than Bombay.

Did the Supreme Court ruling have a marked effect on the narrative of the film?
The ruling was announced when we were two weeks into our casting phase. As far as I know we were the only Western camera crew out there at that time filming the reaction of the community. It went from being quite a sociological documentary to being a lot more newsy and political than I had first imagined. Which is still not necessarily what I want from it, because I still think the most important thing is to tell the stories of these people.

So the women believed that the ruling was going to lead to a real change in their lives?
I think so, that's why they were so excited. They felt like they were being officially recognized and they'd be seen as their own people.

In theory the law meant there would be quota for jobs and college places for hijra, but what was it like in reality?
In practice, it's a lot harder. Purushi's tried working in a factory for instance, but she got bullied out.

Photo by Sindhuja Parthasarathy

So they're still not being accepted?
Yes, but that's a problem not just in India but all over the world. What's unique about India is that transgender [people] occupy this really special, historical space. At one point in the [epic work of Indian literature] Mahabharata, Krishna turns into the goddess Mohini and appears as half man, half woman. The whole idea of gender fluidity and gender identity spectrum in Hinduism is, in some ways, light years ahead of where we are. People aren't necessarily confused by transgender people in India—but they are still treated with a certain amount of fear and interest.

So the hijra don't face the kind of violence that transgender people in, for example, the US and Brazil, experience?
Unlike in these countries, the hijra are seen as holy in India. People believe that if you're cursed by a hijra they can make you infertile, but if they bless you, that blessing is second to none. You often see them at weddings where they dance and sing, but people believe that if you don't pay them, then they'll be cursed. In some ways it's damaging to have this folklore around them. There's a religious element to them there isn't in other countries, but the problem they face are problems that transgender people face all over the world.

Pratiksha, one of the trans women in the film. Photo by Sindhuja Parthasarathy

Could you argue that while the new law recognises the hijra, it also ghettoizes them?
When we spoke to Revathi Amma, an activist who started the Samara NGO about the ruling, she discussed this problem. She basically said, "How many more bathrooms can the government build? What happens if we just want to be women? What if we don't want to be this third sex?" Some transgender people just want to be women, some just want to be a hijra—so it's hard having to define themselves in this set way.

Did you encounter any problems while filming?
There was a time when we were filming at the train station in Bangalore. There were people openly doing sex work there and we were filming with a doctor who had introduced me to a woman who hands out condoms, so we were filming with her. A transgender women came up to me. She was towering over me and basically said 'Why are you here? Go home. What's your film ever going to do for us? Is it going to put food on my table?'

How did you respond?
I just said I'd try to make sure as many people as possible saw the film and that's all I can do. It definitely made me think about what I was doing and why I was doing it.

Are you going to stay in touch with the women now that the film is finished?
Of course, but it's hard to know how to not cross the line. Last time I was there we went to Purushi's favorite bar with her, where she goes before she does sex work. She was drinking this wine that tasted like Calpol [medicine] and petrol, and we were sitting around chatting and drinking. But afterwards it made me feel weird that I had bought her these drinks before she was going to do sex work. I know there's a line and I thought maybe I had crossed it that night from filmmaker to friend, and I don't know whether that's right or wrong.