Shunned Hijra: Film Exposes Transgender Life in South Asia

PHOTO: A new Bangladeshi film "Common Gender" exposes the underworld of south Asias transgender or hijra community.
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First-time director Noman Robin accidentally walked into a shockingly violent scene that propelled him into the movie making spotlight in his native Bangladesh -- and around the world.

Robin was at a mall as a hijra or transgender female was thrown first out of the men's room and then the ladies' room. As customers began screaming, security guards dragged her to the street and began beating her.

"What are you doing here?" shouted the guards. "I'm human! I need to go to the toilet," she replied.

Today, Robin's film, "Common Gender," exposes the shunned hijra -- transvestites, transgender and intersex -- who cling together in slums, rejected by their families and exploited by society that treats them as sub-human.

"The hijra was beaten in front of hundreds of people," said Robin. "She was just standing there, saying, 'What is my fault?' ... I am thinking, 'Oh my god, it's my duty to show this community."

The film has been a surprise hit in conservative and mostly Muslim Bangladesh. Robin sold it as a love story to draw people to the theaters to hear his message.

Sushmita, a hijra and outcast, falls in love with Sanjay, a Hindu boy. His parents refuse to accept his girlfriend and Sushmita kills herself.

Although she is a fictional character, Sushmita's story has struck a realistic chord, making cultural waves not only in Robin's native Bangladesh, but in India and soon, the United States.

It portrays the cruelty and discrimination that plagues those who are transvestite, intersex or transgender. The film's tag line is, "A man who exists between a man and a woman is also a human ... he is the best human!"

Filmed in the Bengali language and with no famous stars, it opened two weeks ago in just six local theaters, but because of its popularity will now go into general release. Mahi B. Choudhury, a former member of parliament and chair of ER Cinema, is producer of the film. This week he is on his way to New York to promote the film with American producers.

Robin, who is 27, straight and had previously worked on a television historical drama, said the toilet incident had horrified him into action.

So he began to explore the hijra enclaves and talk to people. "I heard their stories and went to some of them and asked about their personal lives and picked up some stories," said Robin. "I went deep into their story and cried. They can't be human like this -- how do they survive?"

Vidur Kapur, Gay Comic, Understands

Vidur Kapur,, an Indian-born gay stand-up comic who now lives with his partner in New York City, knows firsthand how South Asian society treats feminine men.

"I had a traumatic teenage in India," said Kapur, 45. "To be honest, I had transgender tendencies as a kid and actually wanted to be a girl. I wore makeup and acted outwardly feminine. I got harassed and bullied and threatened and shunned."

Kapur is one of the first out Asian comics in the business -- and the only gay South Asian. He travels the world and talks about cultural and sexual issues in his act.

"I am Indian, I am gay, I am f***ked," is one of his opening lines in a show he just taped for a Showtime special with Pauly Shore that will air this fall.

Kapur grew up in a privileged background. His father was an executive in a well-known multinational company and he even attended a top boarding school in Wales before going on to the London School of Economics.

Despite his background, Kapur said he could not discuss his sexuality with his parents.

"They were highly disapproving of me and the way I was growing up," he said. "I was really scared. They actually used the term, 'hijra.'"

Kapur said his behavior was "horrifying and humiliating" for his family. "They said, 'Oh my god, he's growing up to become hijra.' My grandmother used to say, 'Hey, hijra come here. I remember at some point she took me to the psychiatrist and gave me a chromosome test to see if I was a normal male."

As they drove home, a hijra crossed the street and a traumatized Kapur wept. "That's how badly they were looked on and the last thing anyone would want to become."

The hijra have no access to jobs and many become sex workers and prostitutes. "A lot of straight men go to them," said Kapur. "Indians, especially in the lower classes, have no access to women until they are married and sometimes it's their first sexual experience."

They demand money and dance at weddings. "You must give it to them and if you don't, it's bad luck. People pay them off quickly and get rid of them. But when a child is born, they come ask for money."

Kapur said he hopes Robin's film can help transform a culture that is homophobic, and now the hijra are beginning to fight back.

Pakistan's supreme court has issued a series of judgments in favor of hijras, according to the Guardian newspaper. And last October more than 1,000 hijras participated in government-sponsored demonstration to raise awareness of their rights.

In fact, film director Robin has said that some of the profits from "Common Gender" will go to help the hijra in Bangladesh. He hopes to buy land in the outskirts of Dhaka to build a graveyard for those who are transgender.

His next film, "Shohagi," follows the story of a 32-year-old autistic man who discovers his sexuality and a new world when he marries.

But today, Bangladesh theaters continue to show "Common Gender" to packed audiences. Robin said filmgoers have reacted positively, hugging hijras afterward, telling them how sorry they are that they have been treated so badly.

"They came out of the movie theaters crying, saying, 'What can we do?' They are human. We should love them," he said.

"Now the shopkeepers are calling them to give them money -- 'Take this and come to my home, take my dress,'" said Robin. "Before, they were the people who begged for money and food. Now the shopkeepers call the: 'Tell me your story. Who is your mother or father?'"

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