Fair choice

Slickly edited Our Family documents the journey of three generations of transgender female subjects as they discover their sexual identities and blur the line between themselves and what is seen as normal social behaviour, writes Shoma A. Chatterji

SET in Tamil Nadu, Our Family is a different kind of documentary film that for the first time perhaps puts across a powerful statement on alternative sexuality and on new forms of family.

Our Family explores how all identities are fraught with equations of power
Our Family explores how all identities are fraught
with equations of power

With a running time of 56 minutes with sub-titles in English, the film raises questions. "We decided to make the film when we met Aasha through our friend Pritham K. Chakravarthy, a transgendered subject, who does a one-person performance called Nirvanam (liberation). We wanted to do it as a collaborative project, not one that dictated terms to them," says Anjali Monteiro, who has jointly directed the film with her husband Jayasankar.

The film, through the point-of-view and first-person narrations of three generations of transgendered female subjects, unravels the strange story of how these people have knit themselves together into one family.

Aasha, Seetha and Dhana are bound together by ties of adoption. They belong to the Aravani community called ‘hijras’ in some parts of the country. But these three women are not biologically born as eunuchs. They opt to get out of their male bodies because "we are females trapped within the male bodies," says Pritham, who enacts the experiences of having been gang-raped, having turned into a prostitute to make both ends meet, and finally, to come and settle down in Chennai with a one-woman performance called Nirvana.

Though she is one of the ‘family’ for some intriguing reason, they consider her the only ‘outsider’ and one is not clear why they qualify her like this. Her facial expressions bear the pain of her life, but one can see through the surface pain, the pride that comes across for having been able to make one of the most difficult choices an Indian can make — the right to choose her sex and leave the biological fact of her sex behind her forever.

Asha Bharathi is the ‘grandmother’ of the family. She is also president of the Tamil Nadu Aravnigal Association of Chennai. Seetha, the ‘daughter’ lived with her male partner Selvam in Coimbatore. But sadly, Selvam passed away before the film was publicly screened. He was a young man who understood the needs of his partner completely and did not come in the way of her choices.

Dhana, the youngest, is the adopted daughter of Seetha but her own family has also accepted her choice. So she keeps shuttling between her natural parents and her adoptive one.

The film documents their journey as they discover their sexual identities and progressively blur the lines between themselves and what is seen and interpreted as normal social behaviour.

"They become a regular family. So the woman Seetha does the cooking. She does assert herself but in trying to do so she asserts her womanly identity even more, one of the things that struck us was that they were normal but in trying to be normal they had to play out the politics of being normal in some sense," said KP Jayasankar.

"The local residents have accepted Seetha as one of them. We had a good rapport with them, so when we shot in public spaces there were no issues," says Jayasankar, who along with Montero has made 30-odd documentaries that tackle very unusual social issues.

Our Family is produced by the Centre for Media and Cultural Studies, Tata Institute of Social Sciences. Jointly, this husband-and-wife pair has won 13 national and international awards for their films. "This film has been very special because it deals with a marginalised, socially oppressed and humiliated community. We wanted to discover for ourselves and consequently for the audience, what it means to cross the gender divide, to be free of being ‘male’ just because the biologically determined birth has decided that one is ‘male.’

"We wanted to make a film which would question the way people look at the hijras. We wanted to look at the human rights violation, the stigmas and also look at the warmth and celebratory aspect of it," says Monteiro. Our Family has been made as a collaborative project with the subjects, giving them the space to voice their concerns and reflect on the process of becoming an Aravani. It has been made on a shoestring budget.

"We regard the film as a useful device in their struggle to question social stigma and advocate for the rights of Aravanis in Tamil Nadu," say the directors. The film attempts to bring this offbeat family into the mainstream and make it socially acceptable, throwing up how despite the apparent lack of a power base, the same hierarchy of power that ails patriarchy sustains. The film also explores how all identities are fraught with equations of power. The film has been edited slickly. It takes the viewer to the noted Pal Utru Vizha or the 40th day celebration of Nirvanam, with graphics detailing the meanings of the alternate terms. The film closes on the discussion that boils down to an a fervent appeal from this family and the community they belong to, to look upon them as normal human beings with normal desires and not as genetic freaks.

The camera designedly avoids a voyeuristic gaze and uses ‘their’ stories to raise questions about ‘us’ and our sexualities. The four women, question the straitjacketed sexual identities and preferences society has thrust on its unquestioning masses. Anjalie and Jayasankar have tried to familiarise the unfamiliar, familiarising the unfamiliar: the ‘normality’ of the lives of Aasha, Seetha, Selvam and Dhana question the futility of trying to straitjacket sexual identities and preferences. Our Family subverts all ideas of the family whether they are patriarchal, biological or heterosexual, to give it new dimensions and dynamics.