Intersections: Gender and Sexuality in Asia and the Pacific
Issue 22, October 2009

Outside the Frame:
The Representation of the Hijra in Bollywood Cinema

Sonali Pattnaik

  1. Walking the streets of Bombay one can't miss the hijra (a transsexual, transgender or intersexed person), who is ubiquitous and simultaneously invisible. S/he navigates the public space with a brazenness that belongs to the masculine domain and yet conducts her/himself with a simultaneous grace and coy femininity which may erupt into a threat of exposure if denied alms or repudiated. Despite its presence/absence on the streets the hijra community finds very little articulation anywhere and least of all in popular culture, a space that urban India embraces, desires and shares a critical relationship with, in its self-fashioning. Popular Hindi cinema, with whose representation of the hijra or lack thereof, I am primarily concerned in this paper, constructs the hijra identity through abjection, ridicule and erasure. The transgender is a shadow in the margins of hetero-patriarchal narratives of Bollywood films, is a source of comic relief or more often lumped along with all sexual 'deviants' such as the gay, the effeminate or the cross-dresser. The hijra identity and body is produced through the cross-currents of hetero-patriarchal power relations and appears to be a troubled and abject body drawn primarily within the framework of the horrific or the comic. I will analyse two cinematic representations of the hijra, in the films Sadak (1991) and Tamanna (1997) directed by Mahesh Bhatt and the latter co-written with Tanuja Chandra, to explore the power relations that operate in the construction of the very materiality of the sexed body and elaborate on how such an understanding can help in re-orienting theorisation about sex and gender in the light of an unstable, dynamic and fluid body.[1]
  2. As Judith Butler's arguments in Bodies that Matter, make apparent a 'restoration' of the materiality of the feminine body as opposed to masculine transcendentalism may be to commit a sanctioned erasure of those bodies that resist any such categorisation, besides leaving the coercive dimorphism of sexuality undisturbed. The acceptance of ' the category of sex' as a given and natural site upon which gender is 'inscribed' would entail a self-limiting strategy forcing ourselves to thinking along the lines drawn by the binaries of patriarchal ideology rather than opening them up to embrace greater complexity in questions about body, self and identity.[2] Clearly the hijra body is not one that can be understood by formulations in Western scholarship about the transgendered body as, although it shares many of the threats and problems posed by transgendered bodies to the so-called stability of the heterosexual matrix, it also demands understanding in ways that are specific to the Indian market economy and constructions of public and private domains. In the paper, I seek, not to entreat with the subject of discourse to include the body of the hijra as a third-sex, but to engage with sexed bodies and identities through the hijra who forms the limits of some of the discourses that construct the normative human body, as the 'outside' which the discourse of heterosexuality relies on to stabilise its own truth claim. Primarily I seek to explore the specific manner in which the sexed body of the hijra is forged through popular representation, in order to identify moments of resistance at the very site of instantiation.
  3. The hijra body, by virtue of being outside the law does not necessarily escape the surveillance of the law but rather is produced as that unthinkable body that makes the seemingly normal body desirable and worthy of being protected. Since the law is not only prior to the coming in of the subject but rather gains its authority as it subjects the being to its power it must be analysed as it appears at those very moments of subjectivisation. It is here that Butler's theory of performativity as a routinisation of gestures and practices that constitute the naturalness of the sexed body may help.[3] If one accepts the body to be a surface upon which the inscription of power may be performed as Foucault understands it, then his own theorisation of power as being productive is defeated and a search for a body outside the ambit of power is encouraged.[4] This fallacy of theorising the body as a tabula rasa concedes to the desire for a primal body which is untutored in the speech of sex. The body then must be rethought as a process of materialisation than a surface. As Butler writes, clarifying her position on construction, it is 'a return to the notion of matter, not as a site or surface, but as a process of materialization that stabilizes over time to produce the effect of a boundary, fixity, and surface we call matter.'[5]
  4. The term 'hijra,' commonly signifying eunuch, actually has materialised in time to mean various things. It is something of an umbrella term that refers to eunuchs or men who have emasculated themselves, intersexed people, men and women with genital malfunction, hermaphrodites, persons with indeterminate sex organs, impotent men, male homosexuals and even effeminate men who are seen as hijra imposters by many. This immediately raises a question about collective identity and classification. While in the discourse of normative heterosexuality the masculine body may not pose a problem of classification, 'hijra' as a term is easily recognised as anything other than normative masculinity. The term 'hijra' is derived from the Arabic 'ijara' meaning eunuch or castrated man. However, as is apparent in common parlance, the term is not limited to signifying transgenders, rather it is stretched to incorporate anyone that cannot be assimilated into mainstream masculinity.[6] This raises a significant issue about the classification of maleness which insidiously blurs all distinctions between body, sex, gender and sexuality in order to create a simulacrum of ideal, undisturbed continuity between such disparate areas to reveal the male/masculine body as a natural manifestation of sex. It is with this myth of masculinity in hand that I will examine the representation of the hijra in these two popular films from the 1990s to unpack the politics of performativity (routinisation of habits, gestures and practices) and performance in the construction of the sexed body.
  5. The film Sadak produced the hijra in the character of Maharani through a heterosexual frame that, to borrow Madhav Prasad's description of 'frontality,' relied upon the audience's ability to align the authority of the symbolic order with the frame of representation that sets it up.[7] A contractual link establishes a continuity between audience and the order of things within the digetic narrative, thus encouraging identification and repudiation accordingly. The character of Maharani is introduced through partial shots that focus on her feet, hips, back and a sudden intrusion of the face through a troubling device of dis-identification, a mirror. The gaze is that of the young, vulnerable heroine of the film, Mahesh Bhatt's daughter Pooja Bhatt (whose sense of innocence and vulnerability is heightened by her off-screen identity as a new-comer into the industry) who has been brought to the adda of the eunuch pimp without her knowledge. Maharani is seen dressing up—an act (the first shot is of her nails being painted) which is de-naturalised by the gaze of the 'natural' woman who apparently does not need to do her body in a feminine manner. It is of course another matter that Bhatt's body is available to us through the male gaze, surrounded by mist, wearing white with a little skin showing holding caged birds that she wants to keep that way. While the woman is a creature of male fantasy, the hijra is a creature of male repudiation and female fear, as an exaggerated, parodic reflection of her own self. Judith Butler reminds us, while discussing the work of anthropologist Esther Newton, that drag denaturalises gender as it troubles the relation or fiction of surface and interiority. Is the hijra's body (internal) male and h/er enactment (external) female? Or is her (bodily) appearance female and (internal) identity masculine? Is the body the essence or the external appearance in gendered identity?[8]
  6. Interestingly the hijra seems to embody the lascivious male gaze, as do most villains in Bollywood films, desiring the woman not for herself but through a mode of jealousy which invokes from her introductory comments about her ambivalent sex. She assures the frightened Pooja Bhatt saying 'main kuch nahin karoongi. Main kuch kar hi nahin sakti kyunki main adha mard hun adha aurat. Mere pas kuch nahin hain…agar kuch hai to sirf dimag…isiliye main mardon ki seva karti hoon' (I won't harm/do you. I cannot harm/do anything because I am neither man nor woman. I don't have anything…the only thing that I have is mind…that is why I serve men. The implication here is that hijras do not seem to have a choice in entering the world of prostitution. But beyond this the film does not provide any real understanding of the economic and financial constraints of the community as it exists in the domain of heterosexual norms, an aspect I discuss at a later juncture in the essay. That the politics of a stable and coherent gender identity are drawn from fabrications that insist on a linear relationship between sex, gender and desire are apparent as the film seeks to construct the hijra's identity as abject for not adhering to this relationship. The hijra's desire to 'serve' men has sexual connotations which are contradicted by the earlier statement, 'I cannot do anything.' Since a hijra's sexuality (bisexual, gay or heterosexual) does not 'naturally' emerge from h/er sex, the film struggles to categorise it and chooses to depict it as ambivalent and unnatural.
  7. Not only is Maharani's hijra status seen as the root of her perverse desire to serve men (presumably through means other than sexual) by pimping women, but her villainy is inscribed on her body rather than the social matrix that encourages the trafficking of women. H/er identity is also simultaneously reduced to her body and made empty of body as she herself admits to having nothing but mind. H/er cunning seems to be a byproduct of h/er 'dysfunctional' sexuality. Both s/he and another effeminate man are shown to be physically powerful, literally enacting a persistent superstition in India about the superhuman strength of hijras, and trapped in penis envy. When the male pimp (who is on the hero's side) threatens to 'say' boloon kya tu kya hai? the unspeakable identity of the hijra, Maharani deals him a powerful kick in the groin adding, 'hum log mard nahin lekin paanch mardon ki taakat hai isme' (we may not be men but we possess the strength of five). The identity and power of the hijra is seen to arise from h/er disembodied status which makes h/er a capricious business person, as the repetition of the term 'dhanda' (trade) in h/er rhetoric makes visible and explains h/er desire to indulge in voyeuristic heterosexual pleasure. H/er perverse enjoyment, exaggerated gestures (s/he is seen coyly chewing at h/er 'unnaturally' long hair and shaving h/er beard at separate moments) and ferocity are framed within the order of heterosexual love fulfilled by the earnest, macho hero and the virginal, child-like heroine who seem to carry out their respective roles to the hilt without a glimpse of the processes of 'doing' their bodies in that way.
  8. The point is that such a relationship appears natural because of the dominant order of the film that encourages an identification with the norm, relying on the sexually parodic status of the hijra to frame the desirability of the 'naturally' masculine and feminine figures. The depiction of the song 'jab jab pyar pe' exhibits this technique fully. While Sanjay Dutt occupies the public space gazing at his lover from outside, Pooja Bhatt is shown framed by a window which is adjacent to another window that frames the calculating Sadashiv Amprapurkar (Maharani), while both are framed by the final window of the lens. The boundaries are clear; the process of exclusion mystified as one of good versus evil, real versus fake. The song celebrates the victory of heterosexual love over the laws of society and the hijra who is actually de-produced by the regulatory mechanism of sex, in an ironic reversal becomes the regulator (jab jab pyar pe pehera hua hai—whenever love has been regulated) of the free sexuality of the heterosexual couple. Far from being the powerful controllers of the business of prostitution, the hijra community of India lives a shunned and ghettoised existence, earning their living from alms and performances at household ritual ceremonies. While many are coerced into the flesh trade by a culture that painfully, ironically constructs their identities as sexless and only capable of sexual labour, they're regularly beaten, raped and harassed by the police and customers.[9]
  9. In the film Tamanna however, Bhatt seems to re-orient some of the stereotypical representations of the community, including his own extremely disparaging and disturbing portrayal of the hijra as pimp-villian in the form of Maharani. The opening shot of the film is a close-up of Paresh Rawal, the actor who plays Tikku the hijra, which broadens to take into the frame the edge of a covered corpse of his dead mother. We catch Tikku howling in pain, unable to wrench himself free from his mother's body, unable to let h/er go. Significantly the very first depiction is one that portrays an extremely emotional being, almost feminine in his mourning, within a conventional gendering of emotional display which is highlighted by Salim's strict admonition that he must learn to let go. Salim, throughout the film, plays the role of a confidante, a supportive partner and between him, Tikku, his nephew and Tikku's adopted daughter Tamanna, they form an alternative family structure that is loving and egalitarian as opposed to the other family to which we are witness, that of Tamanna's biological family, a normative hetero-patriarchal set-up which is hierarchical and oppressive. Tikku remains an emotional being throughout, h/er strong desire and love for h/er mother replaced almost immediately after her death by the abandoned girl s/he finds on the streets. While Maharani defines herself though lack and ineptness, Tikku displays amazing courage and emotional strength in bringing up the child almost single-handedly, sheltering her from pain and abuse despite living on the streets of Bombay. Hijras are popularly chided for being unable to perform male or female functions—an argument that only foregrounds the non-existence of a sex, distinguished from its effects, that is, from sexuality and social/sexual functions. The hijra here occupies sexual/social functions of both the genders and carries them out successfully which allows the hijra body to be rewritten as well as to resignify those very roles and functions that serve to divide gender on dimorphic lines. Motherhood is no longer signified by a female body. Rather, the appropriation of motherhood by the hijra rewrites the female and the hijra identity by dislocating the sex from its naturalised social/sexual function.
  10. Here it is significant to note that Tikku does not enagage in the traditional practice of dancing and begging for alms and is at pains to hide his hijra identity from his daughter. Problematically the film uses this strategy to distinguish Tikku from the community in order to render him a hero/heroine. H/er peculiar relation to the hijra community is disturbing to say the least. S/he is taunted by them and treated as an outcaste. While such a form of discrimination exists within the hijra community against transvestites, it is evident from some of the dialogues that Tikku is not a transvestite but a trans-gendered person. For instance s/he states that 'hijre bacche nahin paida kar sakte' (eunuchs can't have children), an indication of a lack of reproductive genitalia. S/he expresses discomfort at the idea of having to dance and dress up as a woman and takes recourse to that practice only out of desperation. Unlike Maharani who is brazenly vain and 'feminine' in h/er behaviour, Tikku is subtly ambivalent. If the two films are viewed in comparison, cross-dressing and the economic activities of the hijra community (prostitution, cross-dressing and performance of sexual ambivalence through parody) stands derided while a closeted hijra identity and an emotional masculinity stand privileged. The narrative accords Tikku with dignity for the choices s/he makes which are distinctly different from the choices made by the hijra community to suggest that there is greater viability in the kind of humanness that this hijra demonstrates as opposed to others of h/er community. While it is untrue that other hijras do not have alternative and supportive family systems, this dangerous privileging of Tikku's choices is at the cost of undervaluing the lack of choice in the lives of most hijras regarding their sources of income. It also negates the form of resistance and resignification that is built into the very idea of sexual parody, which foreground the fact that the very nature of sex is repetitive imitation that reifies into 'truth.'
  11. The business of showing is course, very literally the business of the hijras of India. Most hijra communities are an urban phenomenon and as Arvind Narain reminds us, their choices are limited to sex work and begging for alms (which can also take the form of forceful extortion).[10] Most hijras are relegated to a ghettoised existence (from which they often derive power) and the accepted form of work for them is performing at weddings, the birth of male children or simply in public spaces where they beg/demand/extort money from the audience. 'Performing' here includes exaggerated and parodic feminine behaviour interspersed with gestures that distinguish their gestures from 'regular' feminine behaviour. Serena Nanda describes a dancer at such a performance as twirling in 'a grotesque, sexually suggestive parody of feminine behaviour, which caused all of the older ladies to laugh loudly.'[11] The hijra body it appears can insert itself in the public space and into the economy of the society if it performs its body as unnatural and excessive. Choosing and claiming reflect an autonomous status but if, as in the case of the hijra, that very autonomy of the body is produced by the constraints of the market and categories of heterosexuality then the limitations of autonomy must be accepted. This excess also reveals the hierarchisation of the labour market as always already producing bodies as capable/male/masculine, exploitable/female/feminine or superfluous/transgender/unintelligible. Ironically their ambivalent sex makes them apt for nothing but 'sex.'
  12. In the need for resurrecting the economic viability of the hijra, the film Tamanna repudiates the existing economic and social choices made by the hijra community. The choice of parodying feminity through performance, which threatens stable gender dimorphism, is constructed as horrific by Bhatt in Sadak and unacceptable for Tikku—a discomfort which allows for the salvaging of human dignity. In fact the heroic hijra is cast as more viable precisely through the negation of the parodying hijra who is presented as excessive and unnatural and therefore a threat to the norms of heterosexuality. Another tangent to the heroism of Tikku is the re-location of masculinity. When his daughter shuns him after the discovery of his hijra status, Salim who has been a constant source of love and support to Tikku, chastises her with the statement 'agar ye hijra hai to lanat hai duniya ke tamam mardon par' (if he is a hijra then shame on all the men of this world). Being hijra has little to do with a sexually deviant body or homosexual desire here. It is defined very clearly as a state of emasculation, which is the popular linguistic inference of the term. The film reminds us and re-opens the troubled closet of masculinity to redefine its norms through choices and acts as opposed to sexuality. It is Tikku's survival skills, h/er strength as a guardian that is celebrated as heroic, the terms of which are borrowed from the discourse of traditional masculine heroism, thus redefining its boundaries to include the trans-gender person.
  13. Both films construct the hijra identity alongside and in contestation of hetero-patriarchal power relations. But while Sadak recounts and reaffirms conventional codes of gender identity, the portrayal of the more-human-than-other-humans hijra, albeit takes recourse to a dangerous liberal humanist politics of justification of the hijra's existence, and none-the-less offers a radical displacement of masculinity and feminity in the process. Both films can be read as producing a hijra identity in excess of the heterosexual law that wields its power through the police, through laws, market economy and social institutions such as marriage and family, making them resisting figures, who show through their un-abiding bodies, that the body is always in excess of the discourse that produces it. From such a critical standpoint the hijra body as represented by the two films not only defies categorisation but points to the very limits of heterosexual categorisation demanding the need for restructuring identity politics so as to consider the complexity and heterogeneity of processes of construction. They shatter the outlines of the frame by disrupting the fabricated link between sex, gender and sexuality. Their bodies, both inside and outside of the (heterosexual) frame and compel us to rethink the materiality of the body itself as a process of becoming and a matter of cultural and historical production and reproduction, open to re-inscription.


    [1] Sadak,1991, dir. Mahesh Bhatt, cast: Sadashiv Amrapurkar, Pooja Bhatt, Sanjay Dutt; Tamanna, 1997, dir. Mahesh Bhatt, story and screenplay: Mahesh Bhatt and Tanuja Chandra, cast: Paresh Rawal, Pooja Bhatt, Manoj Bajpai, Sharad Kapoor.

    [2] Judith Butler, Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits of 'Sex', New York: Routledge, 1993, pp. 2–12.

    [3] Judith Butler, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity, New York: Routledge, 1990, pp. 134–41. The essay relies on Butler's elaboration of the materialisation of the body and its sex as a point of departure to interrogate the hijra as sexed subject. I have deployed the idea of performativity of gender which Butler considers to be like a masquerade, a repetitive 'doing' of one's gender without taking recourse to a simplistic subject before its gender, to analyse the 'doing' of femininity and masculinity in the representation of the hijra body and subjectivity in the films in question.

    [4] Michel, Foucault, The Will to Knowledge: The History of Sexuality Vol. 1, trans. Robert Hurley, London: Penguin, 1978.

    [5] Butler, Bodies That Matter, p. 8.

    [6] Sabrina Sawhney, 'Feminism and hybridity,' in Surfaces, vol. vii, no. 113 (June, 1997): pp. 2–12, p. 5, online:, accessed 7 July 2004.

    [7] Susie Tharu, 'Citizenship and its discontents,' in A Question of Silence? The Sexual Economies of Modern India, ed. Mary E. John and Janaki Nair, New Delhi: Kali for Women, 1998, pp. 220–21.

    [8] Butler, Gender Trouble, p. 186.

    [9] Arvind Narain, 'Human Rights Violations against the Transgender Community: A PUCL Report,' in People's Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL), January 2004, online:, pp. 23–24, accessed: 27 April 2008.

    [10] Narain, 'Human Rights Violations against the Transgender Community,' pp. 23–24.

    [11] Serena Nanda, Neither Man nor Woman, the Hijras of India, Belmont, CA: California UP, 1990.

Intersections acknowledges the assistance of the Gender Relations Centre, Research School of Pacific and Asian Studies, College of Asia and the Pacific, Australian National University in the hosting of this site.
© Copyright
Page constructed by Carolyn Brewer.
Last modified: 19 October 2009 1351

This page has been optimised for 1024x768
and is best viewed in either Netscape 2 or above, or Explorer 2 or above.