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iIl trouble

She’s a self-styled ‘actress-activist’ but PRITHAM CHAKRAVARTHY reassures us we still only know the half of it. Words: Ellie Carr

magine being so unhappy with your gender that you are willing to have your genitals removed with a pair of barber’s scissors and no anaesthetic to blunt the terrible. searing pain. Such is the plight of India’s hijiras or eunuchs a once sacred sub-group of society who were both cherished and feared for their ‘powers' to bless and curse. Colonisation changed all this. stripping them of their religious role and forcing them and the ritual castration that defines them underground.

Today there are an estimated 200.000 (although some put numbers at as high as 1.5m) Indian hijiras living apart as an uncategorisable ‘third sex’ in casteless, matriarchal communities. Now outcasts, they are increasingly forced to eke out their living as prostitutes or beggars. More recently their status as objects of ridicule and loathing has been enshrined by debt collection agencies

‘I don’t see why I should be

seen as a legal right in India.‘ she says. ‘But as I take it up only for my theatre work. I won’t actually be arrested.’

Now Chakravarthy’s show will be performed outside India for the first time. It is unlikely she will be viewed as dangerous here but she is wary of being misconstrued. No one who actually sees the show is likely to do that but. rather embarrassingly. Chakravarthy has already encountered Westem-style press intrusion from those who have not. ‘Most of the interviews that took place for this Festival. the interviewer at one point or another looked at me as the pointer to groups of hijiras. I refused of course. The call was sometimes subtle. sometimes direct. only now I can see it coming and rush in with my “no".‘

It is impossible not to view Chakravarthy and her work from a western perspective. but she refutes any tendency to do so. She will not allow a line to be drawn between her theatre and campaigning activities describing herself as an ‘actress-activist’ and

t\l1v1ho sehnd thekrjn ttp1 visit Viewed as {gt/fuses to be alloilgned Iwith ose w owou ra er pay estern p rosop res, up than be treated to a dangerous howeverfarthey may reach.

glimpse of what lies beneath a hijira’s sari.

It is precisely this kind of ignorance that Indian actress and political activist Pritharn Chakravarthy is keen to dispel. Growing up in southern India‘s Tamil Nadu region she was taught to fear hijiras. But when she encountered them in later life she found herself deeply moved by their situation. She began to accept them not as freaks but as ‘women trapped in men’s bodies’.

And after spending time listening to their stories, she was determined that others should be allowed to do the same: ‘I wanted to communicate the pain involved in being a hijira and the incredible pride they take in being female.‘

The resulting one-woman show is graphic in content the incident with the barber’s scissors is relayed in full and makes no allowances for those of genteel sensibilities. ‘It is shocking.’ concedes Chakravarthy. ‘therefore people either become extremely defensive or extremely supportive. Yet it never leaves anyone who watches it with no reaction.’

And while controversy is inevitable given polite Indian society‘s views on both sexual issues and women, Chakravarthy also flouts the law simply by performing her show. ‘What I do is illegal in the sense that transgendering is not


24 THE “81' 18 Jul—1 Aug 2002

anywhere in the world, let alone

‘Western schools of thought such as feminism cannot be translated verbatim in a third world like India.’ she says. ‘Yes. I am educated in all of them but I follow my own instinct of what seems right to me.’

As a seasoned anti-war campaigner Chakravath is used to the kind of mass protesting that can begin to affect change. I wonder. then. if she believes she can catalyse change for the hijiras armed with nothing more than a one-woman show? ‘Individual life experiences get neglected in the reading of a nation‘s history.’ she believes. ‘This form of autobiographical narrative took shape with the Afro- Amencans first and we have been trying it out in India from 1998 in order to give shape to a theatrical fonn of voicing silence. This is an attempt to get people to listen first. Change will happen in its own time.‘

Pritham Chakravarthy, The Hub, 473 2000, 10.30pm, 14-16 August, £4.

East is west

Now even Hollywood has gone Bollywood. The result is THE GURU. Words: Maureen Ellis

mitabh Bachchan will turn in his retirement A home divan. India's king of cinema. and star

of 1975 blockbuster Deewar, strongly supports the iiberalisation of Bollywood cinema. arguing that without globalisation and modernisation. Indian cinema cannot reach its potential. The Guru probably isn't what he had in mind.

Hollywood's first mainstream Bollywood movie follows the fortunes of young Indian dance instructor Rama Gupta (East is East‘s Jimi Mistry) who leaves Delhi for New York in search of fame and fortune. Following an embarrassing adult film audition, in which he fails to rise to Heather Graham's occasion. Gupta adopts her spiritual words of wisdom and reinvents himself as a tantric yoga sexpert.

For an industry in which screen kissing is still seen as taboo. and soundtrack songs have been banned from radio and television for suggestive lyrics (including Kha/nayak's erotically charged ‘Choli Ke Peeche?’ or ‘What's Behind that Blouse?') the transfer of ideas from East to West is fraught with tension. Nevertheless. sex sells. so any Hollywood take on the Bollywood genre was always going to be saturated with the stuff. The naive Gupta to Graham's porn star Sharonna heightens tensions and reinforces the East-West cultural divide.

Initially titled The Guru of Sex, the strong sexual themes are tempered with Bollywood parallels to keep traditionalists happy. A sense of escapism and romance is inherent. and. like any good Bollywood blockbuster. a happy ending is de rigueur. And it couldn't lay claim to the Bollywood genre without eye-poppineg decadent musical numbers. Mistry leads the cast in four colourful song and dance extravaganzas. camping it up to sing a Hindi version of the Grease soundtrack. If Mou/r‘n Rouge reinvented the musical, then 7779 Guru is injecting spice and sprinkling on even more kitsch eye candy.

When Bollywood and Hollywood collide in Edinburgh at the film's premiere. the impact might not be as explosive as expected. Admittedly there's a fair bit of sex to stir up controversy and it should be a vibrant visual spectacle, but the moral highground beloved of both camps reeks of sentimentality. Should Gupta choose fame and wealth or love and integrity? Yeeuch. (Maureen Ellis)

The Guru, UGC, Sat 17 Aug, 8.30pm; Cameo, Wed 21 Aug, 5.30pm, £7.50 (£4.50). 623 8030.

O Jiml Mistry and Heather Graham 90 east