“Being Penny” Director Keith Rodway 2016
“Hijra- India’s Third Gender” Director Michael Yorke 1991. Electric Palace 21st January.
“Being Penny” follows on from “Becoming Penny” which recorded the journey of transgender Penny Panaji from male to female. Keith said that from the first moment, she was just Penny: neither male, female nor transgender. This directness and personal authenticity in the way she functions in the world is something which comes across very clearly in the film and is due to a complete lack of directorial egotism. This is not an intrusive, sensational film which claims to ‘uncover’, ‘tell the truth’ or any other attention seeking goals loved by current reality tv. Through the transparency of his craft, personal empathy and ethical sensitivity, Keith has enabled Penny to present her experience in her own terms. (The film has had Penny’s complete approval.) It opens with Penny talking about her motivation for having the operation: it felt fraudulent to present herself as a woman without it. She is manifestly happier, and a visit to Bucharest for the premier of the first film is a joyous time for her. It’s a tough time too, she is caring for her mother and despite having firm friends there’s an undercurrent of vulnerability, a sense of someone working things out on their own. The film seems tentative at times, but this is due to Keith’s refusal to press where information was not forthcoming. Whilst more confrontational films may have a role in making a political point, in an area where our conceptual framework and language for profoundly personal issues are in the making, it is good to see the subject being addressed with such delicacy of touch.
Michael Yorke’s film, Hijras was first shown in 1991 as part of a BBC 2 series ‘Under The Sun’. The Indian term ‘hijra’, is only loosely translated as eunuch. Introducing his film, Mike said he was proud of its three awards, but equally ashamed of the editorial compromises he was forced to make. He had become fascinated by how transgender was perceived in India when he worked there as an anthropologist for four and a half years. In two small villages where gender roles functioned on strict traditional and practical lines, hijras found a specialism in the rituals and traditions of the society. In contrast to the usual unquestioning acceptance of habits and behaviours, they were explainers and thinkers. At the other end of the social scale, Maharajahs appointed hijras to manage their harems. In a culture where male and female are thought of as binary opposites, hijras are considered beyond gender, not as trapped in a confusion, and have a position of sanctity. This was the subtlety which was a victim of the editing process.
There is a tradition of holy men surviving though alms in India, and hijras beg too, but in tandem, there are social attitudes ranging from fascination to repulsion, and extreme economic factors result in a level of violence which is shocking. Indeed, as the film draws you into a story of fated lovers, (one endures castration without anaesthetic) a community of hijras managed by an elderly guru who heals and blesses, but asks for cash on the birth of a child, and the ever present prostitution, you feel the entire mind map of your ethical conceptions dissolving.
It is an extraordinary, very intuitive film; fascinating for its portrayal of pre-modernised India, and for inviting identification with the individuals: their struggles for survival, with personal conflict and depression – despite the distancing of the cultural context.