An exploration of intersex characters in Indian cinema

by Kamran Qureshi

I am writing this exploration with a focus on only Indian intersex citizens’ representation in feature film in order to achieve a theoretical construct about screen gender within an overview of the Indian film industry. Intersex people have been largely ignored in Indian fiction films where intersex is still considered a taboo subject. Some scholars like Sanjay Karla (2012), Toyeba Mushtaq (2019), Jhimli Bhattacharjee (2014) and Pushpinder Kaur (2017) [open reference page in new window] have attempted to discuss umbrella terms transgender, third gender and hijra but have not discussed the representation of intersex people separately, blurring them with other identities. All these terms—hijra, transgender, and third gender—are used in India as umbrella terms for people who identify as a eunuch, kinnar, khwaja sara, khunsa, moorat, rani, transgender, or intersex. Such terms are used interchangeably for intersex in Indian films, scholarly work, and general reference culturally. They often blur sex, gender and/or sexual orientation, such as Sanjay Karla (2012) does when he states, “[s]ome eunuchs are born with intersex disorders of sexual differentiation.” According to the United Nations definition, intersex people are

“born with sex characteristics that do not fit typical definitions for male or female bodies, including sexual anatomy, reproductive organs, hormonal patterns, and/or chromosome patterns. [...] According to experts, between 0.05 per cent and 1.7 per cent of the population is born with intersex traits.” (UNOHCHR, 2019: 2)

I argue that because Indian filmmakers have not paid attention to explaining intersex variations of their characters and most of the time have used umbrella terms such as hijra and third gender, sometimes it is difficult to differentiate between intersex and different social identities shown on screen, including transgender and eunuch. Christopher Michael Erlinger (2016) argues that Indian hijras “practice total castration.” Gayatri Reddy (2005) has the same stance and argues that

"hijras are phenotypic men who wear female clothing and, ideally, renounce sexual desire and practice by undergoing a sacrificial emasculation—that is, an excision of the penis and testicles—dedicated to the goddess Bedhraj Mata.”

Reddy’s explanation of hijras is the same as the definition of eunuch given above.  These types of extreme traditions in India have only been practiced by some men for their sacrificial religious beliefs but are not common in the modern Indian society as norms. The term hijra has evolved from an Arabic word Hijrah, literally meaning migration (from one gender to another) and is used for transgender people who transition from one gender to another or third gender or no gender (see Carpenter, 2022, p272). The term eunuch is considered as a subcategory of hijra in Southeast Asian societies (see Qureshi, 2022b, p178).

Here I wish to provide a historical account by textual and narrative analysis of eight Indian films including Bollywood (Hindi cinema), Malayalam cinema, and Telugu cinema (although there are other languages films made in India such as Bengali). They all have at least one intersex character shown on screen or discussed by other characters; they were made in the last 30 years between 1991 to the time of writing this paper. Among these films, Sadak (1991), Darmiyaan (1997), Tamanna (1998), Shabnam Mausi (2005), Welcome to Sajjanpur (2008), Queens! Destiny of Dance (QDOD)(2011), Ardhanari (2016), and Eka (2018) have intersex characters. The film Ardhanari (2016) has a male protagonist disguised as an intersex. Eka is a Malayalam and Ardhanari is a Telugu language film; the rest of the selected six movies are in the Hindi language. My selection is based on publicly available movies with intersex characters.

I also want to investigate the ideology behind the treatment of these characters, that is, what these films suggest about the intersex-related issues in Indian society. I want to look at the ways or patterns in which these characters have been stereotyped in Indian films that do have some apparent and some ambiguous intersex characters. I stress that while entertaining the audience, Indian cinema including Hindi, Bengali, Telugu, Malayalam, Kannada, and Tamil language films is one of the largest global film industries; and so it has an important role and responsibility to educate society about gender-related issues and to create awareness about sex variations. As a practising academic in film and television, I use an analytical lens combined with my directorial experience of a multi-award-winning, romantic drama feature film Only Love Matters (OLM) (2022), some past television projects, and research studies on the subject of intersex.[1] [open endnotes in new window]

In my doctoral research on English language intersex films I found only eight films made in English-language cinema with lead intersex characters including the US, UK, and Australia (Qureshi, 2022a); however the data from Indian regional film industries is not fully available to confirm a precise number. Intersex films from both English-language and Indian industries are mostly low budget independent films lacking in production quality. Out of the eight selected films, only three—Shabnam Mausi, Darmiyaan, and Eka—trace the intersex characters’ lives from birth or childhood, confirming that these characters are born intersex. In the rest of the four films—Sadak, Tamanna, QDOD and Welcome to Sajjanpur—the fact of intersex is more vague and can only be determined by the clues given in the verbal dialogue. There are some more Indian movies with characters who can be described under the umbrella terms transgender and hijra, and who display some non-binary identities. These films include Bombay (1995), Masti (2004), Murder 2 (2011), Rajjo (2013), Peranbu (2018) and Super Deluxe (2019) with no discussion or appearance of intersex characters.

In terms of medical definitions, there are over 30 intersex variations represented in a U.S. national health study (Rosenwohl-Mack et al., 2020: 5) and over 40 traits listed in an Australian study (Jones et al., 2016: 17). A North American advocacy organization for young intersex people, InterACT (2019), divides intersex traits into three archetypes:

  1. Mixed sex traits that usually do not go together,
  2. "Overdevelopment" of one binary sex,
  3. "Underdevelopment" or difference.

Internationally, the parents and society usually try to force infants to be identified in the binary genders as either a male or a female.

India’s The Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Act (TTPA) 2019, defines transgender as,

“a person whose gender does not match with the gender assigned to that person at birth and includes trans-man or trans-woman, person with intersex variations, genderqueer and person having such socio-cultural identities as Kinner, Hijra, Aravani and Jogta.”

That Act (2019) considers a person with intersex variations under the umbrella term, transgender, and blurs intersex people with the other identities just mentioned by labelling them all transgender. Intersex individuals need to be seen separately from transgender and LGB (lesbian, gay, and bisexual) people. LGB is a sexual orientation whereas intersex is a "real biological variation" (ISNA, 2022), not an individual’s choice of gender. In particular, intersex people have problems different from those of transgender people such as non-consensual childhood surgeries (see InterAct, 2016). I will only discuss people who are born with a variation of sex characteristics in Indian films, and I will use the term intersex in this study as it is widely used by the UN, the US and the UK’s research studies and intersex organisations. The term intersex came into use in the early 20th century as a scientific and medical term; previously the term ‘Hermaphrodite’ was used extensively by medical practitioners throughout the 18th and 19th centuries (The Council of Europe, 2015: 15).

Now the question arises why are intersex people subsumed under the rubric of either transgender or hijra? In India, intersex people have either never been publicly prominent to claim an identity of their own, because of the hatred they received from society or took shelter under the hijra community due to being different from men and women. They either did not have enough information and awareness about their bodies in the past or were told to keep quiet because discussing this subject was always a taboo. Arpita Das (2022) notes that

"[p]eople with intersex variations and their families are often encouraged to maintain secrecy around intersexuality. Often, intersex people are not told about their variation or the medical interventions they may have gone through during their infancy."

After the intersex people in other countries started coming to the limelight with their stories and are asking to be accepted as intersex instead of categorising them in binary or other gender identities, some Indian intersex citizens now are also standing apart from hijra and/or transgenders. They are claiming their intersex identity, and are trying to connect and align with international intersex people and organisations such as Intersex Asia (2021). An example of this can be seen in the film Queens! Destiny of Dance (2011), (discussed later), which gave a message of making strong relationships with foreign intersex people and to build a global intersex community. In the film, the intersex people arrange an event and invite the foreign delegates of intersex people to participate and socialise. The intersex movement in India started recently in 2021 (Intersex Asia, 2021), although Eka (discussed later) has used the term intersex in 2018.

I use Stuart Hall’s representation theory to study how intersex characters have been represented in Indian films as part of Indian culture and society. He explains that representation “involves the use of language, of signs and images” and by “using language to say something meaningful about, or to represent, the world meaningfully, to other people,” (Hall, 1997:1) In theory, Hall considers representation to be a necessary part of the process through which meanings are produced and exchanged. I study the language and the visuals together to explore how the intersex characters are portrayed. One of the things I have looked for in my research is to see if and how health issues for intersex people in India have been discussed in Indian films, such as the surgical intervention on intersex children to reassign gender as a male or a female, or counselling for parents and children. A leading transgender rights activist Aqsa Shaikh's states, that in India

“intersex people are treated as disabled and approached through a medical lens leading to sex reassignment interventions that cause long-term complications in them and warrant a lifetime of treatment and care." (Tandon, 2021).

Although "[l]ittle is known about the use of intersex subjects for medical research in India" (Das, 2022) but legal awareness has recently started: 

"India’s Tamil Nadu state government has issued an executive order banning medically unnecessary surgeries on children born with intersex variations" (Knight, 2019).

"The Delhi Commission for Protection of Child Rights (DCPCR) has directed the Delhi Government to ban medically unnecessary sex-change surgeries on intersex infants and ensure their bodily integrity." (Tandon, 2021).

Of interest to me is how the social problems of intersex in India are highlighted in Indian films, with plot developments including discrimination in education, sports, employment, physical and sexual violence in and outside of the home. I look here at specific films to determine the importance of the intersex characters in these films and to explore what variations Indian film directors encode as “meaningful.” Usually such characters have minor roles. It is as Kimberly Zieselman notes, the intersex characters so far in the media history had smaller roles and have never been respectfully presented (Peitzman, 2014). [2]

Mushtaq (2019) also claims,

“Bollywood’s representation of the third gender [intersex and transgender people] is more complex and problematic than western countries. Western countries are very liberal in their image usage and do not encourage humorous and shallow representations.”

I humbly disagree with Mushtaq’s point of view. To provide a few U.S. examples, there is no intersex character in NBC’s long-running comedy series Friends (1994-2004) (2001 | Season 8 | Episode 9: ‘The One with the Rumor’); but to create comedy, in one episode, a rumour is spread at school about Rachel Green (Jennifer Aniston) that she is “hermaphrodite” (intersex) and “had both male and female reproductive parts” due to her rude behaviour. In another, in the Netflix teen comedy Sierra Burgess is a Loser (2018), again no intersex character is physically present, but only for the sake of comedy one character tells another about Sierra Burgess (Shannon Purser) that she

“can’t hear anything that I say, so even if I say something like ‘she’s a hermaphrodite’—which she isn’t—she’s not, she’s not a hermaphrodite at all… She is all lady parts.”

Most of the intesex and transgender people who live together in groups as communities in India and Pakistan, follow a maternalistic leadership pattern where they have a hierarchy system for decision making and problem solving. They have embraced their own customs, traditions, rules and regulations which the members need to follow. They make families in their communities, one living as a mother Guru and adopts children (can be adults) who live as sisters in a house as shown in Murad (2003). Although not all the leaders act in the same way, there might be some corrupt elements present in the leadership of these groups. I discuss this in detail later in this study. There are many subcultural groups of intersex and transgenders who might not have same traditions. Some intersex even feel insecure with having transgenders in their group as mentioned in the film Ardhnaari, which I discuss later. However, the intersex and transgenders where live together or in separate groups, usually do not have caste and religious differences among them and excercise interfaith practice such as in Shabnam Mausi.

At this point, I would like to turn specifically to Indian cinema and shall describe each film, one by one.  These descriptions are heavy on plot summary since most of my readers will not have seen the films. Although most are melodramas with extreme situations, the incidents and characterization usefully point to aspects of society at large and to common attitudes that people hold.

NBC’s comedy series Friends (1994-2004) (2001 | Season 8 | Episode 9: ‘The One with the Rumor’. Sierra Burgess is a Loser (2018) comedy scene with discussion of hermaphrodite.