Dear Noman Robin,
Your fascinating film, “Common Gender—the Film,” found “fit audience though few” at the “Addressing Violence against Women” festival organized by South Asian Film Education Society in Vancouver April 19-21. It was very illuminatingly introduced by Anis Rahman, who pointed out that it was the first film in Bangladesh on the important issue of a marginal identity and that its implication in the politics of religion had led to your current exile in Turkey. It is an honour for SAFES that we have been able to express our solidarity with you in your effort on behalf of the transgender community in Bangladesh, particularly as you have had to face exile for this work. The discussion following the screening revealed that your film had generated questions about film convention, style and structure, as well as enquiries about identity and the social status of hijras in Bangladesh and South Asia.
It was recognized that in receiving your film about hijras in Bangladesh in Vancouver, British Columbia, we had to be aware of the distance between the conventions of Hollwood/Western cinema and Bollywood/Bombay/Indian/South Asian cinema. To people whose perspective is framed by the conventions of Western cinema the style of Bombay/Bollywood seems “over the top” and to people used to Bombay conventions the style of your film would seem “over the top.” The cultural difference between the places of production and reception had to be kept in mind in thinking about your work.
We noticed the shift from the “realism” of the film’s style to the fantasy at the end and discussed its function. We felt that having presented the issue of transgendered identity within social and religious contexts in the film and revealing the violence and tragedy in the lives at the margin, the fantasy at the end pulls us out of the plane of everyday reality to problematize the theology underpinning that “reality”: in the last analysis, if humans are created as male or female, where is the place for those who are neither?
We also understood that the realism of style in the film should not be taken at face value. The first episode, depicting a man taking out garbage and dumping it in a courtyard had no narrative function but operated as a metaphor. The next episode, depicting the furious altercation between a shopkeeper and a householder regarding the latter’s responsibility for the conduct of his brother functions as a metonym: it participates in the theme of family responsibility and disowning that is basic to the film and establishes the heightened emotional temperature and its correlative in stylistic excess. It is followed by an episode in which the weeping mother, the angry father, with the now dejected son from the previous episode sitting behind them discuss the shame of their hormonally disturbed child who had to be discarded. The next few scenes of people looking, making comments, and whistling are followed by a shot of the back of women’s feet on a street, with the camera rising as the “women” turn around to face it and challenge the looks, jeers and whistles. The act of challenging the camera, which has drawn into itself all the looks, shows the performative character of the “women,” who as hijras perform their gender and in so doings reveal gender as performance. It was important to learn that the actors were not hijras but men who were performing hijras, that is, males who perform as women. The stylistic excess in the film could then be seen as rooted both in the emotional temperature of the culture and convention and the foregrounding of performance. There is no attempt, as in the dominant conventions of realist cinema, to hide performance, but rather the reverse, perhaps because the subject of the film is people who self-consciously perform their gender.
The episode in which the religious leaders of the neighborhood visit the hijras to assure them of their welcome and the open access to their homes and families appeared counterfactual. Since the hijras themselves found it conspicuously unlikely it made the viewer wonder why such an episode was put in. Clearly, the point of the episode was that this was an ideal behaviour that spoke the truth of the religion but was counter to the truth of the actual social practice. It showed the gap between the religion and social practice, using the authority of religion against the implicit social reality. We were saddened to learn that despite this attempt to invoke the authority of religion you were subjected to threats of violence that drove you to exile because the audience were outraged by the gap between Islam and the actual preaching from religious leaders that your film made them confront. You are, paradoxically, a victim of your success.
Your film made a very happy transition from the episodic structure of the early part that presented a spatial view of the social and economic life of the hijra community (locating the outrageous and shaming behavior of the hijras clearly in their social and economic ostracism) to the temporal and developmental structure with the narrative of love and the drama of rejection. Your conclusion is truly heart-wrenching. The final episode again foregrounds theatricality, with Hubli staging the tragedy of his life with the assistance of the mother and child he finds at a roadside. Theatre reveals the tragedy hiding under the everyday reality, enabling the utterance of sorrow suppressed in life. The stylistic distance enables us to both experience and tolerate the sorrow being depicted, as only tragic theatre does.
I felt the film should have ended with the image of Hubli howling in the left hand corner of the screen and the sorrowful face of the anonymous mother on the right half. But perhaps that would have been too devastating and aesthetic a conclusion. It is perhaps best that you took us out of that sadness into the image of a blissful heaven to leave us with a question. We had faced the sorrow; it was now time to think.
Congratulations and thank you for this wonderful experience. We wish you great success in your next film in the series, “Film for Humanity”.
April 29, 2013Posted 21st May 2013 by SAFES