Aravani Girl

***1/2

Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Sometimes the most interesting documentaries happen by accident, the product of stories that catch filmmakers by surprise and draw them in. Peter Spenceley was making a different film when he became aware of aravani people. Curious, he started asking questions in the villages of Tamil Nadu, and he won the trust of a notoriously wary community, gaining an unprecedented opportunity to record the details of their lives.

'Aravani' is a word local to the region; outsiders might be more familiar with the term 'hijra' or with its closest western equivalent, 'transgender', but there are subtle differences between the three. In India there has traditionally been little distinction made between gender variance and sexual orientation. Aravani people are all born with masculine bodies and, unlike hijras from some other parts of the country, seem to see themselves as men who are compelled to present themselves in a feminine way, rather than as unusual women. They have a special social role which involves working as entertainers, especially dancing at weddings, where they are thought to bring good fortune. They are also thought to have the power to curse people, but in this film the focus is on the positive side of thir ritual work; there are plenty of other negative aspects of their lives to be illuminated.

Palani and Karthik are teenagers just beginning to associate with their local aravani community, much to the disapproval of their families. The older aravanis are cautious, wanting to make sure they're serious before letting them burn too many bridges. There's usually a heavy social cost to adopting this identity, though some aravanis go on to settle down in happy marriages with men. Employment can be hard to find, so they can be drawn into prostitution, particularly dangerous if they pass themselves off as ordinary women. Many have surgery, but this tends to be crude and involve no reconstruction. The leader of the dance troupe shown here recounts the days when it was done without anaesthetic, and being told simply to "look at the picture of Kali."

Whilst there has been other documentary work done in this area, this film is unusual in that it gives the aravanis a strong opportunity to speak for themselves about their lives and to steer the course of the story. This gives the film a naive quality - observations tend to be limited to aspects of day to day living, with insights into the wider world limited to musings on the glamour and the urban loneliness of Mumbai - but it gives it authenticity and, importantly, means we connect directly with individuals rather than encountering them as an exotic curiosity. Towards the end, the film contemplates the dangers of violence and disease that limit so many aravani lives, but we also see the positive side of strangers forming communities to support one another where no-one else will. Most importantly, we get a sense of what makes it so attractive to those just discovering their difference.

An intriguing introduction to the subject for newcomers, Aravani Girl also has interesting things to say to those more familiar with its subject. These are voices too little heard.

Reviewed on: 02 Apr 2013
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A documentary about two teenagers who want to change gender role in Tamil Nadu.

Director: Peter Spenceley

Year: 2009

Runtime: 53 minutes

Country: India, UK

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