In April 2014, India’s Supreme Court ruled that transgender individuals could be legally recognized as a “third gender”, entitled to special quotas for educational and job opportunities due to a history of discrimination. Despite this, being transgender in India still comes with much social stigma — something British-Indian filmmaker Reshel Shah highlights in her documentary Black Sheep.
Shah’s film focuses on the hijra — a Hindi/Urdu term that refers to transgender individuals that are born male, who make up India’s most prominent transgender group. Hijras have a rich history that dates back millennia; they’re referenced in sacred Hindu texts like the Mahabharata and Kama Sutra.
Being hijra isn’t just a signifier of gender identity though, it’s a distinct culture that has developed a secret language and syncretic religious practices as well. This makes hijras one of the most unique gender communities in the world, because being hijra doesn’t have an exact match to Western ideas of sexual orientation or gender taxonomy.
However, the distinctive hijra culture developed partially as a response to ostracism, as rejection by society at large drove hijras to live in all-hijra communities. Denied access to job opportunities, hijras oftentimes turn to sex work, contributing to other issues like a high prevalence of HIV/AIDS. At the same time, thanks to traditions carried down from holy Hindu texts, hijras are also called upon to help bless weddings and childbirths.
Meeting hijras at her own wedding drove Shah to make Black Sheep. Curious to discover more about this marginalized group, Shah traveled to Mumbai for a month and befriended a group of hijras, documenting their stories and struggles in a highly intimate manner. Shah becomes a character in her own documentary, helping her hijra friends find routes for empowerment and connection amidst rejection by institutions and family. We learn that, despite not having more legal recognition, there’s still a long way to go before hijras gain full social acceptance.
Ultimately, Black Sheep offers a message about universal humanity — it’s not an informational documentary, it’s an emotional one. If you’re looking to not just learn more about — but also empathize more with — one of the world’s most unique gender communities, then Black Sheep is worth a watch.
Black Sheep — United Kingdom. Dialog in Hindi and English with English subtitles. Directed by Reshel Shah. First released January 2015. Running time 1hr 12min.