GAYS AND LESBIANS IN INDIAN CINEMA
Shoma A. Chatterji
Copyright 2008 – all rights reserved
What do the words ‘lesbian’ and ‘gay’ mean? Does this refer only to a sexual relationship with a partner of the same sex? Or, does it go far beyond the periphery of pure sensual interaction reaching out to deeply emotional and social responses? Does this, at times, also, actually preclude sex? The answers to these questions are raising their ambiguous heads, post-Fire, post-The Annual Queer Film Festival at Bangalore, post Dostana, Fashion and My Brother Nikhil. The Indian homosexual continues to be dogged by a crisis of sexual identity. This is serious, depending on how ‘progressive’ the society is, in accepting this identity. The seeds of hate, ironically, are more legally rooted, never mind our ignorance of Indian laws. Gays and lesbians themselves say this. The credit for this goes to Lord Macaulay, who drafted Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code in 1883. Much of the legal curbs were drawn from King James Bible where Leviticus warned, “Thou Shalt Not Sleepeth with a Man as Thou Sleepeth with a Woman.” The Code reads thus:
“Whosoever voluntarily has carnal intercourse against the order of nature with any man, woman or animal shall be punished with imprisonment for life or imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to ten years or liable to fine.”
The silliest phrase in this 126-year-old archaic law is ‘carnal intercourse against the order of nature.’ Who is to decide what is ‘against’ and what is ‘for’ the law of nature? Aren’t the laws of nature about sexual relationships themselves subject to the fluidity of change with time, space and person? Aren’t they about social patterns of life and behaviour?
Apart from civil law derived from the British penal code, there is also a religious law calling for up to 100 lashes or death by stoning. In 2002, the New Delhi-based Naz Foundation, a NGO working for the welfare of HIV-Positive and AIDS patients, had filed a petition in the New Delhi High Court challenging the constitutional validity of Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code in an effort to legalize homosexuality in India. The NGO argued that due to fear of police action, consenting adult males having sexual relations were not coming out of the closet and declaring themselves to be gay, thereby hampering medical prevention or intervention in cases of HIV/AIDS. The Indian government’s response was that such homosexual practices could not be legalized in India since "Indian society is intolerant to the practice of homosexuals/lesbianism”. The situation in Pakistan is much worse. In Sri Lanka, sex between men is punishable with 12 years in jail, while the existence of lesbianism is not even acknowledged in the penal code. Bangladesh, Bhutan and Nepal all have similarly repressive laws on homosexuality.
A consensual homosexual relationship remains a crime to this day. Indian gays and lesbians, therefore, are busier hiding their sexual identities (‘skeletons?’) in the ‘cupboard’ than in leading an active and honest sex life. “Closeted people,’ ‘underground’ community, people with ‘alternative sexuality’ are terms casually used to refer to gays and lesbians, that underscores the need to keep same-sex orientation and preferences under covers or push them under our patriarchal, feudal and fascist carpets. This takes away the dignity of choice and therefore, the dignity of living itself. Yet, when one gets back into Hindu scriptures,
Homosexuality in Hindu scriptures, literature, theatre and the other arts
In Hindu mythology, Shiva is depicted as Ardhanareeshwara – a man and a woman at the same time, split into two vertical halves merged within the same body. The hermaphrodite, the homosexual and the transvestite are considered to be images of Ardhanarishwara in India. In a school of Bhakti literature called Madhuri Bhakti, male poets like Kabir and Jiyasi often envisaged themselves as women in love with a male God. “The cultural scene during the time allowed Kabir and other poets to openly integrate their femaleness into their poetry,” observed noted journalist Mrinal Pande.
The Manusmriti, which lists the oldest codes of conduct that were proposed to be followed by a Hindu, does include mention of homosexual practices, but only as something to be regulated. Though homosexuality was considered a part of sexual practices, it was not always well accepted. There were punishments prescribed for homosexual behaviour.
The Kamasutra is the traditional source of Indian sexuality. The lesbian is called a saivrni. It contains four or five ways in which one woman can seduce another. It is also mentioned that women in the kings’ harems had sex with one another. This comes from Sudhir Kakar, noted psychiatrist and author who claims that lesbianism was always present but was disapproved of. “The Kamasutra says that women cannot have sex with each other except if one woman acts like a male,” he says. He defines lesbianism as “a woman’s choice to have exclusive sex with a partner of the same sex.”
More than 1600 years ago, Varahamir, the Ayurvedic physician, wrote approvingly about lesbian love in Brihat Jataka. He described a definite link between astrology and lesbianism. He went on to say that a particular placement and juxtaposition of Mars and Venus in a woman’s horoscope would induce her with a desire towards members of the same sex while another female acting as the male would fire her passions. Modern astrology claims that one factor that distinguished gay charts from all others is a relationship between the planet Uranus and the Moon. In a survey of 160 charts of homosexual and bisexual men between 1977 and 1980, J. E. Kneeland of the USA found aspects of the moon to Uranus. He did not find these aspects in the comparative study of the charts of 160 heterosexual men except in 10 per cent who were closely linked to homosexuals in some way or another. The sample covered Canada, Mexico, England, France, Ireland, Germany, Russia and Japan. Interestingly, neither Uranus nor the Moon is a sexual planet. Uranus is primarily linked to mental or intellectual factors in human beings while the Moon is concerned with emotions. This suggests that homosexuality is more concerned with the mental and emotional bases of a relationship between two consenting adults of the same sex than with sex, which could be just the medium through which they express their feelings for each other.
Ismat Chugtai, the noted Urdu writer, wrote the first short story dealing with a lesbian relationship in the 1940s. Lihaf (Quilt), unfolded the story of a mid-20th century Muslim Nawab family. While the Nawab sought his pleasures from young boys, his bored begum found sexual and emotional solace in the companionship of a repulsively ugly maid. The maid would massage her soft body with almond oil under a quilt, which the little girl, the narrator of the story, was intrigued by. Incensed mullahs dragged Chugtai to the Lahore High Court. But the court dismissed the case because “no four-letter word” could be found in it. Deepa Mehta says it was Lihaf that inspired Fire. Gay rights activists quote a well-researched work, Same Sex Love in India: Readings from Literature and History, edited by Ruth Vanita and Saleem Kidwai, which states that before the 19th century, love between men and between women was never actively persecuted or prosecuted, despite disapproval.
Firaq Gorakhpuri, an eminent Urdu writer who taught at Allahabad University, was known to be fond of men. Among Hindi poets, references to homosexuality figure in the works of Gajanan Madhav Muktibodh and Suryakant Tripathi “Nirala.” In one of his poems, Nirala specifically mentions, “Maine uski ore stree bhav se dekha” meaning, “I looked at him as a woman would.” An early Mughal painting called The Perfumed Garden clearly depicts two women in deep embrace, their lips locked in a kiss. Delhi-based activist and writer Gita Thadani has a collection of some 2000 photographs of images of lesbianism. Some of the oldest images go back by 5000 years to the Panchmarhi caves of Madhya Pradesh. Thadani maintains that the earliest reference to lesbianism is found in the Rig Veda, where there are allusions to the concept of dual femininity.
Vikram Seth’s The Golden Gate, Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things and Shobha De’s Starry Nights have touched upon the homosexual mindset. Films like Sholay and Subah have subtly acknowledged the presence of the gay and the lesbian psyche much before Fire made it to the Indian screen. Mahesh Dattani’s play, On A Muggy Night in Mumbai, premiered in Mumbai in 1998, describes the anguish of men who love men, especially if they are married and also lead heterosexual lives. Cassell published Thadani’s Sakhiyani, a book on lesbianism, in 1996. Rajit Kapur and Rahul Bose did an intense play with homosexual suggestions called Are There Tigers in the Congo more than a decade ago. In his autobiographical work Trying to Grow, Firdaus Kanga has written about growing up gay in India. Celebrated author Oscar Wilde (1854-1900) who was convicted for homosexuality was publicly rehabilitated some years ago. His statue has been installed in Trafalgar Square bearing the inscription: “We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.”
Bhupen Khakar, the internationally acclaimed painter, is a prime crusader of gay rights in India. Ten years ago, he defined his artistic and creative experience as the ideal medium to state the truth -- about himself, his sexual identity, about life per se. His works revel in imagination, colour and fantasy. Most of his works are graphically infused with a sensuous celebration. He is considered to be one of the best erotic painters in the world. His paintings often depict diverse traditions in homosexuality. Salman Rushdie in The Moor’s Last Sigh reinscribed his provocative painting, You Can’t Please All. Khakar once did a painting of a man standing stark naked and looking daringly at the world below. It was exhibited at the Gay Festival at Mardi Gras in Sydney where Khakar exhibited his works. Eroticism is prominent in his paintings, along with the anguish and resentment of being rejected by the mainstream. “What is happening in India -- social rejection -- did happen once in countries like the USA, Australia and Europe. Gay and lesbians being beaten by the police and the society rejecting them outright were common. However, these countries accepted the fact that homosexuality was a natural phenomenon. Hence the creation of San Francisco, Sydney, Amsterdam and other cities as centers of gay activism. Gay activism in these countries, has resulted in the promotion and protection of human rights,” Khakar once said.
Gays, Lesbians and Indian Society
Ashok Row Kavi, the most vocal gay activist in the country, estimates that there are over 50 million homosexuals in India. He goes by the Kinsey formula, which says that five per cent of the sexually active males in a country are permanently practicing homosexuals. Projected figures indicate that India will have around 2.3 million men alone who have sex with men. Gays argue that the law gives policemen the excuse to harass, assault and even blackmail them. When Debonair magazine conducted a survey in 1991 among 1424 male respondents, nearly 37 per cent said they had had sex with men while 8 per cent said that their first sexual encounter had been with a man. The same year, a survey of four lakh people in Calcutta revealed that two per cent of the city’s population was gay while 160 of the 22, 000 women respondents admitted that they were involved in lesbian relationships. Another study conducted in Kerala read out at the World Sexology Congress in 1985 said that nine per cent of adult males in Kerala were practicing homosexuals.
Scientists believe that there are two kinds of homosexuals – the ego-alien homosexuals who believe they are doing ‘something wrong’ and the ego-syntonic homosexuals who have no qualms about relationships with members of the same sex. An Austrian clinical psychologist reportedly coined the word ‘homosexual’ to explain same-sex relations in 1887. “Cary Grant used the word ‘gay’ for the first time in a Hollywood film Bringing Up Baby (1939) in a role that needed him to cross-dress and move about in a transparent negligee,” informs Kavi. Scientists believe that there are two kinds of homosexuals – the ego-alien homosexuals who believe they are doing ‘something wrong’ and the ego-syntonic homosexuals who have no qualms about relationships with members of the same sex. An Austrian clinical psychologist reportedly coined the word ‘homosexual’ to explain same-sex relations in 1887.
Psychiatrist Dayal Mirchandani says that homosexuality is a part of human experience. Anthropologists have found that homosexuality existed among primitive tribal cultures. It is not as if modern society has created it. “One has to accept it rather than look at it as normal or abnormal. As a doctor, I would look at it from the point of human suffering. Homosexuals suffer because of social prejudice. There is nothing wrong with them” sums up Mirchandani. A study on the sexuality of medical personnel in North India found that nearly 60 per cent of the doctors in the study had some homosexual experience. In the USA, a similar study revealed that 26 per cent of heterosexual men without ever having been exposed directly or indirectly to a homosexual act did have homosexual fantasies. This proves one strong contention of psychiatrists across the world. This is, homosexuality is more often the result of one’s social and sexual environment than a genetically constructed psyche one is born with. Individuals primarily homosexual reportedly constitute less than five per cent of the Indian population, according to Mirchandani. Seventy per cent of the population would be reasonably labelled heterosexual. Most people, however, have the capacity to be aroused by either sex. Our cultural and social conditioning stops us from expressing our sexuality openly. Homosexuality thus, is still largely stigmatized.
“I have seen many lesbians who have had bad relationships with men. Their husbands have either beaten them, or abused them, or neglected them. They felt lonely, depressed, without passion in their lives. Someone comes along, pays attention to you, there is warmth, comfort, which is more important than sex, for women. For lesbians, sex is often secondary. For homosexual men, sex is usually more important,” says Mirchandani. Free heterosexual relationships are largely proscribed in India. This has made women almost invariably seek warmth, companionship and comfort in their relationships with female relatives and friends. Therefore, not all close female relationships need be termed ‘lesbian.’ Often, they may lead to sexual contact, reasonably as a ‘natural’ extension of the relationship.
A Mumbai-based lesbian couple was asked to leave their apartment after they were quoted in a newspaper. Kavi was short listed some years ago for a government job. It would have required him to be part of a panel that liased with NGOs. He was dropped from the list because he was gay. A woman IAS officer on the panel refused to sit on the same table with a homosexual. No one questioned her and Kavi lost the job. “She was legally in the clear because according to Indian law, homosexuality is illegal,” says Kavi. So, homosexuals wishing counselling and guidance from lesbian and gay support groups throughout the country, such as the Humsafar Trust at Vakola in Mumbai, register themselves openly with false names like Madhuri Dixit or Manisha Koirala. The thrust of these support groups is to encourage safe sex rather than to help them assert their homosexual identity.
Homosexuality is common among natural heterosexuals who are not exposed to the other sex at all. Examples are -- single-sex boarding schools, nunneries, single-sex ashrams and prison wards that rigidly practice sex segregation. Even heterosexuals have had some homosexual experience in their lives, probably in their growing years, either through experimentation, or exploitation, or abuse. Mirchandani recalls his experience of meeting men who have been sexually abused in childhood and have become homosexual. For women, even married women, homosexuality could generate from sheer loneliness. Or, from a lack of an empathetic life environment, from a bad or an abusive marriage.
Gays and Lesbians in Indian Cinema
Vito Russo, a film scholar, calls his book The Celluloid Closet. Why, when the book actually argues against the misrepresentation of gays and lesbians in Hollywood films? The book analyses the representation of gays and lesbians in Hollywood films from the 1890s to the 1980s, and demonstrates a history of homosexuality insisting that the portrayal of lesbians and gay men in Hollywood has often been cruel and homophobic. Gay and lesbian characters defined solely on the grounds of their sexual orientation lacked any complex character development. There is no parallel of this book on Indian cinema because not many Indian films would be available for such in-depth study on celluloid portrayals of gays and lesbians.
In Madonna: Innocent Lust, Madonna has gone on record to admit to the joys of a lesbian relationship she enjoyed as an adolescent. All vampire films have strong suggestions of lesbian relationships, writes critic Gautam Chakravarty. In Vampire and Violets, actress Andre Vice says that films like Black Sunday and Blood of Dracula made in the Fifties carry clear suggestions of lesbianism. The James Bond film From Russia with Love portrays the vamp as a lesbian-murderer. Towards the end of the Eighties, an 87-minute documentary, Before Stonewall, records the struggles of lesbians and gays in the US to establish their identities as homosexuals by choice. June 27, 1969 marks the day when policemen in New York raided Stonewall Inn, a gay bar in Greenwich Village, sparking protests that led to the birth of the gay movement. Some years ago, Calcutta hosted its second gay march – the only one known in the country to take place in such a big way. This commemorated the 25th anniversary of the Stonewall Inn incident and was called Walk on the Rainbow. Prominent activists from US, UK, Canada, Sri Lanka and a few neighbouring countries participated in the two-week long event.
Bollywood cinema has a long tradition of having comic sequences or songs featuring cross-dressing male stars such as Amitabh Bachchan lampooning a eunuch in a sari in Laawaris (1981) or any number of songs featuring hijras. It is now quite trendy to read Bollywood films as 'gay' or 'queer'. Hoshang Merchant mentions the Andaz (1949) and Sangam (1964) ‘love triangles’ where “the real love plot is friendship between the two heroes…. The female lead is there only to lessen the homosexual sting.” Shohini Ghosh reads Dosti (1964) as dealing with “the intense friendship between two poor and physically-disabled young men who struggle to survive in the city”, an “allegory of homosexual love expressed through the metaphor of physical disability.” R Raj Rao, Gayathri Gopinath and Ashok Row Kavi have all queered Bollywood in a similar vein.
Mast Kalander (1981) featured Bollywood's 'first' out and out 'gay' character Pinku. If Hollywood's first gay characters were either comic or villainous, Pinku was both and the critics had a field day! Pinku is a new generation gangster. In his flaming yellow or pink suits, Pinku is both pansy and comic rolled into one. A gay little tune strikes up whenever he enters. And just to make really sure that you are left in no doubt about him, Pinku in his opening scene runs his fingers over his father's brawny body and asks 'Daddy, hamara body aapke jaise strong aur muscular kyoon nahin hai?' ('Daddy, why isn't my body as strong and muscular as yours?') When Pinku isn't plotting fell murders and kidnappings, he pleads for a motorbike ('Daddy, I want to live dangerously'), or chases men. And when all the thugs are finally rounded up in the police lock up, Pinku exults at what he sees as a heaven-sent opportunity. Before that, in Ramesh Sippy’s Sholay (1975), one of the inmates openly makes passes at other men, revealing his fondness for men. This small sidebar was overlooked by most or perhaps, not understood. But it was there for those who were observant enough.
The gay sidekick emerged as a staple comic character from the 1990s onward, in films like Hum Hain Rahi Pyaar Ke (1993), Raja Hindustani (1996) and Taal (1999), offset by rare instances of somewhat complex gay characters in films like Bombay Boys (1998) and Split Wide Open (1999). There were also 'sensitive' hijra portrayals in films like Bombay (1995), Tamanna (1997) and Darmiyaan (1997), a villainous hijra turn in Sadak (1991). There was a film called Shabnam Mausi (2005) a biopic of a high profile Indian hijra who was elected as a member of the legislative assembly in the Indian state of Madhya Pradesh. But it took Kal Ho Na Ho (2003), with an arguably funny gay subplot between the two lead actors, along with a slew of releases in the same year with both disparagingly camp/comic (Out of Control, Masti, Mango Soufflé, Market) and somewhat non-stereotypical (Chameli, Hyderabad Blues 2) characterizations to generate chatter about gay Bollywood once again. Kal Ho Na Ho takes some rude pot shots at homosexuality through the two male characters Shahrukh Khan and Saif Ali Khan, two heterosexual men who never tire of teasing Sulabha Arya’s suspicions about theirs being a homosexual relationship. The same applies to Masti, a film that elaborates on the theory that a man is born promiscuous. These are superfluous to the theme of either film and thus, uncalled for jibes made at a section of society that is desperately trying to get recognition within and by the mainstream.
Films like K. R. Reddy’s Veeru Dada have made bolder and more honest statements on homosexuality. But sadly, they were turnips at the box office and their message on same-sex love went unnoticed. The same goes for recent films like Rules -Pyar Ka Superhit Formula. Mondo Meyer Upakhyan, the award-winning film by Buddhadev Dasgupta, shows how three young prostitutes dream of making a trip to the moon and in the absence of men, who they have only disgust for, wish to make love to each other. Rules director Parvati Balagopalan asserts, “The gay couple was part of our script from the beginning. The movie spoke about various aspects of love and homosexuality is one of them. The movie was a discourse on love and we wanted to treat all kinds of love equally. There was no criticism, because there was no sensationalism at all. It was treated the way any other normal relationship would be.”
Art dealer and critic Ashish Balram Nagpal made a film based on a homosexual pair called Adhura. This film however, was never released. Another film, 68 Pages, starring actors like Joy Sengupta and Karan Oberoi, chronicling the lives of five persons with same-sex relationships could not be released in theatres because exhibitors shied away from screening the film. It was therefore screened to invited audiences at private screenings, defeating the very purpose of making the film. Contrary to common belief, Deepa Mehta’s Fire (1996) is not the first Indian film to portray homosexuality openly on screen. It happened much before, in a low-key manner, in Jabbar Patel’s Subah (1981) where two young women in the rehabilitation home for women where Savitri (Smita Patil) is employed, set themselves on fire because they knew that their love for each other was destined to end in tragedy.
Riyadh Vinci Wadia's BomGay (1996) is said to be India's first gay film while Gulabi Aaina (2003) has the distinction of being India's first kothi film. Among the other handful of other non commercial gay films made in India over the years, one can count Tirthankar Guha Thakurta's Piku Bhalo Achhey (2004) a docu-fiction in Bengali in a narrative of self-acceptance, Ligy J. Pullappally's Sancharam ('The Journey', 2004), a lesbian love story set in Kerala and T. Jayshree's Many People, Many Desires (2004), a documentary about the LBGT community in Bangalore. However these films have only been screened privately or at festivals. They were either denied a censor certificate or did not bother applying) thus limiting their audience reach, despite the favorable publicity they received.
T. Jayashree’s Many People, Many Desires is a 46-minute documentary that explores the legal, social, political and cultural status of sexual minorities like hijras, kothis, double-deckers, gays, lesbians, transgender and other minorities oppressed solely due to their sexual orientation or gender expression in India. Cutting across class, gender, language and caste, the film tells the stories of such persons living in the city of Bangal Vismita Gupta Smith’s For Straights Only, over its 20-minute span, explores life for South Asian gays and lesbians. Told from the perspective of a straight sister about her gay brother, the film includes conversations with many South Asian gays and lesbians. These conversations focus on issues like - growing up in a homophobic culture, coming out and the gay movement in South Asia.
Films portraying gay and lesbian relationships in Indian cinema are of two kinds. One kind represents the truly Indian film while there is another portrayal that comes from Diaspora filmmakers from South Asia. Interestingly, the message they carry is more or less the same. Deepa Mehta’s Fire is a turning point in bringing out lesbian relationships in the open. Since its release in major theatres in India and film festivals across the globe, Fire has garnered a lot of critical attention from political progressives, liberals and fundamentalists. Fire’s most compelling point is the manner in which it has become a truly public text, the subject of controversy in the media and the audience. It focuses on a nascent lesbian relationship in a film intended to reach a mainstream audience. The fact that it has elicited such strong reactions from critics and spectators is perhaps its most notable redeeming quality.
The shifting of the sexual preferences of both Radha and Nita in Fire is shown as a strong reaction to the patriarchal neglect and complacence of Indian men towards their wives. It can be read as a conscious and deliberate rebellion against their misuse and abuse by male power within the family. Lesbianism therefore, unlike its Western reflection, takes on the connotations of an unequal power relationship, which the two women set out to equalise through their sexual intimacy despite the men. This is not an honest portrayal of the lesbian character because both women are basically heterosexual. Scientists believe that there are two kinds of homosexuals – the ego-alien homosexuals who believe they are doing ‘something wrong’ and the ego-syntonic homosexuals who have no qualms about relationships with members of the same sex. Neither Radha nor Nita fall under either of these two categories. In retrospect therefore, Deepa Mehta seems to have found the easy way out of trying to explain lesbianism in and through celluloid. This is a compromise with what we pretentiously term ‘traditional Indian values.’ Thus, the short-sighted Indian audience that destroyed theatres wrought havoc for a cause that did not exist. Fire makes a gender statement in favour of women rather than a lesbian statement. “Fire is not a film about lesbianism under any circumstance,” said Shabana Azmi in an interview, going on to add that intellectuals at the Toronto International Film Festival too had misinterpreted the film.
Despite its supposedly ‘progressive’ theme, around which it is organized, Fire does not escape the trap of conforming to preconceived notions about Hindu culture and Indian femininity. The narrative recycles a number of stereotypes popularly consumed as monolithic truths about South Asian life. These myths are not only reinforced in the West, but also within elite sectors of Indian society who imagine they are more modernised and valorise Western ideals while labelling Indian thought as uniformly backward.
Unlike Fire, directed by an Indian Canadian and made for a global audience, Girlfriend was a Bollywood film made for distribution in India. In Girlfriend, Tanya (Isha Koppikar) and Sapna (Amrita Arora) are housemates who have been friends since college. Tanya is a hard-working jewellery designer who moonlights as a street fighter to make ends meet. Once, when she returns from a business trip to discover that Sapna has fallen for a man, Rahul (Ashish Choudhary). An enraged Tanya battles Rahul for Sapna’s love.
Girlfriends, announced Calcutta theatres, was pulled out of the city’s theatres a few days before its public release. Was this step out of fear of reprisal from anti-lesbianism groups? Or, was it because the film could be bad business for them. Is that the whole truth? Or is this in anticipation of a repeat of what happened in Varanasi and in Mumbai over the shooting of Deepa Mehta’s Water and the public screening of her earlier film Fire? The fuss about Girlfriends echoes the fuss over Fire several years ago. Human memory is short. Few remember that in December 1998, a few days after the Shiv Sena attacked the theatres screening Deepa Mehta’s Fire in Mumbai, about 300 people gathered in a counter-demonstration outside Delhi’s Regal Cinema, screening the same film. For the first time in the history of this country, lesbians chose to come out in the open and assert themselves through this protest. “As lesbians we felt it was important to be a part of a protest for democratic rights and freedom of expression, to stand up and be counted, because those rights are fundamental to our lives,” said Sandhya, one of the organizers. Homosexual relationships have been coming out in the open, which might have spurred on the makers of Girlfriends. But Girlfriends hardly cared about arguing the case for lesbians or for relationships of similar nature. Nor did it bother to probe into the psychological or emotional connotations of the woman-to-woman relationship, reducing it to a crudely put together soft-porn thriller. Girlfriends was just a clever ruse to use the subject of lesbianism as a political strategy to arouse the audience through a different kind of titillation. It was perhaps, one more way of hitting the jackpot at the box-office through camera-voyeurism. Thankfully the ruse failed to deliver. The film however, unwittingly did two things – it made people aware that such relationships can and do exist. At the same time, it brought about this ‘awareness’ in an ugly, unimaginative and derogatory manner, thus effectively demolishing whatever little it might have ‘achieved’.
When My Brother Nikhil (2005) was released, the social response of the audience had changed to one of positive acceptance. Based on the real-life experiences of Dominic D’Souza, a champion swimmer who was gay, one discovered that Onir, a new director, had tackled homosexuality without treating it as an ugly joke, a dirty alliance or an aberration. The gay relationship between the swimmer and his partner was treated as normally as one treats a normal couple on celluloid. They were shown to be as intimate, as insecure and as jealous in their interaction as any other couple would be. They were happy but had their share of tiffs and squabbles, the one trying to gear up to bear the imminent loss of the other to HIV/AIDS. The film ran to packed theatres at multiplexes in urban metros across India.
Sridhar Rangayan has made a path breaking film called Gulabi Aaina. Rangayan is the founder-trustee of The Humsafar Trust for people for alternative sexual orientation and is the executive editor of Bombay Dost, its mouthpiece. He has been an activist-crusader of the gay movement over the past decade. His inspiration for the film came from the Bollywood-inspired drag numbers he had seen performed at Mumbai parties. The realization that opportunities for Indian drag queens to perform at parties was on the decline while gay parties were on the rise. He decided to make a film that portrayed drag queens with empathy and celebrated their lives, with characters that were “completely Indian and rooted in its culture, paying homage to Indian Bollywood divas and songs and speaking in Hindi!”
The story of Gulabi Aina revolves around four characters, two drag queens Bibbo and Shabbo, Mandy, and Sameer. Bibbo is a fashion designer and she considers Shabbo, a performing artist, her daughter. Mandy, the new queen on the block is a westernized gay teenager being groomed by Shabbo to become more 'Indian'. The straight-appearing Sameer is an aspiring actor, hoping to get a break in films through Bibbo's contacts as costume designer. Most of the action of the film deals with the machinations of the two queens and young Mandy to get the attention of the hunky Sameer. In terms of structure, the plot follows the clichéd Bollywood filmy norms of introducing the characters, quickly alternating between humor, pathos, song-and-dance sequences and romance, introducing conflict, resolving it and having a happy ending. Rangayan says, “The characters whether they are drag queens, gay or bisexual, offer no apologies for being what they are. They do not curse their fate and grovel at anyone's feet because they are homosexuals.”
Queering Bangalore was the first public film festival held in October 2003, focussing entirely on queer rights. Featured at the festival were award winning documentaries and features, commended for their portrayal of life stories and issues facing lesbians, gays, bisexuals, transgenders, hijras, kothis and others identified as “queer.” an attempt to focus on the lives and experiences of a community rendered invisible by systemic homophobia and transphobia. In history’s weave of cultural tapestry, the films presented life stories that are missing and left untold. And yet it is the queer movement in India and elsewhere that is providing a much-needed challenges to heteronormativity, which means the stereotyping definitions within which words like ‘marriage’ and ‘family’ remain trapped, the gendered roles that work within these institutions and so on. At a time when we are surrounded by shackling definitions of the ‘ideal family’, ‘ideal husband’, ‘wife’, daughter-in-law’, etc. it was felt important to recognize and highlight these new challenges society is now having to encounter. Three organizations spearheaded the festival - Pedestrian Pictures, Scorus and Swabhava Trust (est. 1999.) The intention was not only to focus on the violence perpetrated by society, law, the State, family and other such institutions but more importantly to celebrate a community with all its complexities.
Madhur Bhandarkar’s Fashion (2008) raised the hackles of several gay communities in the country for Bhandarkar’s ‘caricature and moralizing’ of their way of life and sexual choices. Every fashion designer in the film is gay, they charged, and all of them are effeminate. “The only guy not shown as a pansy is the one who succumbs to family pressure and ends up marrying a girl,” says Nitin Karani, trustee of Humsafar. “I felt very offended watching the film. I think he (Bhandarkar) has used the gay issue only for publicity and has not done justice to it.” The film mortified an American lesbian. “Within the current Indian landscape, I do not know whether these stereotypes will help in the fight against Section 377 which criminalizes homosexuality in the country. I was extremely offended by the flat portrayal,” she says. Priyanka Bhatia of Stree Sangam, a feminist collective of lesbian, bisexual and transgender women, says that except for a handful of films, Bollywood has mostly damaged the fight against the law and reinforced the stereotypes. “The biggest problem I had with Bhandarkar’s Page 3 was that he equated homosexuality with paedophilia. Homosexuality is about two adult men and not adult men abusing children,” she says.
Karan Johar’s Dostana (2008) shows Bollywood hunks Abhishek Bachchan and Jon Abraham pretending to be a gay couple in a bid to rent an apartment in Mumbai. There are scenes showing John Abraham sweeping Abhishek off his feet and into a kiss in the film. Though the gay and lesbian community has not liked the film for the ‘pretension’ the two hunks put up, paying pretentious lip service to their community, director Onir is happy. “I am happily surprised that the multiplexes went housefull with Dostana. With a whole lot of Bollywood-ism and a little gay humour, the film made for perfect family viewing,” he says. Onir feels the acceptance of homosexuality in Indian films will happen only when the characters are portrayed without fussing over them. “For example, why not let one of the band members in Rock On!! Be gay and leave it at that without elaborating on it?” he asks, and adds that hopefully things will change once homosexuality is made legal and Section 377 is axed. Films that have got the thumbs up from gays and lesbians are Honeymoon Travels Pvt. Ltd., My Brother Nikhil and Rules (Pyar Ka Superhit Formula.) Nandita Das, one of the homosexual protagonists in Fire, feels that “misrepresentation or derogatory connotations to the characters by filmmakers can stigmatise the community and force them to remain closeted.” Vinay Pathak has an important role in the upcoming film Straight, says, “When Parvati Gopalan, the director, gave me the script of Straight, I said ‘wow!’ I play the role of a man confused about his sexuality, who cannot figure out if he is gay or straight, and I knew Parvati, a sensible filmmaker, would tell the story honestly, the way it should be told.”
In 1974, the American Psychiatric Association ceased to classify homosexuality as an illness. But this has not stopped hundreds of gay, lesbian and transgender youth from being confined to psychiatric institutions and being subjected to ‘treatment’ to change their sexual orientation. Doctors cite a ‘gender identity disorder’ to justify this ‘treatment.’ Some years ago, the National Centre for Lesbian Rights, the International Conference on Transgender Law and Employment Policy, the International Gay and Lesbian Rights Commission (USA) and several other organizations urged the American Psychiatric Association to revise its stand on this issue and affirm the right of every individual to receive competent health care on demand so that they can achieve and maintain their self-defined gender identities. Though homosexual acts are not criminal in Argentina, the police still harass lesbians, gays and transvestites, using police edicts and antecedents which empower them to arrest anyone arbitrarily and take them to police headquarters to check their ‘criminal’ records.
“If the Chinese and South Asian gay and lesbian communities finally organized, there would be over 75 to a hundred million gay men and women in the world’s two largest cultures. Their impact and creative energies are already being felt in the arts, theatre, fashion and new writing,” writes Kavi, leaving us with some grave questions to reflect on.
Monique Wittig, the foremost contemporary theoretician of a lesbian “third sex” says that lesbianism is a concrete illustration of the theory that oppression constructs sex. The lesbian’s physical and sexual interactions insist that it is her ‘womanness,' not her lesbianism that confines her within the patriarchal formation of femininity. If lesbians are ever able to situate themselves as another sex, as non-women (and therefore, also non-men), they could theoretically create a defining model in which men are irrelevant. Lesbian sexuality generates an identity that is not defined by an opposition to maleness. The lesbian remains outside the male-female polarity, according to Wittig. Any female bonding that violates the dictates of patriarchy, like the two women in Fire, attracts negative associations. This happens simply because dominant culture invests heterosexual identities with definite positive qualities. What then, pray, constitutes the ‘gay?’ The same associations, naturally!
Shoma A. Chatterji, film critic, journalist and author, won the National Award (1991) for Best Film Critic and the Best Film Critic Award from the Bengal Film Journalists’ Association (1998.) Her book Parama and Other Outsiders – The Cinema of Aparna Sen, won the National Award for the Best Book on Cinema in 2003. She won a research fellowship from the National Film Archive Pune in 2003-2004 and recently submitted her dissertation for her Senior Research Fellowship from PSBT (Public Service Broadcasting Trust) Delhi. She won the second prize in the Sahitya Akademi’s Golden Short Story Translation Contest in 2007. She is awaiting the results of her Ph.D. thesis on Cinema in the History stream. The title of the thesis is Men Directors – Women’s Voice. She writes extensively on cinema and gender issues. She also covers media, human rights, development, child rights and contemporary issues in several print and electronic media publications across India. She has been on the panel of several Film Juries at International Film Festivals such as Mannheim-Heidelberg, St. Petersburg, Dona San Sebastian, etc. She has presented papers on television and cinema at Thessaloniki, Greece, Mannheim, Stuttgart and University of Heidelberg, Germany, School of Sound, London, and Asian Film Centre, Colombo, Sri Lanka. Besides contributing to many edited compilations on Indian cinema, she has singly authored 16 published books on cinema, gender issues, short fiction and urban history. She currently contributes to The Statesman, The Tribune, Sahara Time, Screen, The Clean India Journal, Bride & Style, Tran World Features, South Asian Cinema and Film India Worldwide. She has been writing for 30 years and is based in Kolkata.