Queer On Film, And In Books
The judgment on same-sex marriage is expected soon
Pride Month celebrations this June were yet another occasion to look at the way members of the queer community are portrayed in Indian cinema and literature. Independent filmmaker Apurva Shah told The Citizen that she has viewed some great off-beat films about same-sex love in recent times.
“There are films where same-sex love is shown as a normal emotion. Homosexual characters are not depicted as villains, clowns or as ‘over sexed perverts’,” said Shah giving a list of at least a dozen films that she has enjoyed watching. What is common between Shah and most of the other filmmakers and film buffs spoken to, is their admiration for the super sensitive way director Hansal Mehta has treated homosexuality on screen in films like ‘Aligarh’.
Much of the credit for the understanding shown in ‘Aligarh’ must go to Apurva Asrani the story, and dialogue writer of the film. The amazing Asrani has always said that queer people are human beings just like anyone else. Why should cinema, media and literature not portray queer characters in all their rainbow colours and without concentrating only on their sexuality? Why not with a sense of humour, is the question.
The habit of making fun of those who are different, and the desire to exclude them from mainstream society needs to be readdressed, a job that a responsible media can help achieve. It is a good thing that many more film makers are looking at queer themes and trying to share them with a society that continues to be largely homophobic.
Take ‘Aligarh’ for example. To watch this film is to experience a plethora of emotions from fear to empathy to sheer love. ‘Aligarh’ is a superb cinematic experience.
The film is full of care for its characters and deals delicately with a topic that has been dismissed for too long by most people as almost evil. That has to stop.
‘Aligarh’ unfolds the story of a homosexual professor, with supreme sensitivity. Mehta’s forte as a story teller lies in the empathy that he is able to first and foremost find in himself for his characters. He is never judgemental or preachy on screen over the many political themes he has explored, or about the sexual preference of his characters.
Acts of cruelty and injustice in society must surely weigh upon his soul but he does not burden the viewer with his own disappointments, or anger. Mehta loves to just narrate what captures his imagination of the way things are in the world.
That he is able to do so in such a compassionate style is what makes his films so watchable, filling the hearts of viewers with much love for those human beings wronged in society. Mehta seems to try hard to put his stories together in such a way that all the goodness in life like love and friendship is churned up as norm in the end, while hate and the bullying of other human beings seems only an aberration. What a haunting performance Mehta has managed to get out of the already brilliant Manoj Bajpai in ‘Aligarh’.
Mehta’s ‘Baai’ merits mention as well. ‘Baai’ is one of many episodes in the ‘Modern Love Mumbai’ series on OTT. It is a tender take on love between Pratik Gandhi’s character Manzar, and Ranveer Brar’s Rajveer.
There is enough dramatic tension in the relationship between the two men but Manzar’s anxiety of how and when he should confess to Baai, his grandmother the truth about his sexuality adds mystery to the story telling.
Mehta waves no revolutionary messages on screen nor is he patronising in his narration. He just tries to show as he has experienced or imagined a particular slice of life.
There are others who are not happy with the way homosexuality is shown in cinema even today. Time and again filmmaker Onir has regretted that it is mostly heterosexual filmmakers who project the queer community through their lens.
The director of ‘My Brother Nikhil’, Onir feels that Bollywood has reduced the identity of the queer community to their sexuality.
Despite Bollywood disappointing most of the time, Karan Johar’s ‘Ajeeb Dastan Hai Yeh’ is unforgettable. It remains a favourite out of the four short films from ‘Bombay Talkies’ made in 2013 as a tribute to 100 years of Indian cinema.
In this one, the flamboyant film maker moves away from larger than life sets, sound, costumes and song and dance to concentrate on unexpressed feelings of his characters played by the talented Saquib Saleem, Randeep Hooda and Rani Mukerji. The story is about a chance meeting between a married bisexual man and an attractive homosexual. Suppressed emotions surface and reach a crescendo in the film in tune to a beautiful song from a black and white Hindi film from 1964.
It was Deepa Mehta’s ‘Fire’ from 1996 that had made society sit up and confront the reality of same-sex love. It is perhaps the first film to have explored same-sex love so publicly and on screen. The protest that followed against the same film in different parts of the country had also exposed the extent of dislike in society for same sex lovers.
Actor and filmmaker Nandita Das called ‘Fire’ a landmark film that had helped her to look at the homosexual community seriously and with greater sensitivity. She is glad that ‘Fire’ was made and that she was part of the film along with actor Shabana Azmi.
The continued interest of Das in the problems faced by the queer community is to ensure that all citizens support each other in enjoying equal rights. Das strongly believes that it is the right of every citizen to be who they are.
Some of the other films that come to mind apart from ‘Fire’ that attempt to explore homosexuals in earnest are ‘Margarita With A Straw’, ‘My Brother… Nikhil’, ‘Sheer Korma’, ‘Love’ and ‘Angry Indian Goddesses’. ‘Fire’ went on to inspire endless discussions over society’s unhealthy attitude towards homosexuality even as it made the far-right and the ultra conservatives very angry.
This is ironic as same-sex love has long been a fixture of South Asian art and literature for thousands of years. The ancient ‘Kama Sutra’ describes sex between two men as well as two women, while 18th Century Urdu poetry depicts same-sex desire in the same tones and registers as heterosexual desire.
‘Gender, Sex and the City’, by Professor Ruth Vanita is an attempt to explore the cosmopolitan sensibilities of Urdu poetry written in the late 18th Century and early 19th Century, especially in Lucknow. This is a period when the city was a centre of flourishing Indo-Persian culture.
The art of ‘rekhti’ poetry that addresses the lover in the female voice was born in Lucknow. The distinguishing feature of ‘rekhti’ is a female speaker, and a focus on women’s lives focusing not on love alone but on pleasure. The documentation of the practices, spaces and rituals of everyday female life had brought a subordinated part of the population like women to the centre stage.
In the late 19th Century, the secluded women’s domestic worlds were not gloomy or isolated but bustling and lively. Persian and Urdu poetry conventionally depicted men as lovers of both men and women and poets at this time wrote openly about male-male love and explicitly about female-female love.
Over time female-female relationships become virtually a hallmark of Lucknow ‘rekhti’ style poetry. Both Urdu and Hindi poets in the 18th Century had delight in playful jousting. This kind of writing evolved when Lucknow had developed a court culture saturated with the presence of women.
Within a century the rulers of Awadh had created an ambience that was open to women’s interventions, the women ranging from members of the court, marketplace and domestic servants. Historian Saleem Kidwai noted that the political and cultural prominence of women as part of the Lucknow court culture was the strength rather than its weakness.
This culture has been looked down for its effeminacy by the moral custodians of society and labelled dirty and shameless. The rulers were accused of being lovers of pleasure, lazy and given to effeminacy. The British used terms right up to the 21st Century like decadence, perversion and lust.
However, if decadence is a word derived from decay then the culture and poetry in Lucknow at that time was not decaying but lively and vigorous. The ruling elite had encouraged playfulness. Holi was played with gay abandon and Krishna’s love for Radha and other milkmaids had inspired the populace to appreciate pleasure and to love more and to hate and fear less.
In the late 19th Century appeared social reformers both Hindu and Muslim who developed into nationalists. Within a couple of generations, a world view was constructed that was the very antithesis of play.
Drawing on Victorian values of earnestness, thrift and industry and on their own religious orthodoxies, it was advocated that every activity have a moral or social purpose, writes Vanita.
Vanita is co-author of ‘Same-Sex Love in India’ with Kidwai. Vanita said that it wasn’t until the British Empire imposed its rule over India in the mid-19th Century that such relationships became taboo. In 1861, the colonial government introduced a law criminalising homosexuality in contrast to centuries of local cultural attitudes around sexuality. That cruel law was overturned only in 2018.
In 2009, the Delhi High Court had overturned Section 377 as violative of the Indian Constitution and referred to ‘Same-Sex Love in India’ by Kidwai and Vanita. In fact all the petitions against this anti-sodomy law have cited this landmark book to prove that homosexuality is not a Western import. The book throws light on the long, incontestable history of same-sex love and desire in the Indian subcontinent. Covering over 2000 years, the book contains excerpts from stories, poems, letters, biographies and histories in fifteen languages.
The editors’ introductions to each period and text trace the changing depictions of and debates around same-sex relations, illuminating their social, political and literary contexts. The essays are an outstanding work of scholarship. The writing ranges from romantic to analytical, playful to thoughtful that help to look at Indian culture and society with new eyes.
In the hometown of Kidwai, Lucknow Bioscope hosted ‘mah-e-garv’ (pride month) on June 18 in celebration of the culture of the lesbian and gay community. Poet, activist, mythologist and script writer, Ritwik Das said that the use of words ‘gay’ and ‘queer’ give the impression that all is good with us.
But the many struggles that members of the queer community have faced and continue to face are not quite understood. Das recalled moments when Kidwai, a pioneer in the queer movement in India had challenged young people to strive to bring a change in their homeland and to embrace the history of queerness in our culture.
The same event saw independent communications consultant Alisha Asif read excerpts from ‘Same Sex Love in India’. She read a chapter on Amir Khusro who wrote passionate poems about his love for Nizamuddin, the 13th Century mystic.
Asif is grateful to Sanatkada, Lucknow’s arts and crafts community, for having converted its courtyard into an adda, a regular meeting place for all human beings who believe in conversations that matter, and where they can sit and talk without fear.
Asif also read out letters written by Urdu poet Josh Malihabadi on same-sex love from the same book which is a comprehensive history of same-sex love and desire in the Indian subcontinent. Concepts like intimacy and the need for a gender neutral language were also discussed.
Shah read stories for children and talked of the importance of sharing more stories that normalise the idea of love beyond gender. The idea is to get into the habit of looking at homosexuals as human beings, and not as freaks with weird mannerisms.
The world also looks upon the queer as creatures to be pitied, and as victims. For too long the representation of queer sexuality on screen and in literature has been that of a sad person of a victim.
It is the absence of that suffering tone of the queer that attracted Professor Niladri R. Chatterjee to the short stories of the late Krishnagopal Mallick, a Bengali publisher and journalist who wrote in the last century. A teacher of Gender Studies, Chatterjee is also the author of ‘Androgyny and Female Impersonation in India: Nari Bhav’, an engaging volume that makes an effort to understand the sensibility of the feminine beyond the anatomy-directed definitions circumscribed within the dubious realm of the ‘third sex’, or ‘third gender’.
As expressed through various literary and performative traditions in India, the concept of nari bhav (female sensibility) is a deeply rooted cultural belief in the fluid interplay of the female and the male symbolised, for example, as ‘ardhanariswara’ (half man half woman).
The belief is that a constant interplay of duality is responsible for creating balance and harmony in both personal and social aspects of human life and the appreciation of both the existence of male and female energy in life. To want to explore aesthetics in life is the motivating desire to go for female impersonation.
To understand this desire is to encourage more inclusiveness in social attitudes. The volume also documents interesting interactions with performers of the dying art form of female impersonation.
The country is on the verge of hearing a historic judgment on same-sex marriage soon. It is five years since same-sex relationships were decriminalised and almost half a year since a homosexual couple went to the Supreme Court to get their marriage recognised.
If the awaited judgement is in favour of the homosexual community it will help more and more people in society to accept the reality of queerness in their midst, and to allow everyone to eventually live their truth.
However, publisher Trisha Niyogi feels that legal recognition is a fine first step but social acceptance is a must. Reading is a solution. Books help people to change their mind and to overcome prejudices. Niyogi is convinced that books go a long way in normalising queerness, but only if we read enough queer literature.
What books can do is to make queer desires more public, more mainstream and as important as heterosexual aspirations. The need is to find out more about what the queer want out of life and not just out of sexuality.
In an effort to introduce queer desires and queer lives to many more people, Niyogi published ‘Entering the Maze: Queer Fiction of Krishnagopal Mallick’ last April, in time to celebrate Pride Month in June.
Mallick wrote originally in Bengali at the turn of the last century. The short stories have been translated into English by Professor Chatterjee who was charmed by the writing of Mallick because he found a complete absence of negative emotions like suffering, anguish, guilt and trauma in his writing.
Mallick wrote clear-eyed, matter-of-fact, even humorous narratives about queerness that Chatterjee found refreshing. Chatterjee was delighted to read trauma-less and guilt-free stories penned without guilt by Mallick about his own sexuality. Mallick presents Bengali masculinity differently, an idea that has been described almost entirely in terms of heterosexuality in the past.
A kind of interesting complexity is introduced by Mallick to the usual understanding of Bengali masculinity, making one wonder if life was not a little more kind and understanding in the past than it is today?