Susan Sontag once said that “fear of sexuality is the new, disease-sponsored register of the universe of fear in which everyone now lives”. In India, this fear is buttressed by social conservatism and hypocrisy and our films, for the most part, are a reflection of this. Burdened by archaic censorship laws and the pressure of playing to the gallery, most Indian films approach sex and its attendant concerns gingerly, if at all. The recent ‘Films of Desire’ festival, organized by human rights organization CREA at Neemrana Fort Palace in Rajasthan was an attempt to foster a more layered understanding of representation, sexuality, gender and rights. A version of the festival, comprising films mainly from south-east Asia, was brought to the city by Good as You and Swabhava. Both organizations work for LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transsexual) rights so it was perhaps natural that the films chosen for the showing were related to queer sexuality in some way or the other. But the nuanced approach employed by many of the films raised this above the level of mere propagandist fare.or instance, the Indonesian film Love for Share directed by Nia Dinata is an intricate and moving depiction of polygamous lifestyles in Jakarta. Three stories are adroitly woven together to afford a glimpse into how polygamy infiltrates the heart of family life across different social strata. In one of the stories, the growing intimacy between two wives underpins the larger theme with motifs of escape, freedom and hope. Mark Reyes’s The Last Full Show probes the dynamics of a relationship between an adult man and an underage boy while The Matchmaker directed by Cinzia Puspita Rini uses a gentle, breezy tone to talk about the parity of homosexual and heterosexual relations. The Thai film, Beautiful Boxer, directed by Ekachai Uekrongtham draws on the life of Parinya Charoenphol, a Muaythai boxer who underwent a sex change operation to become a woman. The movie chronicles her life and her path towards self-realization. The Filipino film, Blossoming Of Maximo Oliveros, traces the preadolescent trials of a queer boy.
The films went beyond depicting queer sexuality or drumming messages home to a fuller exploration of the relationships and their implications. Swabhava hopes that film festivals like this one will help bring alternative sexuality out of the closet and let others into a community that tends to remain, for the most part, private and separate. But this is an arduous task. Besides budgetary constraints, organizations like Swabhava also face resistance and apprehension when it comes to finding spaces that will be willing to host such events. “Many halls and auditoria that screen other serious or provocative issues shy away from homosexuality and view it as a potential law and order problem,” says Vinay Chandran, Executive Director, Swabhava.
The alternatives are bleak. Mainstream Hindi cinema, which remains the most widely distributed cinema in the country, has traditionally adopted an attitude of denial or mockery towards queer sexuality. Representations of gays, lesbians and transsexuals have veered between the comic and the criminal. In his essay “The Changing Image of the Hero in Hindi films”, Ashok Row Kavi points out that homo-eroticism and the gay construct have always played a firm role in Hindi cinema as evident in movies like Zanjeer (1973), Sholay (1975) and Dostana (1980) where the male friendship is the emotional crux of the film and the heroine plays a silent, subdued role. But such relationships exist at the subtextual level and it is rare for an openly gay relationship to find its way onto the screen. He also points to the criminalization of sexual minorities in movies like Mahesh Bhatt’s Sadak (1991) and the overtly sensitive Tamanna (1997) after which “gay men were furious about how depressing alternative sexuality was portrayed to be”.
The representation of queer people as deviant, victim or criminal cuts to the heart of what is wrong here—an unwillingness to understand and a deep-seated denial that there may be multiple forms of sexuality in a society. The effeminate sidekick or gay comedian is a repository of ridicule in movies like Mast Kalandar (1991) and Raja Hindustani (1996). The recent travesty, Girlfriend (2004), portrays the lesbian as a violent, obsessive psychopath who is adequately punished with a gruesome death. Kal Ho Na Ho (2003) despite its apparent modernism reinforces public reaction to homosexuality. Shantaben’s exaggerated outrage at what she perceives to be a gay relationship is considered funny rather than offensive. In one scene, an indignant Saif Ali Khan reassures his father that he is heterosexual by saying that everything is ‘normal’ (“normal chhe”). Such films feed into homophobic stereotypes of gay or lesbian people as twisted, deviant or less than normal in some way. Notable exceptions include movies like Bombay Boys (1998), a coming of age story about three boys, one of whom realises that he is gay. More recently, Onir’s My Brother Nikhil (2005) tested traditional boundaries with its homosexual protagonist, and amazingly, emerged unscathed.
Perhaps, the most important film in this context is Deepa Mehta’s Fire (1996). While problematic in its premise that the two women protagonists drift into lesbianism because of callous husbands, it was a landmark film because of the protests it elicited and the resulting media attention. “The screening of Fire and the violence that followed brought lesbianism into public and media attention. Activists fought for the movie not because they agreed with it totally but because they felt it was high time people realised that lesbianism does exist in India,” explains Chandran. In Fire, homosexuality was portrayed as both last resort and consolation prize—not a message that the queer community is happy about—but it did sweep lesbianism out from under the carpets.
Still, queer sexuality remains a much maligned and misunderstood area. As Chandran says: “Indian cinema has a long way to go. There are not enough affirmative representatives that anyone in the queer community can identify with directly without looking for subtext or underlying meaning. Other forms of relationship, other forms of ‘being’ have to be explored.” It may be some time before our cinema, or our audiences, find the heart and maturity to do this. Until then, it’s up to film festivals like this one to show the way.