- Team SWA
- 03 September 2019
Lesbian, Bisexual & Trans Narratives in Indian Cinema – A Microview
by Sridhar Rangayan & Saagar Gupta
There is a tendency in Indian mainstream films to build on patriarchal narratives that relegate women to the margins. Over and above this, films questioning gender identities and approaching LBT (lesbian, bisexual, trans*) narratives in a holistic way are few and far between. This article digs through the plethora of films and gives a snapshot of Indian LBT cinema, where a few mainstream films, some independent films, several documentaries and a number of short films have succeeded in depicting LBT lives in a sensitive manner.
HIDDEN AND SHROUDED
In the early years of cinema, the depiction of same-sex relationships between women – at a time when the word homosexuality itself didn’t find a place in common parlance – remained shrouded. One of the first films that did so is Randu Penkuttikal (Two Young Girls) directed by Mohan in 1978. It is based on VT Nandakumar’s novel of the same name, published in 1974, which in itself is considered the first lesbian novel in Indian literature. The film tells the passionate story between two young girls named Kokila (Shobha) and Girija (Anupama Mohan). In the end though – spoiler alert – both marry men, and one of the characters dismisses their relationship as “just a phase”.
Almost a decade later, Malayalam cinema saw the release of another film about two girls, and their connection to a mysterious stranger, played by Mohanlal. Desatanakkili Karayarilla (The Migratory Bird Never Cries) written and directed by Padmarajan in 1986 traces the relationship between Nirmala and Sally, who elope while on a school trip, to teach a lesson to their class teacher. While Nirmala is portrayed in a feminine fashion, Sally prefers dressing like a boy, is willful, disobedient, and bends her decisions and views only for Nirmala. This trope can be found in multiple films, leading to the depiction of ‘womance’ – a close but non-sexual relationship between two women; a form of affectional or homosocial intimacy.
An example of womance can be seen in Razia Sultan, directed by Kamal Amrohi in 1984, about Razia, the first female Sultan – played by Hema Malini – and her romantic affair with the slave Jamal-ud-din Yakut, played by Dharmendra. In one of the songs in the film “Khwab Ban Kar Koi Aayega” – Razia Sultan’s maid, played by Parveen Babi, caresses her with a feather. The song ends with a suggested kiss behind the feather, reflected in the reactions of the maids rowing the boat.
Mandi (1983) directed by noted director Shyam Benegal features a strong intimacy between Rukmini Bai (Shabana Azmi), the madam of the brothel and Zeenat (Smita Patil), a singer. Rukmini Bai is quite possessive about Zeenat and does not let her get engaged in prostitution. She is protective of her from the customers who wish to deflower Zeenat. There are several intimate scenes of them in the film, which can be perceived as womance, or otherwise.
Another recent film that’s a classic example of womance is Dedh Ishqiya (2014). Starring Madhuri Dixit and Huma Qureshi along with Naseeruddin Shah and Arshad Warsi, this film hints at the lesbian relationship so broadly that it is difficult to miss. Especially the reference to Ismat Chugtai’s Lihaaf and the ending of the film with the two women running a dance class ‘together’!
Only post 1980s there are more visible and noticeable portrayals of women in love.
OUT OF THE CLOSET
Umbartha / Subah (1982), a Marathi / Hindi bilingual film made in 1982 by Dr. Jabbar Patel, based on a Marathi novel Beghar by Shanta Nisal. Starring Smita Patil in the lead role of a social worker who joins as the Superintendent of a Women's Reformatory Home in a remote town of Sangamwadi. There she faces several challenges, one of which is a controversy surrounding a lesbian relationship between two of the inmates, which turns into a scandal that's lapped up by the press and discussed in the legislative assembly.
Fire (1996), directed by Deepa Mehta, threw the closet door open. The seminal film starring Shabana Azmi and Nandita Das as sexually-dissatisfied sisters-in-law gravitating towards each other. One evening, shunned by their husbands and driven to desperation by their unfulfilled longings, Radha and Sita seek solace in each other and become lovers. Overjoyed at finding satisfaction in this manner, they continue it in secret. They eventually realize their love for each other and start looking for ways to move out. The end sees Radha leaving her husband and moving out in order to join Sita.
After its 1998 release in India, certain groups staged several protests, setting off a flurry of public dialogue around issues such as homosexuality and freedom of speech.
Sancharam / The Journey (2004) written, directed and produced by Ligy J. Pullappally tells the true story of two young women from a village in Kerala. They embark upon a beautiful romance that proves an evolution for both women but scandal sweeps the town when their secret is discovered. While in Fire, the main characters enter their relationship due to the failure of their heterosexual marriages, Sancharram is clearly a film about two lesbians who fall in love with each other.
And with visibility also comes the trash!
Girlfriend (2004) and Men Not Allowed (2006), were obviously made for a male audience, and with no sensitivity, these films are meant to titillate and were exploitative.
And of course
Unfreedom (2014), directed by Raj Amit Kumar, is a film in which the story revolves around a Muslim fundamentalist in New York who kidnaps a liberal Muslim scholar with an intent to kill, while a closeted lesbian in New Delhi kidnaps her bisexual lover with the intent to love. The resulting torture and violence evokes a brutal struggle of identities against "unfreedom“. The film was refused certification by the Examining Committee, and then banned by the Appellate Tribunal.
Interestingly, it is seen that the more you repress, the more resurgence you notice. So after the Supreme Court reversed the Delhi High Court’s judgment reading down Sec 377, there seemed to be a number of films that dealt with LBT themes in a positive and sensitive manner:
THE NEW CROP
Margarita With A Straw (2014), a film by Shonali Bose, about an autistic woman who doesn’t give in to her handicap and want to explore life fully, including her sexual interests. A stunning film about a bisexual woman.
Angry Indian Goddesses (2015), directed by Pan Nalin, it has been described as "India's first buddy female pic". The film highlights and showcases numerous issues faced by residents of the country such as gender inequality, women as objectified sex objects, gay-straight friendships, big business vs. tribal rights, rape problem, caste differences, skin-color prejudice and lax justice.
W - Women of Today (2014), directed by Tarun Madan Chopra, W follows three friends who run an event management company called ‘W’, are preparing for their biggest event yet – The Freedom Concert. However, during the preparation, they cross paths with three rapists and things go terribly wrong. The movie chronicles their captivity, torture and their attempt to avenge themselves. One of the girls is a lesbian.
And we would like to quote two films here that we are sure will live on in the memory of audiences and in history because of their extraordinary stories, brilliant performances and aesthetic cinematic experience:
Chitrangada (2012), written and directed by the great auteur Rituparno Ghosh, this is a beautiful Bengali film that questions gender identities. The film revolves around the staging of Rabindranath Tagore’s play Chitrangada. The character of Chitrangada is a princess, daughter of a Manipuri king who was blessed by Lord Shiva that his lineage will bear only sons. Though this was a boon granted by Lord Shiva, he had a daughter and she was named Chitrangada and was brought up like a son by the king – giving her training in warfare etc. But the moment she sees Arjuna (prince in Mahabharata) she wanted to become a woman.
The film is about a choreographer who is struggling with his gender identity. He/She falls in love with a man and wants to have a child, but since it is illegal in India for a man to marry another, he transitions into being a woman.
Qissa (2013), written and directed by Anup Singh, this is a brilliant portrayal of patriarchal culture and the problems it brings along Umber Singh raises his daughter as a boy as he wants a son to carry on the family lineage. Kanwar, when he (she) grows up falls in love with Neeli, who doesn’t know Kanwar is a girl. The father gets them married and a lot of drama follows. Finally when Neeli comes to know of Kanwar’s identity, she encourages her to shed her manhood and embrace her biological gender.
While the above were studio films, there were independent filmmakers too who took to LBT stories set in small towns and villages.
Velutha Rathrikal / White Nights (2015), a Malayalam feature written and directed by Razi is a touching tale of love between two women, in the tribal regions of Kerala. It’s a wonderful exploration of bisexuality.
Many of the independent LGBTQ films – there are lot more especially on gay and transgender themes – do not find a theatrical release and can often be seen mainly at film festivals or online. In the 8 years of programming for the LGBTQ film festival in Mumbai – the KASHISH Mumbai International Queer Film Festival – we have come across amazing LBT films. Most of these films are made with minimal resources, with not well-known star cast, but with a true heart and soul.
As filmmaker and curators of KASHISH Mumbai International Queer Film Festivals, we value documentaries and short films a lot as they are able to tell stories with honesty and empathy without the trappings of commercial constraints and even fears of censorship…
Bombay Longing (2001), directed by Georgina Maddox & Shalini, is a coming out story that uses poetic excerpts from a daily journal of everyday encounters.
Manjuben Truck Driver (2002), directed by Sherna Dastur, this Gujarati documentary is on Manjuben. She constructs her identity as a male, macho truck driver, drawn from popular notions of maleness. Manjuben has broken the gender stereotypes, which are part of the social landscape she inhabits. She is 'one of the boys' but she neither smokes nor drinks as other truckers do. She has created an identity for herself against social, cultural and economic norms, and commands respect from her peers. This identity is deliberately ‘male’, that of a macho-trucker, drawn from several popular notions of maleness. She dresses like a man, goes to the barber, gets herself photographed posing in the manner of popular media idols and blends totally into the very masculine world of truckers. Though she lives a totally emancipated life compared to other women in her society, she is no crusader, being quite patriarchal in her ways. The film spends a few days on the road with Manjuben.
XXWhy (2008), directed by Manjula Bharathy, is a Malayalam film which focuses on twenty five year old Sree Nandu, the first openly out F2M Transgender from Kerala poses many uncomfortable issues that question the notions of social positionalities and fixed gender identities.
And The Unclaimed (2013), based on the story of two lovers who committed suicide, Debalina Majumdar's film Ebang Bewarish (And The Unclaimed), questions social taboos and familial non-acceptance in regards to same-sex relationship.
Purple Skies (2014) Written and directed by Sridhar Rangayan, this feature length documentary explores the lives of Indian LBT persons and effect of Sec 377 on the community, as well as issues of patriarchy.
And You Thought You Knew Me (2014) – Written and directed by Pramada Menon and produced by PSBT India. The Film brings the lives of five People Assigned Gender Female at Birth (PAGFB) into focus. Five people, whose only common meeting ground is that they identify themselves as outside of the heterosexual framework and live in the same city. What they identify as, their stories, relationships and activism, set against the backdrop of Delhi.
That’s My Boy (2016), written and directed by Akhil Satyan, it brilliantly captures the life of Sonu, a transman, and his transition from female to male. The film is inspiring and offers hope to many women who may be facing gender dysphoria.
Mitraa (2014), directed by Ravi Jadhav, is a Marathi short film based on ‘Mitra’ by celebrated writer Vijay Tendulkar. It is a film about a woman who feels like a man and falls in love with another woman. It won the National Award for Best Short Film.
More Than A Friend (2011), directed by Debalina Majumdar, is a short Bengali hybrid docu-drama, that questions society’s attitudes to same-sex relationships between women.
Reminiscence of Ether (2013), directed by Veena Kulkarni, is about the love between two women and the longing for motherhood.
Shot (2015), directed by Ganesh Matkari, is a beautiful 8 minute Marathi short film that tells the story of one actor’s feelings for her co–actor.
Devi (2017) and Chudala (2017) are two brilliant films from KASHISH 2017, Devi is about a girl having relationship with her maid, while Chudala is about a girl who changes her identity into a boy. In both stories, they meet with disapproval from their family.
With finally Sec 377 being done away with, there is huge expansion of stories that portray the LBT community experiences with an openness that perhaps was missing in some of the earlier films. And perhaps it is now commercially viable as well.
Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga (2019) puts lesbian love centerstage and within the mainstream Indian cinema space. Sweety Chaudhary (Sonam Kapoor) is a young Punjabi woman living in a traditional family, who is secretly in love with Kuhu (Regina Cassandra) but fears opposition from her family. Her fears are not unfounded because when her father (Anil Kapoor) and brother finds out, all hell breaks loose. It is left to her friend Sahil Mirza (Raj Kumar Rao) to help the family come to terms with their daughter’s sexuality through a theatrical play. The film was directed by Shelly Chopra Dhar and co-written with Gazal Dhaliwal, and had a mainstream release backed by Fox Star Studios.
While the film was critically well acclaimed, it did not fare too well at the box office, leaving everyone questioning about the viability of LGBTQ cinema in terms of commercial success. It begs the question whether audiences will go to theaters to watch these films or are they happier still seeing it on their laptops and cellphones.
This seems to be augmented by the fact that digital web series are a booming proposition in India right now and even the web series about a lesbian relationship, with no star cast still went viral and trending.
New possibilities like online content offer the filmmakers lot more leeway and a web-series like The ‘Other’ Love Story (2016) manages to explore LBT lives and desires with more nuances. The web-series The Other Love Story is a tale of same sex love between two neighbours who live in Bengaluru and is set in the 90s. It is a 12 part series on YouTube. Some of the episodes have close to 1 million views.
There is a rich history of films with same–sex relationships and focusing on LBT (lesbian, bisexual, trans) lives. While mainstream cinema still relegates women’s same-sex love to the margins, or shrouds it under wraps, there is a remarkable bank of independent films, documentaries and short films that are being made recently. Films on transmen and bisexual women are still few and far in between. These films need distribution platform to reach out to mass audiences. Only if these films make money, or at least recover their investment will more filmmakers and even production companies be interested in future productions. More films on LBT lives in regional languages would be a good addition to this repository, as would a resource platform where all these can be collated and available.
ABOUT THE AUTHORS
SAAGAR GUPTA (Left) is a well-known dialogue writer as well as the writer & producer of several award winning films. He has worked with the Children’s Film Society of India and was involved with two editions of the Golden Elephant International Children Film Festival of India. He is the Director of Programming for KASHISH Mumbai International Queer Film Festival since 2010 and curates all the programs for the festival, which is considered South Asia’s biggest LGBTQ film festival.
SRIDHAR RANGAYAN (Right) wears many caps – of a filmmaker, writer, activist and festival director. He has consistently strived to give a voice to social issues in India through his films, writings and public speaking for over two decades. He is the Founder Festival Director of KASHISH Mumbai International Queer Film Festival and FLASHPOINT Human Rights Film Festival, both of which have given a cinematic voice to marginalized communities. Currently, he's also a member of the Executive Committee of the Screenwriters Association.