It was 2001, I was in India for my college admissions. After my schooling in Oman, I was at my aunt’s place in Kerala, duly filling out application forms and being at a loose end in general. That is when I remembered that on one of my previous trips to India, I had read a lot about a film called Fire that had caused quite a furore. I really did not understand what the matter was because I remember even now that none of the magazines explicitly wrote what the matter with the film was. Or maybe I did not understand the terms they used. So with all the panache of an NRI, I went to local CD shop and asked for a copy of the movie. The man at the counter looked distinctly taken aback and sent me home with a CD of the chocolate romance, Niram instead. I sat half the night and watched the pointless prancing of the Malayali versions of Archie, Betty and Veronica, and went back the next day only to be told that the film had not been returned. Three days in a row and finally came the brusque reply, “Child, we don’t keep such films here.” Now I was interested. I wondered if it was because I was a ‘child’ (read girl) or because the film was so controversial that access was blocked. Years later, thanks to YouTube, I found all my answers. I also found a film called Sancharram, found Deshadana Kilikal Karayaarilla, found Bomgay.
The search did not stop there. There was an entire cinematic universe waiting patiently to be chanced upon. And each film taught me something. A group of drag queens travelling through the arid lands of America brought me Priscilla Queen of the Desert, the sheer poetry of a set of people dressing up and dancing atop a battered van, right in the middle of nowhere, the way
tinsel, foil and fake fur transform the desert into a fairyland was magical to say the least. The fond illusions I had of the back of the beyond, neon lit, wood panelled watering holes of America thanks to Priscilla went for a toss after Boys Don’t Cry-that paean to agony. When a raped Brandon Teena wonders how a nurse can discern that she had been brutally assaulted, it opened my eyes to the ways people develop blind spots to their own bodies in the process of rejecting their biology.
The homo-socio erotic camaraderie between the various ‘immortal’ friendships in Hindi cinema was interesting to observe. Two friends (invariably, there would be a Gopal) desiring the same woman, but in reality wanting nothing more than the security of male bonding, looking to
sacrifice their heterosexual love, without once consulting the woman has been played over and over in Bollywood. More overt expressions of bro-love were present in much earlier presentations such as Dosti- a black and white production where a blind boy sings of his friendship as being his vision. The cake in these tales of friendships in Bollywood was of course taken by Jai and Veeru of Sholay. The sexual spectrum that Bachchan has covered in Bollywood is a study in itself. There was a scene from the iconic Silsila where two friends- Bachchan and Shashi Kapoor (who was once called Bachchan’s favourite heroine), reminisce about the time they used to shower together in the nude, and then decide to bathe together again after many years (in Kapoor’s bathroom that has hostel-style line showers ready) and make off colour jokes about not bending to pick up the soap.
As far as drag goes in Bollywood, the five best are Biswajeet in Kajra Mohabbat Wala, Mere Angane Mein (again Amitabh in various costumes), Rishi Kapoor in Rafoo Chakkar, Aamir Khan in Baazi and Kamal Hasan in Chachi 420 (Mrs. Doubtfire)- the sexualized performances that these portrayals put forward were conveniently couched in the need to escape power structures or to save oneself from imminent harm. The same went for female to male drag in Indian films. Be it Annie in Ammayane Satyam or Meera Jasmine in Rasa Thanthram, the need to cross gender lines were always explained away. A man in a dress escapes the villains because
the body capable of threatening villains has to be male. A woman in male attire will escape harassment because men only bother assaulting women. The hero in drag would also flash his fake boa feathers at villains who would reciprocate lustfully while elsewhere, in another movie, the hero cannot explain why he is attracted to this lissome boy. It’s all a mid-summer night’s
dream! A more explicit exploration of same sex or trans sex relations would take place under the guise of one of the characters being excessively possessive of the other.
This was largely the scene in Indian cinema till the 1990s. Possessive same sex friends, casual references, insipid jokes, hyperbolic transgendered sidekicks, all populated the scene and made a coherent dialogue impossible or even relevant. But come 1990s, and things took a radically different turn with films like Fire, Darmiyan, Daayra, Bombay Boys, Tamanna. There was also Maharani, the intersex Madame of a brothel in Sadak, and the cross dressing Lajja Shankar Pandey (played by Ashutosh Rana) whose villainy nicely offset the one-sided portrayals that were soon to follow. Much has been said about the importance of Fire in the LGBTQI+ discourse in India. But personally, I would say, it was Sancharram that actually made a move in
the right direction.
Where Fire hinted that it was the dissatisfaction arising from the breakdown of heterosexual relationships that led the two women to fall in love with each other, Ligy Pullapally’s film sought to present two women who wanted to be with each other because they actually could not fathom a life with anyone else. And yes, there was a male character lurking around who was the
one who plotted to separate the two women as he thought that it was not “right”. The film is significant when placed in the background of lesbian suicides reported in the media at the time and the case of the same sex couple from Kerala, one of whom underwent a sex change operation. I would opine that a lot of ground covered by enlightened portrayals like Sancharram, was lost with Chanthupottu and its caricature of an effeminate man. Such was the crassness of the film that Chanthupottu became yet another slur for transwomen or effeminate men. These presentations were also an oblique way of pointing out that something about non- heteronormative sexuality didn’t feel “right”.
It took Malayalam cinema nine years to take a shot at redemption with Odum Raja, Aadum Rani (2014) and Njaan Marykutty that most of the transpeople of the state felt was their story. The film ran to packed houses and set a benchmark in terms of character development. However, the
issue remains that, when there are so many transpeople in the state, quite well known people at that, why go in for a cis-gendered male, mainstream actor? As in the case of Dileep in Chanthupottu, it becomes more about the person than about the people. The transformation mesmerizes and makes ‘authenticity’ judges out of viewers. Nevertheless, a step forward is a
step forward I suppose. Mumbai Police dropped queer love like a bomb but troubled one with the way the character comes to terms with his gayness. It was like a request for forgiveness. The incongruous My Best Friend is an episode best forgotten. Moothon, however celebrated its queerness and used its interiority to play out a love story. It all felt ‘right’.
This obsession with ‘not right’ or “unnatural” is what the next wave of LGBTQI+ films worked to negate with films like My Brother Nikhil and I Am. The settings of the films and the socio- economic backgrounds of the characters mattered a lot as they served to drive home the fact that
it is not only the decadent rich or the drug addled lower classes who can nurse such desires, the antiseptic middle class loves just as beautifully in different hues. This normalizing can be further seen in Honeymoon Travels, Page Three and a number of films where lives go on and sexuality
is just a part of their existence. Making gay love stories is in way a brave move because in a man’s world, lesbian stories are easier to make as they can just be seen as catering to the viewing pleasure of heterosexual men, but gay films bring with them the under current of threat, emasculation, the feeling of being less than men if there is any emotional involvement by the
male viewer with the story. A close examination of homophobia reveals a latent fear of being ‘approached’. The hyper-sexual homosexual is out to get the cultured, sexually righteous heterosexual- that’s the thought that runs on a loop.
And where are transpeople placed in all of this? While screens smoke and hiss with same sex loves, the transgender plays the role of a nurturing parent, claims cultural validation, seeks civil rights and draw parallels with gods and goddesses to establish an objective corelative. It is worth
noting that their long battle for constitutional recognition speaks the same language. Navarasa, Naan Avan Alla… Avalu are vital examples in this regard. But this is not to take away from the struggles of the trans community who have had to struggle against decades of being comic relief.
Super Deluxe, is a stupendous effort in this direction, as it takes contemporary discourses on sexuality and family to a different level. The age-old prejudices against transpeople, their exploitation and the heinous crimes they are often forced to do are presented very sensitively. But there is also the issue of the voice of the wife of the transperson. Her patient waiting all those years seem vindicated by the return of the parent of her child. Period. And that’s problematic. The words spoken by little Raasukutty, the transperson’s son “Be a man, be a woman…just bl***y be with us”, sends a beacon of hope across to lots of transpeople who left home to live their realities The line also signals, how the ‘cataclysmic, salvation denying act’ of queerness should be viewed- fluid, self-determined. . The Malayalam Aalorukkam talks of parental expectations of their children who escape to live their lives—lives that can never be understood when viewed through a moral telescope. The film which won Indrans a State Award for Best
Supporting Actor narrates the story of a father yearning for his missing son, only to find he is a married woman. The film was also awarded the National Award for ‘Film on Social Issues’.
The last decade saw queerness being treated with a lot of nuance and complexity and the art of Rituparno Ghosh had a lot to with that. His trilogy, Arekti Premer Golpo, Memories in March and Chitranggadha- the first two he acted in, the last, he directed too, explored trans lives, the process of coming out and finally, the autonomy over one’s body. While all the films are
technically, artistically and thematically brilliant, Chitrangadha becomes a manifesto for trans people or actually any person. The protagonist undergoes surgery to alter his body for the sake of their lover and then wants to revert because it impedes their dancing which is their life, their
passion. At a time when transpeople are asked to furnish proof of surgeries to be ‘called’ women or men, this film becomes especially poignant. Sexuality should not have to come with an address and pin code.
The last five years has seen a quantum leap in terms of the quality and effort that has gone into making queer films. The rise of OTT platforms such as Netflix, Amazon Prime, Alt Balaji, Zee 5 has helped as they host content too risqué for mainstream audiences (read as- who would like to pretend to be scandalized by morals running loose and unlaced). The Other Love Story, Romil and Jugal, Made in Heaven are some examples available apart from YouTube where sometimes you may find gems such as Aalorukkam, and yes, Fire.
Though the coming of age and coming out films such as Kapoor and Sons, Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga, Loev are critically and culturally relevant, what stood out was Aligarh. The struggle of Prof. Ramchandra Siras who loses his job and his privacy when policemen barge into his bedroom and catch him in a compromising position brings back the spectre of the fears that pervaded I Am and made a strong case for the Right to Privacy Bill in India. While the world around him has been going crazy defining queerness and homosexuality and theorizing sexual performativity and what not, Siras tells a young reporter, “I don’t know what gay means. There is no word in my language for what I am.”
The matter of fact conversation made me smile at the mountains of words we create on a daily basis to talk about what is and what is not. And here was a person with a nameless feeling, getting on just fine till someone chose to label him. I think unselfconscious behavior should be a fundamental right. The road to getting there, however is paved with words and movies. The above post makes no pretense of being complete or exhaustive, but I cannot simply go on without taking about cinema from other regions, chiefly, Maya Mridanga, based on a novel of the same name by Syed Mustafa Siraj that talks about the lives of the Alkaap performers of Bengal. What starts as a female impersonation, crosses over into the everyday and nothing is the same ever since.Rajkihini, among other thing looks fondly at a lesbian relationship in a brothel. Nagarkirtan, Khejdi are films that bring love from the remote corners of the country and tell these stories like they should be told. Without melodrama, without prejudice, without self-righteous back stories.
An organisation I would like to draw attention to is the KASHISH Arts Foundation that has been hosting the Mumbai International Queer Festival for over a decade now. The festival director, Sridhar Rangayan, himself an acclaimed film maker, has created a very vocal space for Queer cinema in just a decade. Today, the festival and its founding agency are at the forefront of cinematic activism in the country. The practical and social difficulties the evolution of this festival might have witnessed makes it a revolution. A movement.
Speaking of film makers brings us to our poet for this edition, Jayan K. Cherian is a person who transforms his words into films. He has two full length films to his credit, Papilio Buddha and Ka Bodyscapes. Both films broke new ground in Malayalam cinema due to their themes and presentation. Papilio Buddha set in the Adivasi settlements of Kerala is a hard look at the ways caste becomes intertwined with social, political and sexual citizenship. The film made some bold statements through its presentation of native Buddhism and through placing Ayyankali at the heart of the Dalit struggles for land rights in the state. The film was a pushback against mainstream political ideologies that exclude Dalit conversations and seek to foist a homogenized means of protest irrespective of cultural sensitivities. Cherian’s film referenced the system of punitive rapes that were taking place as a means to defeat the struggle for land rights. Ka Bodyscapes, continued Cherian’s eye for rooting out the rot in society. Bringing together the themes of censorship, obscenity, moral policing and sexuality, he traced the connect between them. Though the film was primarily supposed to be about love, it became an eye opener about jaundiced perceptions and society’s eagerness to denounce what it does not understand…or think is ‘right’.
He reveals that he does not have a poetic process. He writes poetry but he would rather make films. And it must be quite a compulsion as while he had taken poetry at his undergrad level, he went on to do a double major in film from City College, New York.
Cherian wrote poetry in Malayalam at a time when there were hardly any openly gay poets in Malayalam. And the few and far between ones were called a very derogatory name that roughly translates as ‘backdoor poets’. Having left for the US when he was 21, Cherian would send in his poems unfailingly and had one of his works published in a leading Malayalam magazine of the time. It elicited very positive responses from a number of people. One of those who reached out to him was a young boy who went on to become a renowned artist and activist, Aryakrishnan Ramakrishnan- who has found a mention in one of our previous posts (creator of the Sweet Maria Monument). Incidentally, that was the first and last time Cherian was published in Kerala, he revealed, laughing hard at the memory. The boldness and historical relevance of his works sat lightly on him as he talked about the struggles of finding an audience for Ka Bodyscapes upon its commercial release, the Malayaliness of the Malayali, Americans who don’t understand caste dynamics and so on.I found Jayan K. Cherian to be a man at ease with himself.
This ease is reflected in his poems too. The sheer physicality of his lines complement the delicate lines of love that he draws. In these words, you will find pain, love, conversations, the conundrums of a lover, questions people like to ask. You might also stumble upon a God. All you need to remember is that these are word cinema.
Sonya J. Nair