India is a land of many cultures, and for the most part we accept and even celebrate these different cultures. We Indians are quite accepting of the diversity that way. But when it comes to the sexual orientation of any person, there’s a lot of taboo surrounding it, it is often kept hushed, and almost never talked about. It is just assumed that a man would fall in love with a woman, will eventually marry her and have a child together. The question of whether a man can love another man or a woman can love another woman is never addressed. But at least a man’s sexuality – in terms of infidelity, extra marital affairs and polygamy – is dealt with a lot better than a woman’s. A man is called and even applauded for being a playboy or a casanova who sleeps around with a lot of women whereas a woman is slut-shamed if she sleeps around. The question of her and her family’s “izzat” is more important than what she wants to do or who she is.
Every woman, irrespective of her religion, family background or sexual orientation, has the right to explore her sexuality in as many ways and as many times as she pleases. Why is it always that when a man cheats in a marriage, everyone forgives him and moves on, but when a woman does, she is humiliated, called a whore and even disowned by her family? The question of infidelity apart, does a man’s sexuality somehow mean more than a woman’s? If not, why is it addressed differently in reel and real life? There are of course exceptions to this, but the norm has always been that a man can boast about his sexual conquests and be cocky about it, but a woman can’t even have said sexual conquests.
The topic of sexuality makes a lot of people uncomfortable. India barely has the concept of sex education,and wherever there is one, it is inadequate. Indian parents don’t believe in giving their children “the talk”. So for the most part, children learn about sex and desire from watching movies, porn or reading books. Bollywood directors have never really been open about sex scenes or even mentioning sex in their movies. Sex is almost always associated with love in the sense that if two people sleep together, it must mean they are in love. But then there are certain daredevil directors who not only mention sex in their movies, but have their movies along the theme of sex and sexuality. These are the directors who are dissed by the general public or propagandist groups like Shiv Sena or Bajrang Dal because just talking about sex is such a sin. One such director is Deepa Mehta and her movie Fire.
Fire (1996) is an Indian-Canadian romantic drama film. It was one of the first mainstream films in India to show homosexual relations between women. It was released in India in 1998. This led to a lot of protests among the general public, setting off a flurry of public dialogue around issues such as homosexuality and freedom of speech. The movie explores the theme of sexuality through the relationship between two married women, Radha and Sita who are sister-in-laws.
The fact that a homosexual relationship is depicted in a positive light in Fire, which is a mainstream Bollywood movie, says a lot about the director and her target audience. Hindu scriptures apparently tag homosexuality as a sin, and that is why there is so much outrage about even the mention of this topic in our country. But Deepa Mehta triumphantly manages to trigger discussions and dialogue about homosexuality, especially that of a woman’s. Sure, this movie did get banned in India when the censor board released it without any cuts, but atleast a lot of people got to see the uncut version, and the movie did receive positive response from the viewers.
There are a very few movies in Bollywood that have shown lesbianism as a central theme. Movies like Girlfriend, Dedh Ishqiya, Margarita with a Straw have addressed homosexuality and even explored it through the main protagonist's eyes. In Dedh Ishqiya, the homosexuality is subtle but obvious. Madhuri Dixit is a recently widowed begum who lives with her maid portrayed by Huma Qureshi. They secretly have a sexual relationship which is revealed towards the end. Margarita with a Straw is a brilliant movie that addresses sensitive issues like disability, homosexuality, and succeeds in portraying them. Kalki Koechlin plays Laila who is a disabled teenager with cerebral palsy. The film beautifully showcases how disabled people are thought of as asexual, as people with no sexual affinities. For example. Laila’s mother is shocked when she learns that Laila has been having a sexual relationship with a woman. But the homosexuality doesn’t surprise her as much as her daughter’s sexuality does. She always thought of her daughter being asexual or not having any sexual desires.
India is a male-dominated, misogynistic and patriarchal society. Men are considered to be above women, their needs more important. Most Bollywood movies also show men in the same light; it’s a reflection of our society. Queer Bollywood is only focused on gay men with movies like Dostana, My Brother Nikhil, Page 3, Bombay Talkies, etc explicitly talking about and depicting sexual relationships between men. But there aren’t many movies with female homosexuality in them. Even if there is, it is very subtle and often goes unnoticed like in Dedh Ishqiya and Heroine.
We call ourselves feminists and seem very proud of it. But we still buy into these Bollywood movies that are so misogynistic that it makes me cringe. Is this then the fault with our society? That we unknowingly support the things we are so much against? That on the one hand we want Bollywood to respect female sexuality and still somehow movies like Grand Masti become the highest grossing film of the year? I think it’s high time we take this issue seriously. Female sexuality is not a taboo, and Bollywood and the general public need to be more open about this.
By Samruddhi Ganvir