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Dissociating queer from sleazy July 7, 2008

Posted by qmediawatch in English, Times of India.
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Disassociating queer from sleazy
7 Jul 2008, 0431 hrs IST, Radhika Oberoi,TNN

NEW DELHI: Park benches and public urinals. Gay life conjures up lurid images of furtive sex in seedy corners. The sexually aberrant have been pushed to the fringes of a society too self-righteous to admit its homophobia.

Delhi’s first gay parade on 30th June was a vibgyor affirmation of alternative sexuality and a tentative step towards eradicating the disease of prejudice. But long before the swooning parade, a brave tribe of filmmakers attempted to disassociate queer from sleazy. Like Sonali Gulati, whose film — a matrimonial ad for a lesbian — was a bid for acceptance by the mainstream. The 33-year old filmmaker and assistant professor at Virginia Commonwealth University believes she grew up in a society where gay people were considered weird. “I had three boyfriends in school,” she says, recalling her public-school days in Delhi. “One each in class nine, eleven and twelve, (the tenth standard was a Board exam year) — because that was the thing to do!” Her undergraduate years at Mount Holyoke College and subsequent post-graduate degree in film from Temple University led to a spurt of films that were a coming out of sorts — but only to her friends in the US. Sum Total, written and directed by Sonali (no surname in the credits) in 1999, is a 5-minute poetic protest against homophobia and sexism. A slideshow of fragmented images of her body with captions that use mathematical metaphors to drive home the point: ‘One Indian woman, Plus a lesbian, Minus obedient, dutiful wife.’ Her latest project, a short film called Out and About (working title) is also about boldly verbalizing one’s sexuality.

A film that first gave the gay community in India a voice was (the late) Riyad Vinci Wadias BomGay (1996). The 12-minute film was based on a series of six poems by R Raj Rao, whose searing verse ripped open Mumbai’s gay subculture:

You undress underground and find your Garden of Eden

Eden Gardens abounding in Adams and serpents:

Raju, 19, office boy at Bora Bazar

Gulab, 22, waiter at Satkar

54-year-old Sunil Gupta also struggled with the predicament of being both Indian and gay, in the decades preceding the somewhat bolder 90s. “My generation felt trapped — they had to get married. Those who were here felt they were in an eternal exile in their own country.” He escaped to London and graduated from the Royal College of Art, at a time when identity politics, race, ethnicity and homosexuality were beginning to be discussed and the media was opening up to alternative lifestyles. The tumult of the times led to India Postcard, a 4-minute film on gay life in Delhi and Bombay in the 80s. Produced in London in a friendly, home video format, the film focused on real people, rather than intellectual discussions on gay rights.

Real people with an aberrant sexual orientation have also led to Bollywood tentatively moving away from its song-and-dance routine for fresh cinema. Deepa Mehta’s Fire, released in 1998, ventured into forbidden terrain by exploring the sensual relationship of a young bride with her sister-in-law. Mahesh Dattani, whose Mango Souffli (2002) breaks away from hackneyed romantic imagery with an erotic under-water gay kissing scene, believes that a number of Bollywood films caricature homosexuals. As a result, shopping for actors to perform a gay role becomes difficult. Onir, director of My Brother Nikhil, also decries the stigma against homosexuals: “A homophobic community must be fed slowly with important issues, just like one would feed a baby.” The protagonist in his film, Nikhil, is a normal guy,”someone you grow to love — his homosexuality is something the audience is gently made comfortable with.” Albeit not a gay film, it does portray a homosexual relationship with cinematic depth and sensitivity.

Gay lovers, like their heterosexual counterparts, are “normal couples” asserts 23-year-old Shrenik, writer and director of Lost and Found. The short film is a silent, romantic comedy of errors set in a crowded DTC bus. Two men try to steal a moment of passion on a bumpy ride in a DTC bus, by playing with each other’s hands.

The plot, that meanders into mistaken identities when a pickpocket finds his hand in the wrong pocket, makes a serious point about why gay couples in the city can’t express their love in public. “And makes it silently,” explains the young director, for, despite all the slogan shouting, the issue is still not openly talked about.

R. Raj Rao, who currently teaches literature at the University of Pune, believes that in 19th century India, Macaulay’s Minute on Education and his introducing of Section 377 of the IPC, known as the anti-sodomy law, were responsible for the onset of homophobia. “Today, global capitalism has taken over from colonialism to make India intolerant towards its sexual minorities.” An alternative morality must, therefore, find its voice in art and cinema that goes against the grain, to jolt society out of its complacency.

radhika.oberoi@timesgroup.com

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