When people come to know I’m an Indian feminist (from India even! That, somehow, is always an extra bonus), after a quick round of, “What do you think about child marriage/sex-selective abortions/sati,” inevitably the question of the film Fire comes up. Hilariously, people are offended that I don’t quite have an opinion or any interest in assessing whether Fire is “really” queer or it’s simply a story about loneliness (anyone who has ever been a token feminist knows what a blasphemy it is to not have an opinion on the 0.3 topics your opinion is demanded on), and that I’d rather talk about the events the film spurred on.
Fire was cleared by the Indian Film Censor Board but was banned by religious right-wing groups because the film had two women having sex with each other. The justification was that “Indian women don’t do these types of things,” which led many queer (and otherwise) feminists to protest with placards that read “Indian and lesbian”—as if this co-existence had to necessairily be spelled out. This is no small feat, especially not in the late ’90s, a full decade before most overt public action taken on the Section 377 debacle, and as someone who has personal stakes in the queer movement brewing in this country, it’s infinitely reassuring to see that moment alive in national memory. However, Fire also comes with another memorable event—Bal Thackeray, the leader of the right-wing Shiv Sena party, asked Deepa Mehta to change the names of the two protagonists to Muslim names for the ban to be lifted. Luckily for us, Deepa Mehta stood her ground and the Queer/Feminist/Left movements lauded themselves for being so progressive. A frame was thus born: seeing the feminist queer movement as inherently radical. (A note: The films and text I’ve chosen are not by any means a representation of the whole movement—for this particular column I haven’t looked at any feminist gay films for instance, so do consider these examples as individual texts rather than placemats for a whole population.)
Moving away from the “revolution” every feminist queer film supposedly brings in its wake, let me talk to you about Dor for a bit. Early in 2006, Dor was critically acclaimed as a masterpiece in storytelling, joining the lives of two women who, save for an accidental death (of one of their husbands), would have never met each other. We meet Meera and Zeenat with their husbands in the opening scenes, where both men are immigrating as (possibly) menial laborers of some sort to a Saudi Arabian company, and for most of the remaining the narrative they slither away into oblivion. Meera is widowed, and her world suddenly shrinks as she is secluded in certain parts of the huge mansion—securely putting to rest the idea that only Muslim people practice seclusion and/or veiling. Here enters Zeenat, she needs Meera to sign papers that will save her husband, who roomed with Meera’s husband, and whom the Saudi government have convicted of the murder. Usually confident and outspoken, Zeenat is at a loss. Her confidence crumbles and what ensues is a long, drawn-out conversation between them, and before you know it, they are talking about their lives, loves, hopes and fears; these conversations that happen on thresholds of temples, in the middle of deserts, hidden behind sweet shops. There is no reiteration of their identities as married women, for in a world where everyone is assumed to be straight till proven guilty, their (distant) marriages make for a strategic kind of essentialism, they question the very structures of marriage, of how their identities as wives define their lives—questions they otherwise wouldn’t have been allowed to ask.
Meera eventually runs away from her home, and the two women must learn to be around each other to continue their tenuous relationship. Dor re-writes the classic Bollywood scene of two lovers (usually a heterosexual couple) running away to untold horizons on the ultimate symbol of modernity (a train, of course!); only there is no proclamation of love or passion, they only smile as the train takes off. We don’t know what happens to Zeenat’s marriage, or how Meera and Zeenat will live together. Most people I’ve spoken to don’t see Dor as a queer film, but simply as a good feminist film that pushes ideas of seclusion, consent, and mobility. It’s not a coincidence that Dor isn’t legitimized as a queer film, but more on this later.
Kari by Amruta Patil is a graphic novel set in a nameless, faceless city “smog city” in India (but its structuring seems suspiciously close to Bombay, although the only social hierarchies present are that of gender, sexuality, and class). Kari, an ad copywriter, and her girlfriend Ruth attempt suicide but survive (the art leading to this particular scene is gorgeous). The story that ensues is of Kari grieving and trying to come to terms with the loss of friendship and the void she feels (her queerness doesn’t stand out), and yet, just as subtly, we see Kari on long-distance, static-y phone calls with her parents who don’t quite know how to deal with their daughter’s “differences.” In a sumptuous chapter (somehow no other adjective fits) about fruits, Kari muses, “I play with fruit that the girls and I are too broke to buy. Avocado, kiwi, mangosteen. There are some fruits you do not want to venture into alone. A peach, for one, creature of texture and smell, sings like a siren. A fruit that lingers on your fingertips with unfruitlike insistence, fuzzy like the down on a pretty jaw. Figs are dark creatures too, skins purple as loving bruises. A fig is one hundred percent debauched. Lush as a smashed mouth. There, I said it again: Lush.” It’s probably my favorite part in the whole book (save for the Frida Kahloesque opening image, which is magic of another kind altogether). This is the moment Kari spells out her desires, and hints that there is something about the term “lesbian” that doesn’t quite fit. Later in the book, she says how she doesn’t use the word because she doesn’t see herself as a lesbian—and to Patil’s credit, never once are we ever in a position to judge if Kari is queer or not. Sadly, Kari’s reception firmly boxes the book as a “lesbian/queer graphic novel,” even within progressive feminist circles.
What makes for a “queer feminist” text? Does one have to have intercourse/date/be romantically with other queer people to be “really” queer? (What does that even mean?). While there is much to celebrate, the queer movement comes with its own hierarchies and biases—elitism, casteism, communalism are only the tip of this iceberg—there is definitely a frame here, of a certain kind of queerness that speaks for the “rest”, so films and books like Kari and Fire will immediately be legitimized as queer, Dor as a film won’t make the mark because it doesn’t center the lives of English-speaking, urban city-dwelling people, given a certain lingo employed when one speaks of sexuality (even when this kind of exploration of sexuality is supposed to “push boundaries”). What does that say about a movement whose people, in vast majorities, do not come from cities? If one is talking about an entire restructuring of our communities and society—and as queers, as feminists this is exactly what we work toward—how open are we to look at our own shortcomings? A decade ago, Deepa Mehta took a stand against communal prejudice by refusing to change her Hindu protagonists to Muslims—today many “queer places” in Bombay bar hijra women from entering, this year’s Queer Pride Parade saw a debate within its members about “how to be moderately queer” (so as not to warrant too much attention). If we take pride in that moment of radical solidarity, we owe it to ourselves to also look at these slippages, in and out of art. It’s not a surprise the performance arts, or a slew of work delineates “standards of queerness” in one way or another, the question is how do we move away from this “revolution” and work toward building one that doesn’t guarantee us freedom at the cost of someone else.