Two films made two decades apart around one theme – love. From forbidden to mildly-accepting, how Indian films have changed over the years, Or have they?
June for me generally stands for scorching heat, the first batch of ripe mangoes and sporadic rainfall. Over the last couple of years though, it has acquired a new meaning. It’s also marked as the Pride month. Though Delhi (where I live) organises a Pride March in the later half of the year, like most other cities in the country, I guess we observe June as Pride month in the memory of the Stonewall riots.
What started out as a protest against rampant discrimination in the U.S. half a decade ago has gradually been appropriated into the Capitalist culture. During these 30 days of the year, brands put up rainbow flags as their social media display images, come out with Pride collections, commission artfully-crafted LGBTQ friendly advertisements. Indulge in a lot of queerbaiting- in short. This year, thanks to a pandemic on the loose, the celebrations have been muted.
To have a muted celebration of my own, I decided to go the ‘Vocal for local’ way. I ditched the Love Simons and Brokeback Mountains of the world for films made in India centred around LGBTQ characters. The first movie that I decided to watch was a classic piece of cinema made by Mira Nair in 1996. Fire. The story of Radha and Sita (changed to Nita at the behest of the Censor board) stars Shabana Azmi and Nandita Das as the main protagonists. Set in Delhi, the film is reminiscent of a time when cassette shops were bustling with customers and the roads of Delhi not overflowing with traffic.
Radha and Sita are sisters-in-law caught in unhappy marriages. While Radha’s husband has taken an oath of celibacy, Sita’s better half is having a roving affair with an aspiring actress. Forlorn, in their dull domestic lives, these women come together in almost a Lihaaf-like togetherness that only grows with time.
We see them happier. Radha now wears a bright shade of lipstick and swaps pastel salwar kameezes for stunning, silk sarees. There is laughter, some stolen hugs and passionate kisses. But like they say, all good things must come to an end. So does this fleeting romance. It’s discovered, first by a scheming househelp, then by the invalid mother-in-law and finally by the husband.
What follows is a courageous defence of their sexuality, relationship and love. The kind of love and desire that by Radha’s own admission earlier in the film are ‘unfamiliar to her’. But in her final confrontation with her husband, Radha gets to the answers of three questions raised at different points in the film
‘How does this marriage help me?’
‘Did we do anything wrong?’
‘What do you think?’
Having seen this brilliant piece of art, I decided to binge on some contemporary work. With no great expectations in my mind, I streamed Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga. Made in 2019 under the Vidhu Vinod Chopra banner and starring Sonam Kapoor, this can easily be called the first mainstream Indian film centred around an LGBTQ character. (I refuse to count Dostana in the list for its utterly homophobic, crass and insensitive portrayal of the issue)
Mainstream cinema has its own pitfalls and watching this film was yet another reminder. Even if you discount the faux Punjabi-ness of all the characters, Sonam’s poker-faced portrayal of a closeted girl and a desperate attempt to make the film a comedy aside, there is still so much that the film falls short of.
I can go on endlessly about things that are wrong with the film, but then I ask myself, when was the last time I saw a Bollywood A-lister playing a queer character. I can’t quite remember. Even though Sonam Kapoor is a bundle of privileges and it would do her well to attend an acting workshop like she does in the film, I can’t discredit her courage to take up this role.
The film’s simple coming-out-of-the-closet storyline may be too chaste for us living in metropolitans, swamped with British, American and Thai content replete with sensitive portrayals of the issue. But such a story is unfathomable for many a queer person living in small towns like Moga perhaps, where the film is set. For them coming out of the closet is a battle in itself.
So I made my peace with a bland but largely unproblematic portrayal of same-sex relationships in the film. I just hope that the next time there is a film around a queer couple in India, it weaves the simple love story of Sweety and Kuhu with the complexities of Radha and Sita’s.
Original Art by shonamon.i on Instagram
Original Art by carisketcher on Instagram
Read more reviews from Munish here: Bulbbul Review: Not your typical horror film