Sunehre Din to Mitrachi Goshta: Tracing forgotten histories of invisible queer women in the 20th century

When it comes to representation of queer women in early Indian cinema or literature, it is only through extrapolation that one can unearth those hidden narratives. Voices of the past find the agency to speak only years later, but still allow us a precious vantage into times gone by.

Vikram Phukan March 16, 2020 09:35:18 IST
Sunehre Din to Mitrachi Goshta: Tracing forgotten histories of invisible queer women in the 20th century

It is often in the least likely of places that treasures are stumbled upon. When it comes to queer women in Early Indian Cinema or Literature, even uncut gems of uncertain provenance might well be worth a drag king’s ransom. Relics of yore sometimes surface at low tide in an internet efflux that makes the past and its portents as much of a bottomless pit as regular everyday bandwidth use. Old data is especially beautiful because it allows us to stretch back in time the continuum to which we all belong, and the shoulders upon whom we stand.

In some instances, hidden narratives are unearthed only by extrapolation. Voices of the past find the agency to speak only years later, but still allow us a precious vantage into times gone by. In Kamala Das’ Chandana Marangal, a Malayalam novella from 1988 (translated into English as The Sandal Trees in 1995), the protagonist is a 50-something housewife, Sheela, who reminisces about her ephemeral but rapturous affair with another woman, Kalyanikutty, when they were young girls. This takes us right back to the hazy 1940s, clearing the mists one wisp at a time. Das (born in 1934) was herself coming of age around then, shuttling between Kolkata, where her father worked, and their ancestral home in Punnayurkulam, the lovingly depicted locale Chandana Marangal shares with Das’ childhood memoirs, Balyakala Smaranakal, published a year earlier.

It is in the persuasively etched Kalyanikutty we find a queer heroine for the ages. She was a loose-limbed rustic girl “whose skin [was] the colour of sandalwood”, who wore hand-me-down skirts and blouses and swung off the branches of mango trees, while stealing kisses from Sheela on the "sand-strewn path outside the pond-house". As one passage reads, "The moistness and taste of her mouth became mine. The roughnesses and tendernesses of her body became all mine." In 1973, Das had published her unapologetic autobiography, Ente Katha (My Story), which did not shy away from explicit accounts of lesbian sex. The women of Chandana Marangal, in contrast, choose to remain chastely separated even if, decades on, their mutual yearning diminishes not one bit.

Sunehre Din to Mitrachi Goshta Tracing forgotten histories of invisible queer women in the 20th century

The cover of Chandana Marangal (left) and Marie Louise Chassany by Amrita Sher-Gil (right).

Far away from a Kerala village, in the rarefied climes of the École des Beaux-Arts, a fine arts school in Paris, another woman of Indian stock, painter Amrita Sher-Gil, was discovering her own answers vis-a-vis a burgeoning sexuality circa 1930, just 10-odd years before her untimely demise at age 28. Sher-Gil’s artistic legacy is nonpareil, and in her paintings we find echoes of a life lived on the edges of social propriety. In her letters, she spoke intimately and outspokenly of both male and female lovers, speculated or otherwise. That number purportedly included artist Marie Louise Chassany, her studio-mate in Paris and subject of at least three of her known works. In a letter to her mother excerpted in Yashodhara Dalmia’s biography, which mentions her ‘lesbian inclinations’ in passing, Sher-Gil denied an affair with Chassany:

"...I believe that it is impossible to fully transform one’s sexual desires into art, to idealise it and tranquil it through art for a whole life-time — this is only a stupid superstition of the feeble brains. Marie Louise was such an abnormal type of a woman... we never had anything sexual between us. As you might have noticed she keeps on holding my hands whenever we have people around, and she looks at me in a very funny way, keeping on repeating how beautiful I am. But as soon as we are left to ourselves, she [becomes] a completely different person. That’s that."

These conversations speak of a culture of open discussion on these matters. Many of her letters were reportedly burned by her parents when her affairs de coeur began being talked about in India. It was yet again an instance of queer concealment, and it’s a loss everyone bears.

Two more works emerged in the early 1980s, providing fresh vistas of queer women in a disarmingly permissive pre-Independence ethos. Shyam Benegal’s Mandi (1983), was based on Ghulam Abbas’ Urdu short story Aanandi (1933), while Vijay Tendulkar’s play, Mitrachi Goshta, first performed in 1981, was set in a university in Pune circa the 1940s. Along with Jabbar Patel’s Umbartha (1982) and Kamal Amrohi’s Razia Sultan (1983), these were significant signposts of lesbian representation long before Deepa Mehta’s Fire (1996).

In Benegal’s dark comedy, Shabana Azmi and Smita Patil bring in a frisky intimacy to the relationship between two women — a brothel madam Rukmini Bai and her prized ward Zeenat respectively — as they take turns in doing each other’s plaits, humming the film’s signature nazm by Mir Taqi Mir, ‘Zabaanein Badalti Hai’ while ensconced in a tight embrace. In an interview, Benegal said, “You can read a certain amount of lesbianism into it or it could be a kind of mother-daughter protectiveness. It doesn’t worry me to imagine that there could be a lesbian relationship.”

This is a subtext that is arguably missing in the original — Aanandi concerns itself largely with the politics of a whorehouse being forced to relocate outside city limits, only to find a new township springing up around the site of its banishment. But the sheer sensuousness of Abbas’ prose, especially when describing nameless women of great character, perhaps lends itself more easily to such an imagining that one would think. What Abbas observed from a distance, was zoomed into in Mandi, allowing us to view an era with almost begrudging nostalgia, through a belated filtered lens still ahead of its time.

Sunehre Din to Mitrachi Goshta Tracing forgotten histories of invisible queer women in the 20th century

(Left) Veena Jamkar in Mitraa and (right) Shabana Azmi and Smita Patil in Mandi.

Tendulkar’s protagonist, Sumitra, was based on a real-life 1940s actress whose career was stunted when her affair with a woman was widely publicised. What is striking about Mitrachi Goshta is its forward-thinking articulation of lesbian identity, which speaks not just of the forthrightness of the times in which it emerged — a pre-Gandhi Rohini Hattangadi was the first Sumitra — but also the period of its settings. Narrator Bapu’s unrequited love for Sumitra, and her own unrelenting pursuit of Nama, the heroine of a gender-crossed college play in which she enacted the male lead, provide Mitrachi Goshta a backdrop of simmering sexual politics.

The play had its detractors, because Sumitra’s tempestuousness seems almost pathologised and her casual disregard for Nama’s volition or her manipulation of Bapu’s devotion, ends in foreshadowed doom, and makes the play read like a cautionary tale, which writer R Raj Rao has considered to be homophobic in essence.

In Ravi Jadhav’s cinematic reworking, Mitraa (2015), Veena Jamkar’s Sumitra is much more nuanced and even celebratory, and Jadhav imbues his short film with the feel of an old black-and-white classic. However, on stage (and there has been a surfeit of recent productions), Sumitra is often a disfiguring figure as actresses struggle to grapple with both her queerness and her gender expression.

A rehearsed reading of the play’s Hindi translation by Vasant Dev directed by Ipshita Chakraborty Singh, was recently organised under the aegis of InQueerAble, a platform to showcase queer content. Remarkably, shorn of spurious staging and characterisation, Singh and Bharati Perwani inhabited Sumitra as a conflicted but incandescent being, with her obvious flaws only seeking to underline society’s own moral contradictions.

A recent production of the play in English — A Friend's Story translated by Gowri Ramnarayan — was directed by Akash Khurana, and featured actors Abhay Mahajan, Sayalee Phatak and Parna Pethe, as Bapu, Mitra and Nama respectively. In Alok Rajwade's Marathi film, Ashleel Udyog Mitra Mandal, released earlier this month, the three actors are cast in a similar ménage à trois. This is undoubtedly a nod to Tendulkar, but updated to a contemporary university ethos where sexuality might no longer be in the closet (the women are particularly blasé about their relationship) but patriarchal attitudes (of Mahajan, as the man left in the cold) persists.

Singh and Perwani also read Ismat Chughtai’s Lihaaf, which was written in 1942, and got itself famously embroiled in an obscenity trial. While the short story remains an important text for lesbian visibility, and sympathetic of the amorous women at its centre — the aristocratic Begum Jaan and the working-class masseuse Rabbo — Chughtai’s buoyant delineation of this ‘childhood escapade’ often makes people gloss over her unmistakable abuse as a child, and the emotional toll the incident extracted from her.

Sunehre Din to Mitrachi Goshta Tracing forgotten histories of invisible queer women in the 20th century

Ipshita Chakraborty Singh and Company reading Mita Ki Kahani

Like Lihaaf, popular culture of the period too contributed a slice to the queer pie. Satish Nigam’s Sunehre Din, an obscure 1949 film featuring Raj Kapoor and Rehana, can perhaps make it to the annals of #badfilm at the next tallying, but it earns brownie points in the queer sweepstakes through Lata Bai/Bhai, the gender non-conforming heiress (played spiritedly by Nigar Sultana) who arrays herself smartly in masculine attire for many of her scenes, while being clumsy with saris elsewhere, without ever becoming the comic relief.

At a women-only soirée organised by her sister Asha, a bored guest asks of the promised entertainment, “Where are they, your Sitabo and Gulabo?”, referring to the famous glove puppets of Uttar Pradesh — a pair of bickering women: Sitabo, the jaded overworked hausfrau, and Gulabo, the fetching mistress of her errant husband. Almost on cue, Lata enters in makeup-free drag as a street singer, damsel in tow (Rehana as Renu), with the full-throated Shamshad Begum singing for her in the ditty, 'Hum Tumhare Ho Gaye.' By the time the evening winds up, the women are all paired up and lost in each others’ eyes. Later, Renu rushes off to change out of her village-girl costume, but Lata helps herself to the culinary spread. When asked why she won’t change, Lata dismisses the query to knowing laughter all around.

There are more delectably queer moments in the film, like when Renu’s mother catches her whispering sweet nothings into Lata’s ears like they were throwaway kisses, and appears perturbed by the forbidden implications. In Sunehre Din, Renu and Asha decide for themselves how to negotiate their shared crush for the same man (recalling the Sitabo Gulabo reference), so there are other progressive markers the film ticks off even if it likely fails the Bechdel test (the women mostly discuss men).

And although Nigar played a ‘masculine’ counterpoint to Madhubala in Mughal-e-Azam (once again ‘backed’ by Shamshad), she was hardly typecast in 1949, going on to essay an array of ultra-feminine women, while paving the way for other actresses in drag over the next decade or so, spearheaded by the statuesque likes of Kuldip Kaur and her bevy of women dressed as valets in ‘Gore Gore O Banke Chhore’, from Samadhi (1950).

Sunehre Din to Mitrachi Goshta Tracing forgotten histories of invisible queer women in the 20th century

Nigar Sultana in Sunehre Din.

Sunehre Din gave us a glimpse of queer women through the ages-old trope of the ‘tomboy’, a peculiarly gendered but sexless figure. It is small mercies like this or deeply embedded subtext that allow us to piece together the forgotten histories of invisible queer women from the first half of the 20th century. Thanks to the efforts of enterprising collectors, intrepid analogue-to-digital converters and restoration junkies, old manuscripts have been gingerly placed into virtual libraries, free of silverfish and dog ears, and black-and-white films of a certain vintage are now clogging the ol’ tube. Perhaps we can finally put to bay the jumble of mildewing papers, tapes and discs ever threatening to tumble out of our collective shelves, and revel in new discoveries of the old.

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