Why is being gay such a tragedy in Indian queer cinema?

Ektya Bhinti (Lonely Walls) commenced with a disturbing bout of weeping. Disturbing because after two days and several films at the Kashish Film Festival, if there was one impression that the Indian films were making upon me, it was to convince me that alternative sexuality brings with it unspeakable miseries that can be matched only by death or disease.

I don't live in a bubble in which lives of alternative sexual groups in India look as rosy as those of heroines in Sooraj Barjatya films, but Kashish’s selection is a good indication of how homosexuality is depicted in Indian films that claim to be representative and end up being uniformly depressing. As gay rights activist Harish Iyer put it, "There has to be something dark and heartbreaking about a gay relationship when it is shown on screen it seems. I don't know if it is meant to elicit sympathy from audiences and help them relate to homosexuals though... I personally, crave to watch a story where people are opposed to a relationship between two men or women like they used to be in ‘90s’ films - rich boy, poor boy etc."

 Why is being gay such a tragedy in Indian queer cinema?

A still from Ektya Bhinti. Screengrab from YouTube trailer.

If the films at Kashish this year are any indication, Iyer has a long wait. Take for example, Ektya Bhinti, a Marathi short with English subtitles, which won an award at the festival.  It starts off promisingly with a son revealing to his father that he is gay. The father doesn't flip out. Instead, he consoles the just-out-of-the-closet boy as they together mourn the death of his wife. This doesn’t sound too bad until the film goes from suggesting being gay is a tragedy equivalent to death and then takes an incestuous turn in which the father sodomises the son. Ektya Bhinti makes homosexuality look at best tragic to sympathizers and at worst, perverse to the uninformed. It doesn't do what you'd expect a film being screened at a LGBT film festival in India to do: dispel myths about homosexuality and make a gay relationship look as normal as a straight one.

Is it a filmmaker's responsibility to educate India? Of course not. But in a country that has more than its tolerable share of prejudices against homosexuality, it is important to not further misconceptions about alternative sexuality. Especially when the narrative tone assumed by these films is sombre, informative, detail-heavy.

Iyer, who also moderated discussions at Kashish, suggests these gloomy depictions of alternative sexuality may not be an accurate a reflection of a society that is taking baby steps to embrace homosexuality. We need films where homosexuality is incidental in the story and talking about it is not the director's primary agenda in the film. When it is the latter, you get films like Rendezvous screened at Kashish. Two friends - a gay boy and a straight girl - meet after seven years. They seem to be pretty close with the girl aware and comfortable with the boy’s sexual orientation. However, the moment the boy reveals that he dated the girl's brother in the past, she says, "What? You slept with my brother? You sodomised him? He was just a kid then, just 16 years old!" She only calms down when the friend convinces her he had no sexual relations with the brother. What the film effectively does is legitimise the knee-jerk reaction that gay people have to be deviant or sexual predators of some sort.

If the intention of the filmmakers is to reflect reality, then they often fail because they’re not acknowledging the undercurrents and attitudes in social situations. The documentary short titled  ...And the Unclaimed (Ebong Bewarish) was about the suicide of a lesbian couple in Nandigram, West Bengal, in 2011. The two women committed suicide because of the opposition they faced from villagers and their families. It’s a case I’m familiar with because as a reporter with a national daily at the time, I had visited the village two days after the girls died. The village had boycotted the girls, who were also first cousins, and no one was claiming their bodies or performing any last rites.

Among the things the documentary doesn’t reveal is the complacency and dismissal with which gay rights groups in Kolkata reacted to the incident. I’d personally informed one of them about the women, whose bodies lay in the district hospital since the family refused the money we offered them for the women’s cremation. The response I got from the NGO was, "Oh, yes, we read it somewhere. We'll send a team to investigate." A case in rural Bengal was clearly not a priority. Ten days after my visit and repeated inquiries at the hospital, the two women were cremated by the authorities following the due process for cremating unclaimed bodies. ... And The Unclaimed documents the outrage of city people, their shock at how badly the girls were treated. What it doesn't address is why the girls were not understood in their village and the city-village divide that exists even in activism. It conveniently ignores the nature and roots of discrimination faced by homosexual girls in a rural, miserably poor social set up.

Sridhar Rangayan, director of the Kashish, has an explanation for the lopsided representations: "Cinema mirrors society and queer cinema is no different. There is a lot of angst and anxiety within the LGBT community. In reality too, there are not too many happy-ending stories, so the Indian short films reflect this too. Moreover the filmmakers are in a hurry to get their films out, to tell what they feel is important. Because of this they don’t seem to care about the technical finesse or production value. Of course another barrier is lack of resources and training. If these are available, we may be able to see queer films with better storytelling and better quality."

Updated Date: Jun 03, 2013 19:02:48 IST