Do all our fantasies remain obedient to the normativity of heterosexual desire, asks Sohini Chatterjee.
The glorified attic was bursting with people. Some sat huddled together on the floor. A lucky few occupied coveted wooden chairs, as the fidgety rest jostled for space. Outside, people were queuing up for the next screening in about three hours. This upscale café in New Delhi’s Hauz Khas seemed ill-equipped to contain the enthusiasm of all the people who had arrived to watch Unfreedom, a film banned in India for fear that it might evoke “unnatural passions” and provoke communal agitation.
In her latest book, Notes Toward a Performative Theory of Assembly, Judith Butler writes, “The assembly is already speaking before it utters any words and its coming together is already an enactment of popular will.” The crowd that had gathered for the screening spoke in one voice—silently, but with the kind of self-assurance that befits the righteous. In anticipation of the forbidden, to flout an artificially imposed Victorian morality, to savour a subversive cinematic experience, to defend creative freedom of expression, and to confirm their own temperance, people came together in large numbers. They were challenging the authority of the puritanical guardians of cultural sensibility, which the Central Board for Film Certification (CBFC), aka the “Censor Board”, has become by impudent self-proclamation.
A mini revolution had happened. The audiences were the embodiment of defiance. The assertion of freedom of choice in their spectatorship is germane to the idea, theory and praxis of liberal democracy, which the growing culture of censorship is furtively perfidious to. There seemed to be a tacit understanding among the viewers: to keep the spirit of democratic traditions alive, taking recourse to dissidence is sometimes the only plausible course of action.
The assertion of freedom of choice in their spectatorship is germane to the idea, theory and praxis of liberal democracy, which the growing culture of censorship is furtively perfidious to.
However, the film could not do justice to the hassled inconvenience of non-compliance. The theme of Unfreedom—freedom of thought and being—boasts of an inadequately explored potential. The storyline is as weak as the dialogues, and infused with hideous doses of violence, it comes across as too ambitious a project for an amateur filmmaker. However, a critique of its cinematic quality is beyond the purview of this space. Suffice it to say that it revels in going against the compulsions of Indian socio-moral paradigms explicated best under the ring wing’s lordship.
The queer track in the film presents the story of a lesbian protagonist who refuses to yield to compulsory heterosexuality by marrying a man of her father’s choice, refuting the imperious control of patriarchy over her life and body. The gift of insolence becomes life itself, albeit fleetingly. She leaves home and, despite several odds, marries her lover thereby threatening the socially institutionalized idea of marriage. The women consummate their marriage which has been aesthetically portrayed. However, the whirlwind romance ends tragically as one of the lovers is killed and the other is raped by a man of her father’s hiring, who remorselessly watches her daughter’s violation, as she stares back, unsurprised but helpless still.
One of the reasons why the CBFC refused to pass the film uncut was that it might evoke “unnatural passions”. The mythical line between “natural” and “unnatural” has been blurred by the discourse of queer/sexual politics, but has not gained traction in the common parlance of our custodians of tradition.
When one turns the clock back to the ’90s, the present orthodoxy has worthy predecessors. In 1998, when Fire opened in Indian theatres, the world had already seen it at various film festivals and it garnered wide critical acclaim. It is the story of how two sisters-in-law turned lovers, both forsaken by their respective spouses, discover love and solace in each other. Against several odds, the women break free of the tyranny of marriage choosing to continue their relationship, thereby privileging a life of happiness over a life of misery: a choice most women in South Asia are not allowed to make.
Savita and Beena had done the same. A cisgender female and a transgender man in their 20s from Baghpat, Uttar Pradesh, the two got married in 2011 after having overcome significant hurdles. As news of the marriage spread, they started receiving death threats from family members and villagers alike. Fortunately, owing to the police protection afforded, they survived. However, not many turn out to be as providential. In the same year that Savita and Beena got married, two women from Haryana were bludgeoned to death—for allegedly being in a lesbian relationship—by the nephew of one of the women in front of their whole village. Hundreds of women in same-sex relationships routinely become victims of honour killings, commit suicide or acquiesce to marriages, some convenient, most not. Hence, Fire presented a queer utopia which, not unexpectedly, was too dystopic for the far right.
The temerity of two seemingly ordinary, docile and demure housewives, as portrayed in Fire, strikes at the very root of patriarchal subordination of women’s lives and choices. The ideal wife in patriarchal imagination is the one who suffers in silence without as much as a whimper—her countenance is such. She is the embodiment of selflessness and chastity, who—out of a misplaced sense of loyalty—remains faithful to her pati parmeswar at the cost of herself. The (mis)representation of the “good woman”—honourable and pure (read: bordering on masochistic)—is the fodder deemed appropriate for consumption, and subsequent internalisation, by Indian women, so that subservience is reinforced and re-enacted in the domesticity of their marital confines.
The temerity of two seemingly ordinary, docile and demure housewives, as portrayed in Fire, strikes at the very root of patriarchal subordination of women’s lives and choices. The ideal wife in patriarchal imagination is the one who suffers in silence without as much as a whimper.
Hence, it is not difficult to guess why Fire incurred the wrath of the radical right in our political spectrum. The glorified goons of the Shiv Sena violently charged the Cinemax theatre in Mumbai’s Goregaon. Delhi’s Regal Cinema met with a similar fate. The Bajrang Dal attacked the Raj Palace and Rajmahal theatres in Surat, following which screening of the movie was terminated. At many theatres across India, screenings had to be called off. Men from Jain Samata Vahini had urged Maharashtra’s the then minister of state for cultural affairs, Anil Deshmukh, to ban Fire but it was allowed to be released uncut. Hence, when censorship could not be instituted through legal means, extra judicial ways to combat moral pollution were sought.
This would soon become a trend instead of being an aberration. A repeat performance of revulsion was staged by the right with the release of Girlfriend in 2004. Several parties contested that the movie should be banned because homosexuality is “immoral” and cannot find its rightful place in Indian culture. The Censor Board, however, had passed the movie uncut, demanding instead slight modifications. They suggested the names of one of the protagonists be changed from Sita to Nita, taking absolute cognisance of the fundamentalist predisposition of the Hindu Right, which could not entertain the thought of a lesbian Sita, who chose death over a suspecting husband.
In this context, it is important to bring Althusser’s exposition of the “Ideological State Apparatus” into the conversation. In the heterosexual order reinforced with manic precision by ideological state apparatuses like the media, including cinema, it is an onerous undertaking to accommodate homosexual desire, much less homosexual desire between two women. Moreover, since the mainstream is far more conversant with the “heterosexual script”, representational ability of queer lives remains questionable.
In the heterosexual order reinforced with manic precision by ideological state apparatuses like the media, including cinema, it is an onerous undertaking to accommodate homosexual desire, much less homosexual desire between two women.
But if the self-censoring ways of the medium is tackled, even misrepresentations could be tolerated for their potential of provoking debate, allowing cinematic narratives of and around queer lives to evolve with resilience through the passage of time. And if you let yourself believe that utopias decisively hint towards a distant but desirable reality, the colonisation of screen space by heterosexual narratives can be countered to offset its predominance in our social life, making a heterosexual relationship one among many options available as a viable lifestyle choice for posterity.
However, even as our free thinkers remain on the lookout for better ways of living—which could valiantly cross social boundaries to seek out unadulterated happiness—the predilection of social conservatives towards the status quo heckles unshackled, unfettered ruminations about future ways of life. The reigning ideology of the state would, often failingly, make covert attempts to fashion the cinematic medium in such a manner that it is recognisable and/or identifiable with their cultural imagination of society.
When cinema is used for any other purpose, it causes patriarchal anxiety, discomfits the ideological ruler and threatens to expose other indomitably emancipatory possibilities which, according to self-possessed, authoritative ideologues, are best kept unknown. To stop the devastation caused by every destabilising attempt, the ruler is overly cautious, always living in fear of a lurking danger. Certain values are exceedingly valorised so that the ideological rulers’ own morality is projected onto the society as legitimate and everything else—no matter how virtuous—comes across as mere anomaly.
When cinema is used for any other purpose, it causes patriarchal anxiety, discomfits the ideological ruler and threatens to expose other indomitably emancipatory possibilities which, according to self-possessed, authoritative ideologues, are best kept unknown.
Owing to its very nature, cinema can enable, invigorate and sustain transgressions. This is the paradox the medium suffers. On the one hand, it could act as an ideological state apparatus, sometimes unwittingly, but on the other hand, it challenges the disconcerting ascendancy of unvarying ideological pronouncement. It exists and yet it does not. It mirrors our social realities, yet it bears no resemblance to any person living or dead. It does not contain itself within the hours of its running time. It carries on after the last show is run and the immediacy of its presence is lost. Its interpretation and re-interpretation is disobedient. It exists in the perennial need to be understood, especially in the context of its impact on society. The evasive personality of cinema does not provide the respite one usually draws from certainties. No wonder it threatens, shocks and awes.
When Sheela Raval, correspondent for India Today, interviewed Shiv Sena Chief Bal Thackeray in 1998 regarding the trouble of screening Fire, he waxed eloquent, “In the name of art and progressive intellectualism you can’t manipulate public medium and corrupt tender minds. Tomorrow it might start in all ladies hostels. It is a sort of social aids.”
Thackeray had naïvely assumed that women in India, and particularly Maharashtra, were in fact, all heterosexual. The visual representation of queer lives was sufficient to manipulate them into embracing alternative lifestyles. He was blissfully unaware of the presence of Maharashtra’s homegrown Stree Sangam, later re-named LABIA (Lesbians and Bisexuals in Action), which was founded in 1995 in Bombay, a few years prior to Fire’s India release. Hence, the film sadly deserves less credit than the Right was according to it. In a sad acknowledgement, it needs to be revealed that the film’s potential of singlehandedly encouraging heterosexual women to turn homosexuals, bisexuals or I-will-try-anything-sexuals was extensively hyperbolised. But if it did anything, one can assume that it made queer women buoyant enough to attempt escapes from their closets’ torturous confines.
In a sad acknowledgement, it needs to be revealed that the film’s potential of singlehandedly encouraging heterosexual women to turn homosexuals, bisexuals or I-will-try-anything-sexuals was extensively hyperbolised.
A homosocial or homoerotic—if not avowedly homosexual—portrayal distinguishes between ideas of sex for procreation and sex for pleasure. Repetition of the production could initiate normalisation of the fact of procreative sex being only an option, instead of a social compulsion. Hence, lesser the conversation around alternate sexualities, more people would be forced to remain caged in claustrophobic closets—an ideal social arrangement for radical conservatives.
A conversation around queer sexualities did begin following Fire, which was probably what the right wing had anticipated would corrupt adult, but nonetheless impressionable, minds. However, this “corruption” assumed a significance which till date remains crucial to debates and discussions around LGBTQ rights in India. After the Regal Cinema in Delhi was rampaged because it dared to screen Fire, a candlelight vigil was carried out in protest. Several banners by men and women read, “We are Indians and we are Lesbians.” Fire had unequivocally brought the hitherto closeted issue of homosexuality within the purview of a rights-based public debate across the country.
The now defunct Campaign for Lesbian Rights (CALERI) was founded in Delhi in 1999. Rising from the shadow of controversies sparked by Fire, it made its journey into prominence in 1999 when it demanded the striking down of Section 377 of the IPC which, the organisation forcefully argued, could be employed to intimidate lesbian women. CALERI rallied around issues of lesbian rights and visibility, but could not sustain itself for long. Thus, Fire gave the cause greater media attention and initiated a larger, albeit complex, narrative around sexual politics in India. Ananda Bazar Patrika, West Bengal’s leading Bengali-language daily, published the interview of Malobika and Akansha in 1999, two women in love, who were living together and still are, and who would later go on to become two of the prominent founding members and activists of Sappho for Equality, an activist platform which advocates for LGBTQ rights in Kolkata.
After the Regal Cinema in Delhi was rampaged because it dared to screen Fire, a candlelight vigil was carried out in protest. Several banners by men and women read, “We are Indians and we are Lesbians.”
Fire laid bare stories of lives that were so far being conveniently overlooked and deliberately neglected. However, the LGBT issue had begun emerging from the periphery since the last decade of the 20th century. The first Indian magazine exploring male homosexuality was Bombay Dost, founded by Ashok Row Kavi, which came out in 1990 for the first time. The first protest against police harassment of gay men was staged at Delhi Police headquarters on 11 August 1992. There were organisations working for LGBT causes, like the Humsafar Trust in Bombay and Good As You in Bangalore, both founded in 1994, Sangini in New Delhi, founded in 1997, before the corrupting influence of Fire upon the Indian public could be measured, evidencing our romantic/sexual diversities. Movies representing those at the margins were only facilitating that process. However, the obsessive fear of the Trojan horse of creative freedom sneaking in certain subversive realities onto the mainstream persists without knowledge of our recent pasts.
More than the impact a story would have on the masses, it is also challenged because it is the production of an already recognised impact. Because the director has taken cognisance of myriad social realities and its reflection is realise visual representation is what becomes revolting. The fear of the reproduction of subversive elements in cinema heckles. Films often fan the flames of an open fire, instead of dousing it.
Hansal Mehta’s Aligarh is based on the life of Aligarh Muslim University professor Srinivas Ramachandra Siras, who lost his job at the university after his homosexuality was revealed. The movie was banned in Aligarh, despite its laudable critical reception nationwide. The Millat Bedari Muhim Committee stopped exhibitors in Aligarh from screening the movie, alleging it damages the image of Aligarh. Mayor Shakuntala Bharti supported the ban as well, deeming it to be a “conspiracy” to malign Aligarh.
The fear of the reproduction of subversive elements in cinema heckles. Films often fan the flames of an open fire, instead of dousing it.
The issue of malignancy was centered on the contention—kept in sync with the common right wing opinion—that homosexuality is reprehensible and any association of any place with it would inevitably tarnish the image of the place. Even such a case for banning the film could be made is in itself ludicrous. If the university’s image was not tarnished by it sacking a professor for having consensual sex with another adult in private, then there is little doubt that anything else will. It was made clear that “officially” the movie was not banned in Aligarh, however extra-legally it was.
Societies, according to their strict cultural codes, want to construct and constantly re-affirm their heterosexuality which exists through the absolute invisibilisation of queer lives occupying the margins. Censorship here becomes a tool to achieve that end. Riyad Vinci Wadia and Jangu Sethna, the directors of Bomgay (1995), did not seek certification from the CBFC in the fear that it might not get one. Films with gay themes, like Yours Emotionally (2013) and The Pink Mirror (2006), were not allowed screening in the theatres. Often, sex scenes between two men are deemed “inappropriate” and “unsuitable” for the Indian public, who the concerned authorities invested in banning and censoring seem to patronise. However, if India is prepared to view scenes of rape, murder and gratuitous violence, it must be capable of consuming sexual encounters between two men with equal élan.
Moreover, the success of cinema lies in the lustrous covering in which it brings to us our wildest fantasies. Hence, it is important to ask: do all our fantasies remain obedient to the normativity of heterosexual desire? If pretense of piety to the normative departs, would we not find our desires unbound and rudderless, existing surreptitiously, but with an intrepid reserve? How could it then not merit visual representation?
Often, the making of queer films is a labour of love for the queer filmmaker. It is a political act for greater visibility, acceptance and an effort to demystify queer relationships and debunk myths about the deviance surrounding it. Censorship, therefore, curbs not only the filmmaker’s freedom of expression but their form of staging a political protest against closeting lives. It censors freedom of expression rooted in political dissent. It hinders potential revolutions in our life and thought, obfuscates our postmodernist liberation projects and dangerously builds upon myths of traditional wisdom.