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Where have all the gay gals gone?

The silence in the multiplex is palpable. The scene has grabbed eyeballs like never before. The lip lock between two lovers lasts for over 30 seconds. When they break off, you can almost hear the audience sigh.

Of course, a kiss in a Bollywood film is nothing to write home about. But the two lovers — faux, but let’s not give away the plot of the film — are men. Karan Johar’s new production Dostana has given homophobic India a new turn.

So is being gay trendy at last? You would think so, if you look at the spate of films — some good, some bad and a few downright ugly — that have been dealing with homosexuality in recent times. But as far as directors are concerned, homosexuality is all about men. Women who have sex with women (WSW) clearly don’t exist.

Male gay relationships are suddenly the toast of the media. Dostana is a hit. So is Madhur Bandharkar’s latest release Fashion which had a gay fashion designer entering into a marriage of convenience with a woman. The 2007 Farhan Akhtar production Honeymoon Travels Pvt Ltd had a similar sub-plot. The Sanjay Suri-starrer My Brother... Nikhil, released in 2005, portrayed gay lovers. Mahesh Dattani deals with the same subject in his 2004 film, Mango Soufflé.

Women in same-sex relationships are, however, not being celebrated. Deepa Mehta’s Fire, released in 1998, died a premature death after violent protests from anti-gay activists disrupted shows. Two other films — Girlfriend and Men Not Allowed — were based on lesbian relationships, but were panned as more sleazy than real. So why are men who have sex with men (MSM) finding space in mainstream Bollywood, while few films deal with WSW?

“We live in a patriarchal society where even straight women are oppressed sexually. So how can we imagine lesbianism getting preference,” asks Tejal Shah, a Mumbai-based visual artist and gay activist. “In our society women are not supposed to be in control of their sexuality, ” adds Nitin Karani, trustee, Humsafar Trust, a Mumbai-based organisation working for the rights and health of sexual minorities.

Even the law-makers are not clear on lesbianism. The act on homosexuality — Section 377 of the IPC — is vague. “The act is ambiguous. Lesbians may be tried for unnatural sex but not for sodomy,” says Malobika (she does not use a second name), co-founder of Sappho, a lesbian rights organisation in Calcutta.

Though homosexuals are still on the margins of society, recent developments have focused on MSMs. The global focus on Aids has led to non-governmental organisations working with gay men, for they are a high risk group. Homosexual men have been given a platform, even if it revolves around the issue of health.

The going is a lot tougher for women. In the last few years, Malobika points out, five women couples, some oppressed by families for their alternative sexuality, have committed suicide in West Bengal. “Lesbians are vulnerable the moment they come out in the open. Their families compel them to get married,” says Shah.

Cinema is a mirror of the times. So if lesbianism is taboo in society, it is not going to be accepted by Bollywood either.

One reason lesbianism is still draped in veils, while male gay relationships have begun to find a place in cinema, is that more men are coming out than women. “If your parents and friends don’t know about your feelings, how will a film-maker unearth them,” asks Sridhar Rangayan, maker of award-winning gay films such as The Pink Mirror, Yours Emotionally and 68 Pages.

Yet in 1981, Smita Patil’s film Subah portrayed homosexuality among women. The woman-centric film had, in the sidelights, two lesbians who take their lives when their relationship is made public. After Fire the only Hindi films that dealt with the subject were Karan Razdan’s Girlfriend and the Payal Rohtagi-starrer Men Not Allowed in 2006.

“But movies like Men Not Allowed and Girlfriend got us talking about the issue,” argues Shohini Ghosh, lecturer at the AJK Mass Communication Research Centre, Jamia Millia Islamia University, Delhi. “Girlfriend had explicit love scenes that were not titillating.”

However, lesbian love scenes, many rue, are more a part of pornography than mainstream media. “Since porn is an underground medium, lesbians have been reduced to being sex objects,” says US-based gay activist and film-maker Sonali Gulati, now working on Out and About, a film on Indian parents of gay children.

Not many producers, distributors and actresses want to be associated with such issues. “I’ve been in talks with a lesbian group in Delhi and want to make a fun film without stereotypes,” says Rangayan, who is looking for investors for his project. “One has to break the myths. It is not just a matter of sex, but of sexuality. This is a tight rope walk and not too many film-makers are willing to balance the act,” he says.

If lesbians have a voice, it’s in books. In Manju Kapoor’s novel A Married Woman, the protagonist’s unhappy marriage leads her to find solace in a woman. “A good book that tackles the subject in a sensitive manner will always find an audience,” says Kapoor. Recent works such as Kari by Amruta Patil, Facing The Mirror: Lesbian Writing from India by Ashwini Sukthankar and Loving Women: Being Lesbian in Underprivileged India explore the world of lesbians.

“Most books on homosexuality have been promoted by the gay movement. So equal importance is being given to both gays and lesbians,” says Arpita Das, who heads Yoda Press, a Delhi-based publishing house that has published several titles on homosexuality.

But for mainstream cinema, lesbians are still a no-no. The activists, however, are not in despair. After all, 20 years ago who would have thought that Hindi cinema would one day deal with gay men? And there is already a buzz about Konkona Sen Sharma playing a lesbian character in Rohan Sippy’s new film The President is Coming, described by the director as a “mockumentary” . Will that be the beginning of a new trend in Hindi cinema?

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