Breaking Free

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  • Published 31.08.08

One Indian Woman/Plus a lesbian/Minus a dutiful obedient wife/Minus a tall, thin, slender eligible girl/Minus long beautiful hair.”

Does that sound like a matrimonial ad with a bizarre twist? These are actually lines from Sum Total, a five-minute film by gay activist Sonali Gulati who’s more than willing to wear her heart — and her quest for a lesbian companion — on her sleeve. The professor at the Commonwealth University in the US is proudly proclaiming her sexuality and joining the battle for gay rights in India.

It might have been tough to imagine a decade ago. Today the gay movement is gathering steam and coming out in the open. They are actively lobbying towards changing the law — specifically the archaic Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code (which makes homosexuality a crime in India) and hope to sensitise the public towards gay rights.

The results have been visible out on the streets. In August, a day after the country celebrated its independence, it was Queer Day in Mumbai. A Rainbow Gay Pride marched through the city and wound up with a candlelight vigil in Chowpatty. A few weeks earlier, it had done the same in Delhi’s centrally located Connaught Place, wended its way through the bhadralok streets of Calcutta and got together at the Town Hall in Bangalore.

The atmosphere at the parades was carnivalesque with men and women flaunting it in a flurry of fluffy feather boas, bright paper masks, eye-catching headgear, et al. Pink placards screamed slogans like ‘Queer and loving it’ and ‘377 Quit India’. Everything about them was unconventional. There were no Dykes on Bikes, no scantily clad dancers and no pink floats, but the rainbow flag flew high.

Writer Amruta Patil at the launch of her debut graphic novel Kari; (Above) The book looks at an urban world through the eyes of its lesbian protagonist Kari

What’s it all about? Many gays are determined to come out — of the closet, you could say. And nowhere is it more emphatically evident than at the parades where masks of anonymity are whipped off in the fellow feeling of the moment.

While the gay community is coming out onto the streets, alternate sexuality is making its presence felt in other ways too. It’s openly seeking out audiences in mainstream theatre, art, films and books.

Debut novels are choosing to explore the ‘other side’ of the woman as Muscat-based Meenu Mehrotra puts it. Her newly released book Lilacs Bloom in My Backyard does just that. Another literary debut that is making waves in the world of book lovers is Amruta Patil’s graphic novel Kari. The lesbian protagonist is Kari — an intense young woman who works in an ad agency — who makes no qualms about warning the reader that ‘there is no such thing as a straight woman’.

Patil, however, does not pitch it as a queer book. She says: “Labels are constricting. If writing is not manipulative, it will generally find its audience. And it doesn’t matter if the audience is asexual or bisexual. That is what has been happening with Kari.”

Others are coming out on the stage. Theatre group Cathaayatra choose to make it through Perfect Relationship, a play originally set in New York during the initial days of the US gay liberation movement, and adapted to current day New Delhi.

The play attempts to take away from stereotypical perceptions of gays. Says playwright Sameer Thakur: “For example, none of the young men exhibit any effeminate gestures. The dialogues are used as would any young person in India, without being apologetic or ‘censored’.”

Being gay in India can still be a lonely affair. To break down walls, gays are organising fun night-outs and weekend meets to pep things up in the metros. GayBombay has boat trips, treks and parties as part of its frequent social meetings in Mumbai. In Calcutta, NGO Saathi organises get-togethers and GayDelhi holds a coffee shop meet at least once a week in south Delhi.

Filmmaker Sonali Gulati has no qualms about being labelled as a lesbian activist or lesbian filmmaker for that matter.Pix by Halima Brown

That itself is quite a change from the past. When gay activist Gautam Bhan was growing up, he recalls there were no spaces for interaction. “There were no films, no books, no websites. Now even if there are good or bad films, at least they are there which means there is visibility,” he points out. It is visibility that has made a huge difference according to everyone.

Contemporary gay artist Jehangir Jani finds the environment more inclusive and calls it a transformation that has been brought about by the new generation. And the mainstream media, according to photographer and gay activist Sunil Gupta, is playing a significant role in addressing the alternate sexuality issue. “Add to it the fact that there are discussions on college campuses to address it at the youth level,” he says.

Perceptions are changing and reflections of their selves in popular culture are easing it for the community. “I see watershed changes coming about. Just two years back had I been having this chat with you, I would have been dancing around with my words,” says Diepiriye Kuku, a black American gay activist and student of Delhi University.

The Gay Pride rallies at Calcutta (pix by Sridhar Rangayan) and (below) Delhi saw alternate sexuality coming out of the closet and making its way onto the streets

Kuku who has been travelling and living in India for the past few years has been actively involved in Nigah — a Delhi-based collective — that engages the public through performances and discussions on sexuality and gender.

The second and fourth Saturdays of every month at Nigah are about readings, live music and films. It also held the Nigah QueerFest ’08 in early August where it screened an entire line-up of short three-minute films to 90-minute features and a photo exhibition on ‘Queer Families’ curated by Gupta. The internationally acclaimed photographer is himself working on a body of gay portraits that is Neo pre-Raphaelite in essence, for an exhibition next year.

An indication of the changing times is that the conversations are frank and the inhibitions done away with. The public on its part is unperturbed by the open dialogues in each medium.

The tinges of self-consciousness seem to be fading as Patil avers: “I have a 116-page book out in print, so the answer to that is amply clear.” On the other hand, there’s Rangyanan’s films in which desire is explicit. “My films are as frank as I am to the point of discomfort,” he chuckles.

Take a peek into the pages of debut novel One Afternoon. Scenes of passionate lovemaking between two women initially made its author Roma Bansal uncomfortable. “But then I came to terms with it because it was part of the story,” says Bansal. Her subject is bisexual love.

Behind each story is a personal story of coming to terms with one’s own sexuality. Filmmaker Sridhar Rangayan who came out once he was into his 30s has therefore turned the focus on the homosexual community in his films. “Coming out to yourself is the biggest factor. Most gay men are homophobic, so much so that they hate themselves,” points out the IIT Mumbai alumnus.

International artist Sunil Gupta’s exhibition of ‘queer’ portraits will show next year; pix by Rupinder Sharma (Below) A still from Perfect Relationship, a play about the escapades of three gay
characters, staged by theatre group Cathaayatra in Delhi

Two of his films — The Pink Mirror and Yours Emotionally — have been deemed pathbreaking in their portrayal of the Indian gay community. His newly released film, 68 Pages, is currently on a 12-city tour.

Having already been screened in film fests in Germany, New York and Canada, 68 Pages is a peep into the 68 pages of a diary of an HIV/AIDS counsellor. “Watching it turns out to be an emotional catharsis,” says Rangayan who cleverly offers song and dance routines true to the colourful Bollywood style of making films to hook the audience. At the same time, he subverts the genre to introduce characters one doesn’t come across centrestage.

The movie will be shown all around the country in places like Ahmedabad, Surat and Rajkot to Mumbai, Goa, Pune and Nagpur. “The fact that we are even showing in small towns says a lot about the acceptance of alternate sexuality,” says Rangayan, one of the co-founders of The Humsafar Trust (the first gay NGO in India) along with Ashok Row Kavi.

At another end of the spectrum is Gulati in her efforts to make lesbians around the world know that they are not alone. She’s at the moment fine-tuning her new film called Out and About that profiles parents of gay children in India.

“Each film is challenging in its own way but the hardest has been this. It’s hard for me to have conversations that I wish I had had with my own mother,” says Gulati. Her mother died before she could learn about her daughter’s sexuality.

Yet have attitudes changed all that much? The answer is obviously not. “Things are much better than even 10 years back when gays were only known as victims. But now the pendulum has swung and no one hears as much of the victimisation. But it is there,” says Bhan.

Inevitably, there are other difficulties too. One of Rangayan’s films, The Pink Mirror, has been banned by the Indian Censor Board because of its homosexual content. “From their point of view they want redemption for the gay characters,” says the filmmaker.

While both Rangayan and Gupta feel strongly about the need for celebrity gay icons, for Gulati and many others the bigger battle is against homophobia and “hope that one day there will not be a single case of suicide by a queer person in this country”.

But hope floats. Remember the ‘euphoric power of numbers’ at the gay prides? Gulati smiles: “I’m dreaming bigger and hoping that next year there will be 7,000 instead 1,000 of us out on the streets.”