India’s new lesbian fire: the gay-themed Girlfriend caused riots among Indian fundamentalists. So why don’t queers like the film?
For gay and lesbian groups in India, the new Bollywood movie Girlfriend has posed a confusing dilemma. Queer activists are condemning the film for its homophobic and titillating depiction of lesbians. But those stone activists are just as outraged at rightwing religious groups who condemn Girlfriend’s lesbian elements as “un-Indian.” “The film has managed to infuriate everybody,” explains Sandip Roy, the editor of Trikone, a San Francisco-based magazine focused on South Asian gay, lesbian bisexual, and transgendered people. “Activists have had to take a much more nuanced position, condemning both the film and the protests against it.”
“It’s humiliating to see the posters for the film all over the city,” adds Natasha Mendonca of Bombay-based women’s group Lesbians and Bisexuals in Action and one of the co-organizers of the queer film festival Larzish. “The worst thing is that around the same time Girlfriend came out, Monster was also released, so we had both Bollywood and Hollywood suggesting that lesbians were homicidal maniacs.”
Indeed, Girlfriend makes Basic Instinct look benign. In the three-hour movie, Sapna (Amrita Arora), a woman scared of going out with men, shares her bed with her best friend, Tanya (Isha Koppikar), a man-hating lesbian. Tanya is so obsessed with Sapna that she becomes psychotic on finding out that Sapna has been seeing a straight man, who has pretended to be gay to win her affections. When Tanya reveals “the monstrous truth” that she is gay, notes a laughing Mendonca, “the camera focuses in on her face and ominous music plays. It’s a really bad film.”
Tejal Shah, who runs Larzish with Mendonca, wrote all open letter in the daily newspaper Mid-Day to the film’s director, Karan Razdan. “More than two decades of work done by gay and lesbian activist groups will suffer thanks to this homophobic film,” she wrote. “The explanation offered for Tanya’s sexuality and psychosis is child abuse: Tanya was sexually abused as a child and this is what turns her into a lesbian.”
Razdan has, somewhat preposterously, claimed that the film attempts to understand lesbianism and not, as Shah asserts, to “give pleasure to heterosexual males.” “I have not made a pro-lesbian film, but my film has started a debate about the subject,” he told reporters in India. “My intention was to create an awareness in society.”
It certainly has done that. Powerful fundamentalist religious groups such as the Shiv Sena and Bajrang Dal have staged violent protests at cinemas, calling for a nationwide ban because they claim Girlfriend violates the country’s traditional culture. Indeed, these groups have caused many to stop showing the film, after posters depicting Sapna and Tanya embracing were ripped up and windows at the cinemas smashed. “If the Shiv Sena goes on a rampage to protest your film, I might forgive you,” added Shah in her letter to Razdan. (Perhaps not surprisingly, all the controversy has been drawing audiences to those theaters still showing Girlfriend.)
It’s not the first time that gay and lesbian groups have clashed with Shiv Sena. In 1996, Deepa Mehta’s Fire, a critically acclaimed film that dealt with a lesbian relationship, was also subjected to attacks and calls for a ban.
Homosexuality is mostly in the closet in India–Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code condemns sodomy as an “unnatural act.” Shabana Azmi, one of the stars of Fire and a member of India’s parliament, told The Advocate in 1998, “Gay men and lesbians are going through painful times in India right now…. The issues are only just now being articulated as a public concern.” Nevertheless, vibrant gay scenes and activist groups are emerging in major cities such as Bombay.
Bollywood, however, is still having trouble addressing the issue, says Lisa Tsering, entertainment editor at California’s India-West newspaper. “There are a lot of gay men and women in front of and behind the camera, so why is it always portrayed so sophomorically?” she asks. “The gay male characters in Bollywood movies are lame, cartoonish, limp-wristed types, so it seems like a lot of gay people are perpetuating this stereotype.”
Sandip Roy is more optimistic: “Yes, gay men have always been portrayed as effeminate and as the butt of jokes, but several films have been more positive.” And Mendonca says that Larzish played to packed houses last October. “We got great press coverage,” she says, “and thankfully, there was no trouble from Shiv Sena.”
Goodridge is U.S. editor of Screen International.
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