Edited by Avani Udgaonkar
Art: ‘377’ by Laila Borrie https://www.facebook.com/underthepeacocktree/
In 2009, the Delhi High Court ruled that the colonial-era anti-homosexuality law, Section 377, was unconstitutional and, therefore, void. In 2013, the Indian Supreme Court ruled that the High Court does not have constitutional jurisdiction and reinstated the law. The four-year period between these judicial decisions remains the only time in the history of the former British Raj (India, Bangladesh and Pakistan, as well as Sri Lanka under British Ceylonese jurisdiction) that openly queer sexuality was not punishable by law. The 2010 release of the Bengali film, Arekti Premer Golpo (Just another Love Story), the first ever post-377 film that explores these identities, provides an interesting examination of queerness from an Indian perspective that is not palatable apologia, misconceived and prejudicial humour, or radical subversion. Rather, it explores the various ways in which queerness can be experienced in the region in an organic and personal way – and I specifically say queerness instead of LGBTQIA because the acronym does not speak to the spirit of different sexualities and genders that make the community in India so vibrant, even in its oppression.
Arekti Premer Golpo juxtaposes the real-life story of dancer and actor, Chapal Bhaduri, with the fictional documentary-maker, Abhiroop Sen’s quest of self-discovery. Neither Chapal nor Abhi (played by the late queer filmmaker and actor, Rituparno Ghosh) are fully able to come to terms with their need for masculine desire and feminine expression, and this tension is, in my opinion, what makes the film so exquisite. Growing up queer in a part of the world where a colonial hangover is one of the biggest obstacles to sexuality being voiced openly, understanding my true identity has been the longest and most painful journey to take. The entrenchment of homophobic practice is due in no small part to the influence of colonialism, which specifically defined homosexuality as an undesirable and criminal “Other” in 1860. And unlike the stereotypical coming-of-age story, the reality for me and for countless other members of the community is that the journey is ongoing and likely to never end.
Arekti Premer Golpo encapsulates that dynamic perfectly by refusing to use labels to identify any of its characters. While speculation regarding the characters’ potential bisexuality or transness inevitably happen, the dialogue in the film itself shows how it is less fixated on fitting into neat boxes and more focused on simply living. In a scene towards the end of the story, Chapal is getting ready to don a sari so that Abhi can film him as his female alter-ego of Chapal Rani (literally Queen Chapal) while the two discuss their differing approaches to life:
CHAPAL: Shall I put on these feminine garbs or not?
ABHIROOP: Why do you keep calling them feminine? It is just a sari, it is just jewellery.
CHAPAL: Why not? I only wear them as Rani, not Bhaduri.
ABHIROOP: Why not as just Chapal?
CHAPAL: Does it matter? I like knowing when I am being what. [Pause] I think it bothers you.
ABHIROOP: Don’t be ridiculous!
CHAPAL: It does! It bothers you that an old man who has spent so much time being stigmatised and struggling is still more comfortable in his skin than you are.
ABHIROOP: Shut up! Shut up or I won’t film you! Don’t make me do that; you and I both need Rani.
[CHAPAL begins to silently put on makeup] (Subtitled text)
For Chapal, queerness is performative. He does not become “they” but can be “she” when Bhaduri becomes Rani on-stage. It reflects the way in which identity was fluid but still used labels in pre-colonial Indian tradition. Ancient texts like the Kama Sutra and the Mahabharata, as well as 18th-century novels like Indira all touch on the fact that, prior to the introduction of Section 377 under colonial rule, queerness was understood as a navigation of the masculine and feminine. Although labels were not used the way they are now – hence my avoidance of the term LGBTQIA – there was still a wider sphere in which it was experienced. Fluidity existed within these boundaries but Chapal is quick to point out that even fluidity requires points of stability. He cannot fathom living in a world where “masculine” and “feminine” are erased.
Abhi, on the other hand, is adamant that the two terms are irrelevant. He is a quintessential postmodernist, rejecting labels altogether. For him, life is not fluid because fluidity implies movement between spaces. Instead, life simply is. Yet, his stoicism has chinks in the armour. He simultaneously rejects gendering clothing and makeup while pointedly refusing to be labelled “Madam” by members of the crew in an earlier scene, insisting that he is “Abhiroop and Sir”. (A note here to point out that “Madam” and “Sir” are not in any reference to classist or hierarchical notions of respect per se, but were the terms used by crewmembers for Abhiroop because he lived abroad and would have been comfortable with English terms of respect within the narrative of the story.) Like Chapal, he is stubbornly sure of himself when challenged by characters who are not queer, but exceptionally vulnerable when faced with other narratives of queerness.
A vital sub-theme is the way in which women and feminised men are treated in Indian society. Chapal Rani is abused and exploited, her agency actively removed by her patrons in both the past (supporters of her art) and the present (Abhi, as the financier of the documentary he is making), and her femininity used an excuse for verbally putting her down. Likewise, Abhi is shown to be most vulnerable when looking conventionally feminine, his crew second-guessing his work ethic and even his lover going from passive to dominant when Abhi changes guises. It is telling that a film that is so openly proud of its queerness – with the majority of the cast and crew being queer individuals of colour – still displays a distinct lack of cisgender women, regardless of sexuality, and that any explorations of trans femininity are diluted by discussions of avoiding labels.
Arekti Premer Golpo is a heart-breaking look at the history, the struggles, and the pride of the queer community in South Asia. Its narrative may be unique to Indian theatrical practices of West Bengal, but the themes can also apply to the rest of India, to Bangladesh, Pakistan and Sri Lanka, and even to Nepal, which, at least legally, has a more progressive queer outlook. Now more than ever, it is vital to have these discussions and explore these tensions. The next few years are going to provide a particularly fertile time for conversations on queerness and decolonisation.
On one hand, the UK is celebrating 50 years of its own decriminalisation of homosexuality in 2017 and, with Brexit looming in 2019, has already shown that it is keen to forge supposedly meaningful ties with the Commonwealth in order to strengthen its international presence. On the other hand, many grassroots queer advocacy groups from Commonwealth nations – including from India, Bangladesh, Pakistan and Sri Lanka – are gearing up for the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHoGM) in 2018 as a platform to reopen the discussion on Section 377. Universities and academia more widely are going to provide an important space for this particular movement as a lot of groundwork on CHoGM is done via research institutes and student bodies. Narratives like that in Arekti Premer Golpo need to be grappled with so that a homonationalist and monolithic experience of queerness does not take hold. What is needed is nuance and, for a community that needs allyship and validation from both our own countries and the wider global network of queer liberation, the arts are a powerful and accessible way to do that.
Indian Penal Code
Ganguly, Kaushik. Arekti Premer Golpo. Cinemawalla Films, 2010.
Vanita, Ruth, and Kidwai, Saleem. Same-Sex Love in India: Readings from Literature and History. Palgrave Macmillan, 2000.
About the author:
Ibtisam Ahmed completed a BA in History and Politics from the University of Nottingham in 2013 and an MA in Public Policy from the University of Warwick in 2014. He is currently working on his PhD at the University of Nottingham School of Politics and IR, with a thesis that looks at the flawed attempt at utopia in the British Raj.